The New York Times has reported that Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon have amassed as many as 9,000 surface-to-surface rockets, including some with longer range than ever before.
Hezbollah has been firing missiles into northern Israel for decades. Now, Israeli officials say Iran has given the group missiles that can fly four times as far as older models, some nearly 100 kilometers. That is far enough to hit the large Israeli city of Haifa.
U.S. officials also believe Hezbollah has such long-range systems, but have not said how many. Hezbollah is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.
U.N. peacekeeping troops patrol the rugged hills on the Lebanese side of the Lebanon-Israel border.
Timur Goksel, who has spent 23 years as the senior advisor for U.N. forces in southern Lebanon, told VOA he is very familiar with Hezbollah's missile capabilities.
"These are Katyushka rockets, as we say, almost a household item in Lebanon in its history. These are easily transportable in a station wagon or on a donkey back. The most advanced Katyushka rockets we have seen, which is an old Soviet arsenal weapon from the Second World War, improved since then no doubt," said Mr. Goksel. "We have seen thousands of them fired in the area, first by the Palestinians in the 80s and with the Lebanese groups. They go about 21 or 22 kilometers. You can fire them from advanced launchers, truck mounted or whatever, or you can have two $5 aluminum bars laid across and put on the ground and attached to an 18 volt motorcycle battery and, if you want, you can put down your watch to it and you go home and at a certain time it will go off."
Mr. Goskel says that kind of rocket can be purchased almost anywhere in Lebanon. But asked about longer-range missiles, the U.N. official says he has never seen or heard about Hezbollah having such weapons, although he says the group is extremely secretive.
Hezbollah's chief spokesman in southern Lebanon, Nawwaf Moussawi, says the group does not have as many missiles as some reports claim. But he declined to say how many it does have, or to discuss the missiles' range.
Mr. Moussawi says, in any case, Hezbollah has far fewer missiles than Israel has. He also says that although Hezbollah does not have enough military power to defeat Israel, it will defend itself if attacked.
Professor Sami Baroudi who heads the political science department at Lebanon-American University in Beirut, says in many respects Hezbollah is entrenched in Lebanese society. Many Lebanese respect Hezbollah for helping cause Israel's troop withdrawal from southern Lebanon two years ago.
Even so, Professor Baroudi says, support for the group would "begin to evaporate" if it ever used its missiles against Israel in support of the Palestinians. "If the purpose of those missiles is to deter Israel from attacking Lebanon I think most Lebanese would say 'hooray to the missiles,' because we do not want to go through the experience of one more attack," he said. "But if it comes to using those missiles for aiding our Palestinian brothers, I think many Lebanese, probably the majority of the Lebanese, would basically advise Hezbollah to be very cautious when it comes to those missiles."
Professor Baroudi says he has never seen or heard any evidence to suggest Hezbollah is amassing large numbers of missiles along the Israeli border.
An Israeli military official has been quoted as saying southern Lebanon is "a powder keg" because of what he says is Hezbollah's buildup. But when VOA approached Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri about the issue, his only response was to ask, "how many missiles does Israel have?"