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Backtracking the missile

The other day, an Israeli warship was operating off the coast of Lebanon when two missiles were fired from the shore. One struck an Egyptian merchant vessel and sunk it; the other hit the Israeli ship and badly damaged it, killing four sailors.

A lot of people are a bit surprised and concerned at this attack, as this demonstrates an increase in the firepower Hezbollah has access to, as this missile represents at least a whole order of magnitude above their prior attacks. They have prior used mortars, rockets, and very primitive missiles.

The missile that nearly sank the Hanit, a Saar-5 missile corvette, is believed to have been a C-802 missile, designed in China, built in Iran.

Terrorists don't build cruise missiles. Terrorist organizations don't build cruise missiles. They don't steal and then use cruise missiles. These weapons are too valuable, too expensive, too sophisticated to be developed by anyone without the backing of a national government. Especially one as advanced as the C-802, regarded as one of the top two or three anti-ship missiles in the world today (rivalled only by the US Harpoon and, possibly, the French Exocet).

Now, this is not to say that terrorists wouldn't love to get their hands on weapons such as cruise missiles. The problem is that they are incredibly demanding to care for and use. They are considerably more complicated to use than a mortar, or even the home-made rockets that the Palestinians cook up in their basement. It takes a lot of training, involving some very sensitive and classified material, to get one to work.

Here, Hezbollah fired two, and hit two targets -- on their first attempt.

That, to me, tells me one of three possibilities:

1) Hezbollah stole the missiles from Iran, along with the necessary documentation, and got incredibly lucky their first time out.

2) Iran gave Hezbollah the missiles, along with all the other support needed for them to be used effectively.

3) Iran transported the missiles and the operators to Lebanon, and launched the missile itself in cooperation with Hezbollah.

The first explanation seems so unlikely as to be impossible. One cannot simply read the manuals and figure out how to fire something as complex as a modern cruise missile successfully -- let alone the first two times. This is, literally, "rocket science."

The second is more plausible, but not much. This would presume that Hezbollah would find members willing to undergo the training and discipline required to maintain and launch these missiles, then exert the restraint to not use them at the first opportunity. It also places a very valuable asset of Iran's in the hands of an outside body. True, Hezbollah is almost entirely a puppet of Iran's, but it is still a tremendous risk.

The final possibility is the most likely. Iran would take one of its crack missile units, strip them of their uniforms and identification, and ship them off with all their equipment to Lebanon, where Hezbollah would shelter them and arrange for them to deploy when needed. And once they had exhausted their missiles, the fighting ended, or their usefulness had expired, they would be brought home.

But that leaves a few questions unanswered: what should Israel do about it? What can Israel do about it?

The first option that springs to mind is to publicly announce that Israel will take Iran at its word, and accept that it has not sent any forces into Lebanon. Therefore, any Iranian caught by Israel is acting as a terrorist or mercenary, and will be treated accordingly -- not as a prisoner of war. They could even say that they are looking into setting up their own version of Guantanamo.

Alternately, they could simply present any Iranian prisoners to the United Nations, and call for sanctions against Iran. But that would be yet another exercise in futility; the United Nations almost never misses an opportunity to denounce and condemn Israel.

Another idea would to simply not take any Iranians prisoner. There are numerous ways to achieve this; they could simply refuse to take any live prisoners, or they could quietly "disappear" any Iranians that happen to get rounded up. This is the most brutal and inhumane solution, one Israel is not likely to undertake (it smacks of the Nazi "Final Solution," a period of history never far from any Israeli's mind), but paradoxically the one most likely to be effective.

Regardless, here we have a nation that is technically at war with Israel that has, to a near metaphysical certitude, committed an open act of war against Israel. Will Israel respond? Should Israel respond?

That's for Israel to decide.

Posted by Jay Tea · 16 July 2006 07:00 AM


France says no.

Posted by: christian at July 16, 2006 09:43 AM

You say:
"This is the most brutal and inhumane solution, one Israel is not likely to undertake (it smacks of the Nazi "Final Solution," a period of history never far from any Israeli's mind), but paradoxically the one most likely to be effective."

It may be brutal, but it is the solution mandated by the Geneva Conventions. When a combatant is found to be fighting out of uniform, he is assumed to be endangering the non-combatant citizens of the area... his is not taken prisoner of war (having relinquished that status by being out of uniform) and he is not a criminal (because it is a battlefield, not a supermarket). After a short procedure to determine the few facts known, they are to be executed on the spot.

This is one factor of the debate about Guantanamo that is rarely covered... those folks saying that we must follow the Geneva Conventions upon finding non-uniformed combatants in a war are asking us to just KILL these guys rather than capture, interrogate and release. To do otherwise is to encourage non-uniformed combatants, and that directly endangers the civilians around them.

War isn't pretty. That's why we don't like it, and why we punish those who bring it to us disproportionately.

Posted by: Mr. Michael at July 16, 2006 10:00 AM

Mr. Michael,

That's some very interesting commentary, but I have never seen the claim, "After a short procedure to determine the few facts known, they are to be executed on the spot", mentioned ANYWHERE else. Do you have any sources to back that up?

Posted by: Jon at July 16, 2006 03:24 PM

Here, Hezbollah fired two, and hit two targets -- on their first attempt.
How do you know how many missiles Hezbollah (or whoever) fired or how many attempts were made?

I believe that the limit of our knowledge is that two targets were struck. We need more real information before making inferences or drawing conclusions.

Posted by: Dave Schuler at July 16, 2006 03:35 PM

This demonstrates again that Jimmy Carter was the most disastrous president in United States history. His failure to recognize the taking of our embassy for what it was-- a premeditated act of war --was not just a mistake ("We don't want anyone to die for our embassy. After all, a building even if an embassy is not worth one life."), but led directly to the situation now: Iran is powerful, going nuclear (if it hasn't already), influential in the Islamic world, a pipeline for advanced Chinese weapons, a menace to the United States in Iraq, and the beneficiary of $78.00 a barrel oil. The fact that all this could not have been foreseen in 1979 is beside the point. Think of how many Americans and Israelis have died because nothing has been done about Iran for 25 years. Reagan comes in for his share of the blame for allowing the destruction of our Marine barracks in Lebanon, which again could be traced to Syria and Iran. When would you rather fight Iran, in 1979, before the Islamic regime was well-established, or now, when it may already gone nuclear? Incredibly, they are getting piles of money from the West for their oil. I read the other day that Saudi Arabia, because of $70.00 a barrel oil, has $500 million more a day to spend.

Posted by: Joseph McNulty at July 16, 2006 03:47 PM

It is true that Jimmy Carter was the most disastrous president in history, for failing to recognize an act of war when he saw one. But by that standard, Ronald Reagan is the second worst president, George Bush Sr. the third worst, and Bill Clinton the fourth worst, since neither of them did anything to address this issue either. George Bush Jr. will then be the fifth worst, unless he acts. But if he does, he'll be considered the worst. In other words, no American president can win for losing.

Posted by: GawainsGhost at July 16, 2006 04:16 PM


Surely the Iranians assumed that their Revolutionary Guards/Special Forces personnel in Lebanon were at risk of capture by the Israelis, and while there is undoubtedly a constant communication between those forces and Tehran, however highly trained and elite they are, in the end they are certainly expendable from the Iranians’ point of view.

More to the point is the question of why Iran would have sent them to begin with. A boost to the morale of their Hezbollah terrorist clients? System and personnel testing under combat conditions, perhaps. A relatively inexpensive means of increasing the temperature and pressure. Or maybe a more subtle effort to measure the response and capabilities of the Israelis, or goad them into certain actions desired by the Mullahs. Whatever their purpose, the Iranians must surely have considered that their troops would be at risk of capture.

As I have written previously, the entire nation of Israel mourned the death of former PM Netanyahu’s brother at the Entebbe raid. But their capacity for grief in no way diminishes the ruthlessness of their determination, as those Black September assassins from the 1972 Munich Olympics were to find out.

For years, Yasser Arafat was allowed to frame the public debate about the Arab-Israeli conflict in terms of the Palestinians as the Israelis’ principle protagonist. And so long as that happened, there was a sizeable portion of the Israeli population in favor of accommodation and non-military actions to obtain a peaceful solution. That fiction is now largely gone. I doubt very seriously that there any substantial domestic Israeli voices calling for a ceasefire and negotiations. Lebanon is country in name only… sadly… unable to control its own borders, or the actions of the Hezbollah and other militia within its nominal area of sovereignty.

Nearly all of Israel’s fight for existence has been against those not wearing “a uniform or distinguishing insignia.” I’ll be very surprised if either the Israelis or the Iranians are quick to announce the capture of Iranian Revolutionary Guards forces in Lebanon. But even more surprised if the Israelis didn’t get them.

Posted by: Bat One at July 16, 2006 05:02 PM

If reports of Iranian operatives in Lebanon assisting Hezbollah forces are proven true, Israel should immediately declare war on Iran and send its Air Force to take out everything it can of Irans nuclear operation. Underground bunkers will not be affected, but destruction of above ground installations, if continuous, will cause problems and push back operable nuclear capabilities. Obviously all military targets should also be destroyed. Terror groups and their handlers will learn that the days of Israel just sitting back and "taking it" are over. Does Israel have the guts necessary to tell the rest of the disapproving world to shove it? If they want to continue adding birthdays to 1948, they better have.

Posted by: OLDPUPPYMAX at July 16, 2006 05:27 PM

Israel's airforce would need US AND Iraqi help to take out Iran (they'd have to fly over Iraq - and it would help a LOT if they could refuel there.)

And they'd take a lot of losses in trying it - Iran has a lot of anti-aircraft defenses that would, shall we say, complicate matters? If Israel has to take out Iran - the US (and probably Iraq) is going to be involved. Either by supporting or by denying support and/or flyover permission.

Personally I'd like to see us (AT MINIMUM) offer air support - by taking out the aformentioned anti-aircraft defenses. But I'm a dreamer...

Posted by: Kathy K at July 16, 2006 07:13 PM

I think one of the reasons that Isreal began it's offensive by taking out bridges and roads out of the Palistinian areas (and now the airport) is to prevent just such a "retreat" of external operatives.

I have no doubt that Isreal will "interrogate" any foreign fighters captured.

Personally, I hope it doesn't escalate and Isreal can just pound the snot out of the bad people. Perhaps then we can get Syria, Lebanon, Isreal, and Palistine together, form a state for Palistine, some hard boundaries for the lands, and enforce some laws.
(I support statehood for Palistine so that if they allow something like this to happen again they can be beaten into surrender like an adult....) :)

Posted by: _Jon at July 16, 2006 10:48 PM

I'll back up Mr. Michael's comment, since it is almost verbatim the same thing I usually say on this matter. To put it bluntly, if you're out of uniform, fighting from within/behind things that are off-limits (hospitals, ambulances, religious sites etc.), and so on, and they catch you alive doing it, your ass is grass. If they choose to shoot you right then and there, tough luck.

This is where the laws of land warfare (and similar rules that apply to the sea) differ from the rest of "international law". Laws without enforcement are meaningless; the laws of land warfare actually have teeth. They are enforced by all soldiers who follow them, down to the lowliest private - in extreme situations enforced even against their own comrades in arms who violate them.

The battlefield is an environment where many normal laws simply do not apply. People who are not familiar with or who have never served in the military tend not to realize that on the battlefield, leaders have to an extent the power of immediate life and death over their subordinates. Furthermore, all soldiers have a duty to consider the legality of their orders and that doing the right thing may require a mutiny they will haev to justify later.

Our military has chosen to accept surrenders from people who flagrantly violate every fundamental aspect of the laws of land warfare, and to treat them much as they would a enemy prisoner of war (EPW) - which is a damn sight better then how many civilian inmates in the US are treated.

If they want to do so that is their decision, but they aren't obligated to take prisoners at all.

Posted by: Tim in PA at July 17, 2006 12:10 PM