Mounting Hezbollah drone attacks raise alarm in northern Israel

The 60 strikes in May are three times the March figure, suggesting the Iran-backed group is refining tactics to penetrate Israeli defences

An Iranian-made drone, operated by Hezbollah, flies near Lebanon's southern border with northern Israel. AFP
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Hezbollah’s drone strikes on northern Israel have tripled in three months with the weapons posing an increasingly serious threat to the area’s security, The National can disclose.

There is growing evidence that the Iran-backed Lebanese militia is now able to penetrate Israeli airspace with ease and conduct lethal strikes on military targets.

Former Israeli military intelligence officers also expressed concern that Hezbollah was constructing tunnels to give them the option of armed raids on communities close to the Lebanon border.

Aerial threat

In a report passed to The National, the number of drone incursions into Israel has gone from 23 in March to 42 in April to 60 in just the first three weeks of May.

“We demand our government eliminate Hezbollah’s capabilities,” said retired military intelligence lieutenant colonel Sarit Zehavi, who lives 20km from the border and has had to shelter her young family from several attacks.

“A lot of people in the world don’t understand what it's like living under the threat of rocket and drone attacks while at the same time, knowing the same enemy has the capability and intention to massacre us as brutally as Hamas did.”

Israel’s ability to defend against drones and cruise missiles was made significantly harder by Hezbollah’s destruction of its advanced $230 million Sky Dew surveillance airship on May 15.

The drone and missile campaign has also had an enormous social and economic impact, forcing more than 60,000 residents out of farms and homes that lie within 5km of the border.

Defensive gaps

Three of the six Israelis killed the area in the last month have died as a result of drones, most likely the Iran-manufactured Ababil T2 that carries a 40kg warhead and has a range of 120km.

While the drone’s speed is 300kph, this is slow compared to missiles and jets, making them difficult to detect by radar, especially in northern Israel’s steep valleys.

“Hezbollah is continually examining Israel’s detection system by launching UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] on multiple routes and flight profiles to uncover gaps and weaknesses,” said the report by Alma, an open source intelligence organisation run by Lt Col Zehavi.

Hezbollah has “detected gaps in the Israeli defensive system” and having pre-positioned many UAVs in olive groves and villages of southern Lebanon was able to launch them without detection, the report said.

Unlike the failed Iran drone attack in April, these weapons are much closer to Israel with a shorter flight time and are operated by skilled operators.

Ukraine lessons

The widespread GPS blockade the Israeli military has used to confuse drones and other precision weapons have proved ineffective as Hezbollah are using navigation techniques picked up from Iran, learnt through Russia’s experiences in Ukraine.

“Hezbollah may be employing 'roadblock-bypassing' techniques in this area, which Russia used successfully during its war with Ukraine,” the Alma report said.

“The Russian lessons learned are implemented in the Iranian UAVs operated by the Russians, and hence the path is very short to implement and improve the Iranian UAVs used by Hezbollah.”

Retired colonel Miri Eisen, a former military intelligence officer now with the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism think tank in Israel, said there were concerns that Hezbollah might also develop an emerging Russian tactic of drone swarms.

She said: “How do you protect against that if they send in 1,000 and if you still shot down 95 per cent you are going to get hit by 50?

“The point is that the drones are getting deeper and deeper into our territory and their capabilities are getting stronger and stronger.”

While Israel has used jets, helicopters and electronic warfare to stop the drones, they have proved “extremely difficult to thwart”, the Alma report said.

The report said that “It is evident that Hezbollah’s operation of UAVs poses a challenge” to Israel's detection and defence systems.

Tunnel threat

It is understood that Israeli intelligence has deep concerns that Hezbollah fighters are burrowing tunnels into the country from southern Lebanon.

Five years ago, a system of shafts was discovered that led into Israel. The fear now is that tunnelling has restarted with a view to launching an attack, similar to the one carried out by Hamas in southern Israel on October 7.

“We don't have specific information, but we evaluate that there are tunnels coming close to the border, which means that we will not be able to see them,” said Lt Col Zehavi.

She added that unlike the terrain around Gaza, the hilly terrain in northern Israel made it difficult to defend against a tunnel incursion.

Tal Hagin, a military analyst in Tel Aviv, said the tunnels would be important to a Hezbollah ground invasion as the steep valleys also made it difficult to invade with vehicles because of having to negotiate difficult terrain with sharp bends.

“There are huge concerns that Hezbollah special forces would use tunnels to enter Israel on foot for a rampage attack,” he added.

Mr Hagin added that it could also be the case that the “axis of resistance” – the informal Iran-led coalition that includes Hezbollah – “decides to change tactics and actually tries to occupy a part of northern Israel”.

Updated: May 28, 2024, 6:59 AM