Any Hezbollah retaliation to an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would prompt Israel to launch a war in Lebanon so ferocious that it would take a decade to rebuild the villages it destroys, a senior Israeli military officer has warned.
Despite the inevitable international outcry, Israel would be left with no choice but to lay waste to swathes of southern Lebanon because Hezbollah has entrenched itself so deeply within the civilian population, he said.
The unusually stark warning comes after months of heightened speculation that the Israeli government is considering unilateral military action against Iran’s nuclear installations despite opposition from the United States.
Although the prospect of an attack in the next few months is unlikely until after Israelis vote in a September general election, Ehud Barak, the country’s defence minister, recently insisted that military strikes had not been ruled out.
Israel has always been aware of the heavy price it could incur from such an attack, with Iran able to retaliate through Hezbollah and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza. Both Islamist movements have long been funded and armed by Tehran and have built up vast stockpiles of rockets capable of reaching deep into Jewish territory.
But Israel has also sensed an unexpected opportunity as a result of the Arab Spring, which has significantly diminished Tehran’s regional clout.
Hamas has begun to reorient itself towards the resurgent Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and is seen as increasingly unlikely to join a regional war should Iran come under attack.
Unlike Sunni Hamas, Hezbollah remains far more dependant on its fellow Shia patrons in Iran but its popularity in the Arab world has suffered because of its support for the Assad regime in Syria, which has long backed the group.
Hoping to drive a wedge between Hezbollah and Lebanon’s Sunni and Christian communities, the officer urged the Lebanese people not to be drawn into a war for which they, rather than Iran, would bear the brunt of Israel’s anger.
“The situation in Lebanon after this war will be horrible,” the officer, a senior commander on Israel’s northern border with Syria and Lebanon, said.
“They will have to think about whether they want it or not. I hope that Iran will not push them into a war that Iran will not pay the price for but that Lebanon will.”
Israel drew international condemnation in 2006 when it last launched military action against Hezbollah in an offensive that is believed to have killed more than 1,000 people, many of them civilians.
But the officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, suggested that Israel had taken too cautious an approach in the conflict, leading to the deaths of dozens of Israeli soldiers.
No such mistake would be made in the next conflict, he said, especially as Hezbollah had built military sites in the centre of many villages and towns in southern Lebanon. Pointing to a satellite map of the town of Khiam, he identified a series of buildings that the movement had allegedly taken over for military purposes.
“In these villages where Hezbollah has infrastructure I will guess that civilians will not have houses to come back to after the war,” he said.
“The Lebanese government has to take this into consideration. Many of the villages in southern Lebanon will be destroyed. Unfortunate, but we will have no other solution. The day after (we attack) the village will be something that it will take 10 years to rebuild.”
Since the war in 2006, Hezbollah has acquired a stockpile of 50,000 rockets of greater sophistication and range than it had before and is capable of striking at Tel Aviv, more than 70 miles away, according to Israeli intelligence assessments.
The conflict in Syria has also made it easier for Hezbollah to smuggle weapons into Lebanon, the officer said, and there is concern that some of the Assad regime’s stockpile of chemical weapons could end up in the group’s hands.
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