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Israel Says It Destroyed Half of Hezbollah’s Power

July 19, 2006 at 8:05 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF, NewsHour Special Correspondent: What kind of damage can the high-tech Israeli armed forces inflict on a guerilla group armed with thousands of rockets, and before the United States and other big powers push hard for a cease-fire?

Two views on that now from Michael Herzog, a brigadier general in the Israeli Defense Forces. He’s in the United States as a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

And Augustus Richard Norton, he’s on the faculty of Boston University, specializing in Lebanese and Arab issues. He’s a retired U.S. Army colonel. He previously served on the faculty at West Point.

Professor Norton, let me begin with you. Let’s first establish what it is exactly that Hezbollah has in the way of manpower and an arsenal, weaponry. We’re not talking about your ordinary guerilla group here, are we?

AUGUSTUS RICHARD NORTON, Retired U.S. Army Colonel: No, we’re not, Judy. We’re talking about a group that has a broad base in Lebanese society, particularly in the Shiite community, which makes up about 40 percent of Lebanon’s population.

It’s instructive when you look back at the resistance campaign that Hezbollah fought against the Israeli occupation, which lasted from 1978 until the year 2000 when Israel finally gave up and withdrew. That campaign was fought by a relatively small cadre of about 450, 500 people.

And it was supplemented by effectively a reserve system. People would close down their mechanical shop or their optometry clinic or whatever and go on missions. So this is an organization that can expand like an accordion, in terms of manpower.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So there’s no hardcore number of fighters you could give us?

AUGUSTUS RICHARD NORTON: Well, there’s one estimate that I’ve seen around that now talks about 800 to 1,000 really hardcore cadre. At the moment, of course, the number would be much larger, in terms of the numbers that are mobilized.

But we’re not talking here about something that resembles an army. It has a very different appearance. They do have a significant arsenal, as it’s been widely reported, in terms of the Katyushas and other rockets. They’ve used very sophisticated remote-controlled devices for ambushes and that sort of thing against Israeli soldiers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask General Herzog whether the description you just heard from Professor Norton matches your understanding of what Hezbollah has?

MICHAEL HERZOG, Brigadier General, Israeli Defense Forces: I would expand the description. I would say that what characterizes the military forces of Hezbollah is that they go far beyond that of a militia or a terror group.

We are talking about an organization holding more than 13,000 rockets, including long-range rockets with a range of over 120 miles. These are Zilzal rockets provided by Iran, medium-range rockets.

They have unmanned aerial vehicle drones. They’ve flown them over Israel in the past. They fired the other day a very sophisticated, radar-guided missile that hit one of our missile boats. I think very few militaries in the world have these capabilities.

In addition, of course, Hezbollah wields a global terror reach. Let us not forget that they were behind the targeting of the Marines in Beirut in ’83. They destroyed our embassy in Buenos Aires in ’92. So it goes beyond just being a resistance, of course.

Israel's goal

Michael Herzog
Israeli Defense Forces
There is another operational goal ... and that is to make it difficult for Hezbollah to re-arm itself during this confrontation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you -- I mean, today a senior Israeli commander said that Israel had destroyed half of the Hezbollah arsenal. Given that, General Herzog, what's your understanding of what Israel's goal here is?

MICHAEL HERZOG: Well, the primary Israel goal, of course, is to reduce Hezbollah's military capabilities as much as possible, so that when this confrontation ends there will be reduced down to size.

My understanding is that the Israelis are quite successful at what they are doing, and they have managed to hit a sizable portion of Hezbollah's capability, mostly the medium- and long-range rockets and many launchers. It is very hard to measure if it's a third or 50 percent of their capabilities, but it's a sizable portion.

I would also mention the fact that, until now, in eight days, Hezbollah fired about 2,000 rockets and mortar shells. And that's also a part of this rocket area, and that's gone. So I think -- I would hope that by the end of this confrontation Hezbollah is really reduced in its military capabilities, and that's a major Israeli goal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Norton, how vulnerable is Hezbollah? First of all, do you accept this description today from the Israelis that they've destroyed half of Hezbollah's arsenal? But beyond that, what do you see as being -- how vulnerable Hezbollah is? And what needs to happen, in order for that arsenal to be eliminated, if that's what Israel wants?

AUGUSTUS RICHARD NORTON: Judy, I think we need to be very careful about damage assessments while the war is going on. What we know from the history of war is that these assessments tend to be frequently very wrong by a significant margin of error, so these are at best guesstimates.

In terms of the challenge that faces the Israeli army, south Lebanon is very difficult terrain. It doesn't look anything like Gaza, for example, which is relatively flat. It's easy to move around.

South Lebanon is filled with valleys, wadis, small mountains. You can dominate one valley and, right next door, have no significant influence. So even with Israel's very sophisticated surveillance equipment, it's very difficult to dominate this terrain.

And this means it's very difficult to ferret out all of these weapons without actually putting people on the ground in a very significant way. And I don't think the Israelis want to do this. And they certainly signaled that they would not like to do this.

So I think that the likelihood is we're going to see a significant degradation of the Hezbollah arsenal, but the idea that it can somehow be completely excised and eliminated is just simply fallacious.

JUDY WOODRUFF: General Herzog, how does the bombing -- we've heard described the bombing of infrastructure, roads, bridges. We've heard today about more civilian deaths, we just saw in the report there. How does all that fit into Israel's mission or goal here of reducing Hezbollah's might?

MICHAEL HERZOG: Well, there are two operational goals. The first is, as I mentioned, reducing Hezbollah's capabilities.

By the way, nobody is talking about completely eliminating them. I agree with the description we just heard that it is very difficult, if not possible, certainly if you don't employ ground forces, and I don't think Israel wants to invade Lebanon.

But there is another operational goal, and the targeting of some of the civilian infrastructure was designed to serve this goal. And that is to make it difficult for Hezbollah to re-arm itself during this confrontation, get further arms shipments either through Syria, from Syria, or directly to Lebanon, which is why Israeli effectively blockaded Lebanon, closed the airport, the seaports, and the routes connecting Lebanon and Syria, to make it impossible for Hezbollah to move rockets from the northern part of Lebanon to the south, where they can fire deep into Israel, and to make it impossible for Hezbollah to move these kidnapped soldiers freely in Lebanon out of Lebanon or at least make it much more difficult for them.

And this is why some of the civilian infrastructure was targeted. Also, I would mention the fact that in the south Hezbollah hid all of its military infrastructure within, not only populated areas, but also residential homes. Sometimes they added a room or two and place rockets or launchers there.

What Israel did is distribute leaflets calling on the population to distance themselves from Hezbollah and, after due notice, target these targets.

Political costs for Israel

Augustus Richard Norton
Ret. U.S. Army Colonel
A lot of the targeting that the Israelis are using to control lines of communications have made it effectively difficult for the Lebanese to have subsistence supplies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All of this raises the question, Professor Norton, of the political cost here for Israel, because as there are more civilian casualties, to the extent any of this is seen as disproportionate, what happens when the fighting does stop, assuming it stops, in terms of the Lebanese population and its either sympathy for Hezbollah or anger at Hezbollah for doing what it did to trigger Israel's actions?

AUGUSTUS RICHARD NORTON: This is a very interesting question. It's one that we can obviously only speculate about at this point.

It's clear many Lebanese, including members of the Shia community in some cases, are very angry that Hezbollah has provoked this war. But at the same time, there's a growing level of anger, I believe, based on reports from Lebanon and many discussions I've had with Lebanese over the last week -- there's a growing anger at Israel.

After all, Lebanese have already suffered more than 300 dead; most of those are civilians. A lot of the targeting that the Israelis are using to control lines of communications have made it effectively difficult for the Lebanese to have subsistence supplies.

Over the past two or three days, Israel has knocked out, for example, eight trucks, two carrying food, several carrying medicine. It was donated by the United Arab Emirates, others carrying water, equipment and so on.

So it's going to be interesting to see how the mood, if you will, this bifurcated mood, in terms of Hezbollah on one hand and Israel on the other, develops. So I think this is a possible danger area.

JUDY WOODRUFF: General Herzog, given that, does Israel see the political risks, as we've just heard Professor Norton and others lay them out? In other words, there are potential risks for Israel in continuing the fighting as it is right now.

MICHAEL HERZOG: Yes, there are potential risks. And Israel is mindful of them. But I think the picture you see in Lebanon in the Arab world today is in (inaudible) whereas, on the one hand, people in Lebanon, of course, don't like what Israel is doing. And there are many of them are angry with it.

At the very same time, I think the majority of the Lebanese -- that's my take on it -- are equally angry with Hezbollah for provoking and destabilizing the situation and doing it at the expense of Lebanon.

You hear today, both from Lebanon and from the Arab world, unprecedented criticism of Hezbollah. The Saudis came out with an unprecedented criticism. Some of the Lebanese, I've seen Hariri's son say don't do it at the expense of Lebanon. So I think the picture is very nuanced.

And I would hope that once the cease-fire is in place, these feelings vis-a-vis Hezbollah will be translated into different status quo on the ground, which will impair Hezbollah's ability to destabilize the situation in the future.

Israel is conducting a limited military operation in a one-kilometer strip along the border with Lebanon to destroy all of the infrastructure built by Hezbollah, 45 position, mine fields, observation posts and so on. And the idea is that, once a larger buffer zone is created in southern Lebanon, where you have the Lebanese army and possibly also international elements, they will control that area and it will be impossible for Hezbollah to reposition itself along the border and threaten Israel whenever it deems necessary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We are going to leave it there. Gentlemen, thank you, both.