Israel has deployed a battery of U.S.-made Patriot air defense missiles near the northern port city of Haifa as part of precautions against a possible attack by Hezbollah in response to the assassination last week of the group’s top commander Imad Mughniyah, Israeli security officials said Monday.
The officials said the battery was put on standby Sunday for the first time since Israel’s month-long war with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006, when the Lebanese guerrillas fired nearly 4,000 rockets into northern Israel.
Patriot batteries were first deployed in Israel during the 1991 Gulf War, but they failed to stop most of the 39 Scud missiles launched by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
They were originally designed to intercept aircraft, and Israeli media reported their role in the current situation would be to shoot down bomb-laden pilotless planes as well as rockets.
The Israel Defense Forces said it was not its policy to comment on what a spokesman called operational readiness.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel is prepared on all fronts for an attack.
Hezbollah and its Iranian backers swiftly blamed Israel for last week’s assassination of Hezbollah second-in-command, Mughniyeh, in Damascus.
Israel has denied involvement, but is widely believed to have carried out similarly daring, complex and deadly strikes against other terror masterminds in the past.
Following the Mughniyeh assassination, Hezbollah vowed to hit Jewish targets outside Israel in retaliation.
The head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said on Monday Israel would soon be destroyed by the “hands of Hezbollah”, the Lebanese guerilla group backed by the Islamic Republic, Fars News Agency reported.
Guards commander-in-chief Mohammad Ali Jafari made the comment in a letter to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, to offer condolences after the killing of senior guerrilla commander Imad Mughniyah in a car bomb last week in Damascus.
“In the near future, we will witness the destruction of the cancerous germ of Israel by the powerful and competent hands of the Hezbollah combatants,” Jafari was quoted as saying.
Iran does not recognize Israel’s right to exist, and its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has often predicted the imminent demise of Israel.
Western analysts say the Revolutionary Guards, an ideological wing of Iran’s armed forces, has given military support to Hezbollah. Tehran denies this, saying it only provides moral backing to the Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim group.
“Undoubtedly the martyrdom of this sincere fighter [Imad Mughniyah] will strengthen the determination of all revolutionary and combatant Muslims, particularly his co-combatants in confrontation with the Zionist regime,” Jafari added in his letter.
The Guards were set up after the 1979 revolution in Iran to protect Iran’s Islamic system. They have land, sea and air units with a separate command structure to the regular military. They have an expanding economic role, including in Iran’s oil industry.
Also on Monday, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said that even after 60 years, Israel still has neither legitimacy nor any role in the Middle East, the ISNA news agency reported.
“The West has tried to impose a fabricated regime on the Middle East but even after 60 years, the Zionist regime (Israel) has neither gained any legitimacy nor played any role in this region,” Mottaki was quoted as saying.
Calling United States policies in the Middle East a failure, Mottaki predicted the collapse of Israel.
“The era of imposing policies on other states by military threats is over. The nations in the region will no longer surrender to any threats,” Mottaki said.
On Sunday, the Hezbollah head of the southern Lebanon region Sheikh Nabil Kauk said “It won’t be long before the conceited Zionists realize that Imad Mughniyah’s blood is extremely costly, and it makes history and brings about a new victory.”
Kauk, who spoke at a memorial service for the slain terrorist in Mughniyah’s home village, Tayr Debba, in south Lebanon, added that Israel was “standing on one leg of fear and trepidation, having become the hostage of its own act of stupidity.”
Kauk spoke at a ceremony attended by the Iranian ambassador to Lebanon, Hezbollah senior officials and representatives from the Amal terrorist group, Fatah and representatives from the Lebanese army.
Defense Minister Barak also said Sunday that he anticipated Hezbollah would try to retaliate for the assassination, possibly with help from Syria and Iran. But he added that “it will take a long time before a worthy replacement is found to take Mughinyah’s place.”
Meanwhile, foreign media published details about the attack. The Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai reported that the hit was perpetrated by security personnel of “an Arab state that shares a border with Syria,” using American technology.
The report said Mughniyah was killed by a blast from an explosive charge that contained 3,000 metal fragments, as he was passing near the car that carried the bomb.
The report added he was coming back from a meeting with a Palestinian official.
The funding for the assassination, according to Al-Rai, came from one of the Gulf states. The final decision to carry out the attack came from Jerusalem, the paper claimed. Israel’s Channel 2 said the assassination involved interested parties from Lebanon.
According to “informed Israel sources” cited by London’s Sunday Times, it was Israel’s Mossad spy agency that carried out the car bombing that killed Mughniyah.
The fatal explosion, the paper said, came from an explosive charge that had been planted in the headrest of the car Mughniyah was driving. The sources told the newspaper that Mughniyah had been cooperating with the Syrians in planning a major terrorist attack against Israel, in retaliation for a September 2007 Israeli air strike against a suspected nuclear facility deep inside Syria.