Behind Hizballah's War Machine

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Wounded are taken away after a Hizballah missile strike in the northern Israeli city of Haifa

Last Friday there was no real reason to believe that an Israeli warship plying the Mediterranean to enforce the Israeli Defense Force's naval blockade of Lebanon was in danger. Hizballah may have been busy shooting rockets — primarily 122mm Kaytushas with an estimated range of 12 to 17 miles — at towns in northern Israel, but Israel's intelligence agencies had no indication that the militant Shi'ite group had anything in its arsenal that could hit a ship at sea. That all changed when an Iranian-supplied C802 missile slammed into the deck and killed four soldiers. "This was a huge intelligence failure," says a senior intelligence official of the C802, which is around 20 feet long, difficult to conceal,and requires time to launch .

Though Israel's much vaunted intelligence apparatus has been monitoring Hizballah for more than two decades, there are still dangerous gaps in its knowledge of the group's military capabilities. Hassan Nasrallah's organization has proven much harder to penetrate than Palestinian militant groups, though Israeli intelligence has, says a senior official, intercepted communications in which Hizballah is trying to use money or ideology to spur Palestinian militants to carry out attacks in Israel. But given the gaps in Israel's intelligence, there was plenty of reason for concern when, after the attack at sea, Nasrallah promised more "surprises."

What is known about Hizballah is that it has been supplied with about 13,000 Kaytusha rockets by Iran and Syria; Israel even knows the location of some of its weapons storage facilities. But the longer-range arsenal is still a matter of much speculation, even at the highest levels of government and the military. In recent government hearings, military intelligence official Brig. Gen. Yossi Baidatz said Hizballah had some 100 rockets that could travel between 24 and 42 miles, presumably referring to Iranian Fajr 3 and Fajr 5 missiles. Another senior intelligence official tells TIME that Hizballah "probably" has one or two dozen rockets that can travel up to 150 km, or 93 miles. Last Monday, the Israeli Air Force destroyed two vehicles that, according to military officials, were carrying Zelzal missiles capable of traveling that distance.

Since Israel doesn't know precisely what it's up against, it's very hard for it to evaluate the success of its operation. Some military leaders say Israel has destroyed a quarter of Hizballah's arms, others say a third, or almost half. On Thursday, Nasrallah specifically rejected such claims as false, and he is not the only one to cast doubt on such precise estimates . "If someone offers an evaluation of Hizballah's arsenal, don't count on it too much," says the senior intelligence official.

Fifteen Israelis have been killed by Hizballah rockets in the past week. The coastal city of Haifa has been hit repeatedly, including a strike last Sunday that killed eight people. Tiberias and the Jezareel Valley have also been hit, as was Nazareth on Wednesday, killing two Arab-Israeli children. The weapons are not particularly accurate, but they are obviously terrifying — and potentially fatal. If nothing else, they serve Hizballah's goal of dragging the conflict out as long as possible.

As evidenced by the 23 tons of bombs dropped on a suspected bunker in Beirut Wednesday night, the Israelis are heavily targeting Hizballah's leadership. But the IDF is doing its brutal best to reduce the frequency of the shorter range rocket fire and prevent worse-case scenarios such as a long-range missile strike on Tel Aviv. Planes and drones buzz above Lebanon all hours of the day and night, trying to destroy as many rockets and launchers as possible, or at the very least keep launch teams far from the border. Roads, bridges, and gas stations have been bombed to limit mobility. Southern towns such as Tyre and Sidon are being pounded, their populations forced to either flee or risk death. Suspect vehicles, particularly trucks, are being attacked. On Monday, the IAF destroyed two trailers full of missiles coming from Syria. Israel essentially wants to make it impossible for Hizballah to launch anything from points south of Beirut.

It's a withering assault. More than 300 civilians have been killed, say Lebanese officials, including around 60 people on Wednesday alone. Some half a million people have been displaced from their homes, according to the U.N. The deadly collateral damage, however, isn't about to change the approach of the Israelis, who are more than willing to weather the growing criticism.

Israel is also trying to insure it fortifies any potential vulnerable points. The government ordered chemical plants in Haifa to lower their stocks, lest a lucky strike cause damaging fallout. Two Palestinians were arrested this week on suspicions they intended to carry out suicide bombings, and the West Bank city of Nablus has seen fierce clashes between IDF soldiers and militants suspected of planning attacks on Israel. Defense Minister Amir Peretz ordered both the West Bank and Gaza — where fighting against Hamas and other militants continues unabated — completely sealed until at least Saturday. Furthermore, Israeli intelligence is concerned Hizballah might try to attack Israelis and Jews abroad, as they did in 1990 and 1994 in Argentina.

Both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Peretz have been peppering their public statements with calls for resolve, patience and courage in the coming, uncertain days. Speculation about wide-ranging ground operations and the duration of the war fill local newspapers. On Thursday, IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz implied that what's commonly called a two-front war in Lebanon and Gaza could be seen as a three-front war — including the West Bank, which many Israelis call Judea and Samaria — and could last a while: "The fighting in the north was added to the fighting in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, and may continue for an extended period of time."

That could mean more time for Israel to fill the gaps in its intelligence, to identify and pinpoint the location of more weaponry, more leaders, perhaps even Nasrallah himself. It could also mean more surprises or more casualties: two soldiers were killed and several others injured in the past two days when militants ambushed IDF troops who crossed into Lebanon to destroy Hizballah outposts. Only one Hizballah fighter was announced killed.

The battles are a possible indication of just how difficult and costly ground fighting would be. There are now whispers in the intelligence and political communities that Israel may not be able to rely solely on the military option, that it may indeed have to heed the international community and launch a diplomatic front in this campaign. But at this point, what Israel will do next is as unclear as just how far Hizballah's threat reaches.

- with reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Tel Aviv