While clear evidence exists that Iran supports Hezbollah militarily, the movement does not really pose a threat to Israel, Middle East expert Jochen Hippler told DW-WORLD.DE.
Merely symbolic? A train station in Haifa after a hit by a Hezbollah missile
Joche n Hippler teaches a n d researches at the I n stitute for Developme n t a n d Peace (INEF) at Duisburg-Esse n U n iversity .
DW-WORLD.DE: Militarily speaki n g, how stro n g is Hezbollah?
Jochen Hippler: The problem is that we only get information about its military might indirectly via western and Israeli secret service circles. That means that we cannot check how reliable the information is. You have to keep that in mind when speaking about Hezbollah. Having said that, it's possible to say that Hezbollah is an important military factor within Lebanon, but it's a third-rate power by international comparison. Estimates say that there are about 2,000 to 5,000 people in the militia and about 500 to 700 military personnel that have received training. That's quite a lot for Lebanon. But compared to Syria or Israel, it's a negligible number.
What ki n d of weapo n s does Hezbollah have?
A Hezbollah gunman aims his AK-47
Hand guns and AK-47, i.e. Kalashnikovs, are standard in the region. There are estimates that Hezbollah has about 8,000 to 10,000 Katyusha rockets that have a range of about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) and a few Iranian-built missiles that are said to have a range of up to 60, 70 kilometers. That cannot be proven for sure because of the problematic sources. On top of that, there are obviously air defense missiles.
There has bee n talk about Hezbollah's n ew military stre n gth over the last couple of days. Is this justified?
I think that's exaggerated and propaganda. If you wage war against Lebanon because of two kidnapped Israeli soldiers, of course it's necessary to justify this war. To justify the destruction of Lebanese infrastructure by saying that two Israeli soldiers have been kidnapped isn't really convincing -- especially when keeping in mind that Israel has imprisoned up to 10,000 Palestinians. That's why it's necessary to emphasize Hezbollah's threat. When all is said and done, Hezbollah cannot do much more harm than a pin prick -- albeit a painful one.
Are fears that Tel Aviv could be hit by Hezbollah missiles exaggerated?
An Israeli airstrike hits the center of the southern suburbs of Beirut
In principle, Tel Aviv should be beyond reach. But we have to think about what we mean when we talk about missiles. There are missiles of the kind that have been launched in Afghanistan or also in Lebanon. They are self-made. They don't have more explosive force than a hand grenade or a relatively small explosive charge. It's clearly horrific when one is hit with it, but it has a largely symbolic significance in terms of the strategic balance of power. You can scare and kill people with it. But it cannot be compared to 200 daily air raids on Lebanon and the threat to bomb the country back 20 to 30 years. When we look at the Middle East conflict, we have to realize that of course both the Arab and the Israeli players have blood on their hands. If we look at the current, concrete situation in Lebanon, it's fairly clear that the Israeli position is violating international law.
What role does Ira n play i n supporti n g Hezbollah militarily?
Neither Iran nor Hezbollah make a big fuss about their cooperation. What we hear, we hear from Israeli or western secret service circles. According to this information, Iran does indeed seem to support Hezbollah financially -- that's not in doubt. Iran also seems to have delivered weapons and missiles with a range of up to 70 kilometers -- there's clear evidence for that. But we cannot really prove whether the missiles come from Iran directly or whether they have reached Hezbollah via middlemen.
What about Syria ?
The Syrian role is not clear. In the past there has been a strong tactical support for Hezbollah from Syria. That's maybe a little confusing as the Syrian dictatorship is actually a completely secular one and has nothing to do with Shiite extremism. Still, the Islamist movement Hezbollah has received support. Politically speaking, Syrian President Assad has more or less sided with Hezbollah. Since the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, it's not quite clear whether they are just loudmouthed or whether there's more to it than verbal radicalism.