Imaging Destruction in Lebanon

A Perspective from Satellite Remote Sensing on the 2006 Israel-Hizballah War

William M. Arkin
Author and Military Analyst
South Pomfret, Vt.

Matthew G. McKinzie, PhD
Senior Scientist with the Nuclear Program
Natural Resources Defense Council
Washington, D.C.

The war in Israel and Lebanon during the summer of 2006 was an intense, technologically complex, irregular conflict fought between the nation state of Israel and a terrorist organization, Hizballah. It was the first modern sustained air campaign by a country other than the United States.

Israel bombed over 1,000 targets during the 34 days of war, eventually moving 30,000 Israeli Defense Force (IDF) troops into 16 enclaves in south Lebanon. Hizballah conducted the most intense and "conventional" military operation ever undertaken by a non-state actor, launching over 4,000 rockets and projectiles at 160 Israeli settlements, towns and cities, and firing over 1,000 powerful anti-tank missiles (mostly inside Lebanon) against IDF ground forces. More than 950,000 Lebanese fled their homes during the war and as many as 300,000 Israelis were displaced from northern Israel as a result of sustained Hizballah rocket fire.

During the conflict, remote sensors—particularly the commercial high-resolution IKONOS and QuickBird sensors—captured images of destruction and were utilized by the media, United Nations and non-governmental human rights org-anizations. For Imaging Notes' GeoInt focus, the authors here provide an overview of the conflict and compelling examples of war-time satellite photography provided by GeoEye and DigitalGlobe.


At around 9:05 a.m. on Wednesday, July 12, 2006, Hizballah initiated an operation named "True Promise," involving rocket, anti-tank missile, mortar and sniper fire intended to mask a raid across the international border to kidnap Israeli soldiers.

Figure 1 GeoEye IKONOS satellite image of Beirut’s Rafiq Hariri International Airport acquired on July 31, 2006, with strike locations on runways, taxiways and fuel storage highlighted.

In the course of the initial operation, three Israeli soldiers were killed and two reserve soldiers were captured. In response, Israel began retaliatory strikes on Hizballah border observation posts and known positions, resulting in an exchange of fire between the IDF and Hizballah gunners that ensued across much of the Blue Line (the United Nations defined the Blue Line as the Lebanon/Israel border demarcation as it existed in 2000). Heavy bombardment also occurred in the areas around Bint Jbeil and in the Shebaa farms area far to the east on the Golan Heights. In pursuit of the kidnappers, IDF conventional forces entered southern Lebanon for the first time in six years. At about 10:20 a.m., Israel initiated a wave of pre-planned retaliatory air strikes in southern Lebanon, initially attacking 17 Hizballah command posts and bases, as well as three bridges over the Litani River, the general demarcation between southern Lebanon and the rest of the country.

The most dramatic and symbolic Israeli strike in the first 24 hours was on Beirut's Rafiq Hariri International Airport. At about 4:00 a.m. on July 13, aircraft placed four 2,000-lb. laser-guided bombs with BLU-109 hard target warheads on runway intersections to shut down airport operations. See Figure 1. An Israeli Army spokesman stated that "the reason for the attack is that the airport is used as a central hub for the transfer of weapons and supplies to the Hizballah terror organization." Acting Lebanese Minister of the Interior Ahmed Fatfat countered that the airport attack had nothing to do with Hizballah, but was instead an attack against Lebanon's "economic interests," especially its rebounding commercial sector and its valuable summer tourism industry. Later, on the evening of July 13, four Israeli attack helicopters were back at the international airport, shooting air-to-surface missiles at airport fuel tanks, setting them on fire, illuminating the Beirut night sky.


Meanwhile, as evening approached on Thursday July 13, Hizballah rockets hit the Stella Maris neighborhood of Haifa, the most southerly location that rockets fired from Lebanon had ever hit. Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Daniel Ayalon, immediately called the attack on Haifa "a major, major escalation." Before Hizballah struck Haifa, Israel had already dropped leaflets over south Beirut warning residents to stay away from Hizballah strongholds (translated from Deutsche Press-Agentur):

To the Inhabitants of Lebanon

Due to the terrorist activities carried out by Hizballah which destroys the effort to find a brighter future for Lebanon, the Israeli Army will continue its work within Lebanon for as long as it deems fit to protect the citizens of the State of Israel.

For your own safety and because we do not wish to cause any more civilian deaths, you are advised to avoid all places frequented by Hizballah. You should know that the continuation of terrorist activities against the State of Israel will be considered a double-edged sword for you and Lebanon.

—The State of Israel

At this point, in retaliation for Hizballah attacks on Haifa, the IDF implemented what spokesmen labeled "deterrence" strikes, reaching into south Beirut to attack buildings in the main Hizballah headquarters complex, the home of Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, and the headquarters of Hizballah's Al Manar television. These targets are a short drive from swank downtown Beirut and are in the dahiye—Shi'a neighborhoods of mostly illegal apartment blocks, which were, on the eve of the war, home to hundreds of thousands of Lebanon's poorest people. Beirut's southern suburbs suffered a level of damage unmatched by any other example of precision bombing, including that in the Iraq wars or Afghanistan.

Mid-war, the utter ruin of the dahiye was described by one observer: "block after block of extraordinary canyons of devastation... multi-story tenements collapsed or eviscerated, their domestic interiors spilled in mountainous waves of rubble across the streets." See Figures 2-3.

  1. Hassan Nasrallah's house
  2. Hizballah base
  3. Hizballah base
  4. Fadlallah center
  5. Hizballah base
  1. Hizballah HQ building complex
  2. Hizballah base (terrorist activities)
  3. Hizballah office building
  4. Hizballah security center
  5. Hizballah Al-Manar TVstation

Figures 2-3 IKONOS images of the dahiye districts in southern Beirut: at left an image taken during the first day of the war (acquired by IKONOS on July 12, 2006) and at right an IKONOS image acquired on Aug. 8, 2006. Hizballah target annotations from: "Proof of the Location of the Hezbollah’s Military Infrastructure and Operational Activities Carried Out From Within the Civilian Population (Part Two Documentation)," pp. 61-73, supplied by the Israeli government to author William Arkin.


During the 34 days of war, the IDF conducted two parallel efforts: an "air war" involving attacks on Hizballah fixed and mobile targets (forces, rockets, movements) and Lebanese civil infrastructure (and to some extent the Lebanese military), and a "ground war" involving special operations and a belated invasion into Lebanon.

Airport Bridge, Beirut (June 19, 2006, QuickBird)

Airport Bridge, Beirut (August 12, 2006, QuickBird)

Habboush Bridge, Nabatiyeh Governante (August 9, 2006, QuickBird)

AL-QA’QA’IYAHAL-JISR Bridge, South Lebanon Governate (July 25, 2006, QuickBird)

Figure 4 QuickBird images of bridges in Lebanon: Habboush Bridge (image acquired on Aug. 9, 2006), Beirut’s Airport Bridge (before the war, acquired on June 19, 2006 and after it was struck, acquired on Aug. 12, 2006), and al-Qa’qa’iyah al-Jisr Bridge (image acquired on July 25, 2006), showing a curve of the Litani River.
For the Israeli Air Force (IAF), the 2006 war was the first sustained, around-the-clock air campaign with more than 50 percent of the missions flown at night. The small distances involved and compact Lebanese geography enabled these strikes to be mounted not only by IAF F-15 and F-16 fighters, but also by attack helicopters, extensively supported by naval ship gunfire and long-range ground-forces rocket fire. Air attacks were mounted against targets of numerous category types: airports, bridges and roads; Hizballah command, military forces, and infrastructure; fuel depots and gas stations; and communications and radar sites.

Naval strikes were mostly conducted against targets along the Lebanese coast and included rocket launch sites, launchers, weapons storage sites, roads, radar installations, fuel depots and gas stations, and other Hizballah "infrastructure." The IDF stated that ground forces carried out broad artillery attacks against rocket launching sites, against "squads of Hizballah terrorists," and against structures and "strongholds" along the border. In its response to the Hizballah incursion and kidnapping on July 12, the IDF implemented pre-planned strikes against Lebanese bridges across the Litani River, following up daily with additional bridge strikes in southern Lebanon, eventually expanding attacks on bridges into the Beirut area, the Bekaa Valley and northern Lebanon. The accumulated damage included the destruction of 109 bridges and overpasses, including 16 kilometers of road sections in southern Lebanon. By the end of the war, 21 of the 29 bridges over the Litani River were reported damaged or destroyed (18 in the Tyre district and three in Marjeyoun). See Figure 4.

Israel says that it attacked bridges and transportation targets to prevent the movement and export of Israeli prisoners out of the country, to stem the flow of arms and military material to Hizballah from Syria, and to interdict or prevent the movement of Hizballah arms and forces, including rockets and launchers within Lebanon. Eventually, the scope of these strikes folded in all access points into Syria, both in southern and northern Lebanon, and all internal bridges of any consequence, with the seeming general justification that Hizballah might use the disrupted routes for movement and re-supply at some point in the future.


During the conflict, and particularly at the end when a U.N.-brokered ceasefire loomed, the IDF utilized a significant number of weapons carrying "cluster bombs," including air-delivered, artillery, and medium-range rockets. The bombs afforded quick reaction "area attack" of Hizballah rocket launching sites and were additionally intended to impede Hizballah movements along roads going in and out of known launch areas. Large numbers of cluster bomb submunitions were found in and around southern Lebanese villages after the war, provoking an outcry from the international human rights community. United Nations deminers and workers on the ground claim that the majority of Israeli submunitions expended—some say as many as 90 percent of the total—were fired by the IDF during the last 72 hours of the conflict.

Israel is estimated to have expended an estimated 2.7 million bomblets.

According to on-the-ground assessments and U.N. mapping of sites where unexploded submunitions were discovered, cluster bomb use was concentrated in two bands easily within range of both artillery and MLRS (Multiple Launch Rocket System) and largely away from the border area: southeast of Rashidiyah on the coast south of Tyre to northeast of Tyre, and from southwest of Brashit and south of Tibnine extending northwards through Qabrikha into the Bekaa valley to the west of Marjeyoun. See Figure 5. IDF ground forces could be anticipated to operate at the border area and thus run into the volatile unexploded bomblets.

Figure 5 False color infrared (NIR/G/B) image of Sidiqine in southern Lebanon acquired by QuickBird on July 25, 2006, with damage from IDF strikes annotated.


United Nations mapping was an incomparable source of information about the war, and after the conflict, UNOSAT (a U.N. programme created to provide the international community and developing countries with enhanced access to satellite imagery and GIS) compiled a series of photo-interpretation products based upon IKONOS satellite imagery used to identify individual locations and types of damage to buildings, bridges and roads. Commercial remote sensing data proved especially useful in visualizing military events in southern Lebanon, where hilly terrain, isolated villages, and poorly-mapped settlements contributed to a chaotic understanding of the war. Lebanese and international media coverage, commercial imagery, and "social media,"— the tracking of the war over the Internet and the extensive use of digital photography by the average Lebanese citizen and NGOs—opened the war to unprecedented contemporaneous description. Short of communications intercepts, civilians were seeing almost as much as the IDF and Israeli intelligence were seeing. And yet, given the nature of air warfare and the difficulties of interpretation, the civ-ilian community and the media were in many ways just as much in the dark.

On Aug. 11, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 (2006), which called for disarmament of Hizballah. Lebanon, Hizballah and Israel all accepted the terms, and the ceasefire took effect at 8:00 a.m. local (5:00 a.m. GMT) on Aug. 14.

While the political consequences of the war continue to unfold, even the basic question of "who won" is complex. By a conventional measure of success, Israel achieved much: Hizballah's six years of investment and effort to build up infrastructure in southern Lebanon were gone, the routes of Syrian and Iranian re-supply were disrupted, 70-80 percent of the long-range and 50 percent of the short-range launchers were destroyed, half of the stock of actual rockets and missiles were assessed as destroyed or expended, and more than 600 Hizballah fighters were dead. But while destruction of the organization's support infrastructure—roads and bridges, fuel, communications, media, even financial institutions—accumulated, Hizballah rocket fire was never subdued and the organization's military operations were never fully suppressed. Hizballah labels its endurance and survival in the face of Israeli attack a "Divine Victory," stating that it is rearming and more powerful than ever, not only militarily, but also in Lebanese internal politics, and in the overall Arab world. Perhaps, in its aftermath, the war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006 has demonstrated the need to pursue different military and political strategies against terrorism in the future.

Note This article is adapted from William Arkin's forthcoming monograph, Divining Victory: Airpower in the 2006 Israel-Hizballah War, a "quick look" study conducted for the United States Air Force. During the writing of the study in early 2007, Arkin was National Security and Human Rights Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Matthew McKinzie and William Arkin have collaborated on bomb damage assessment studies for the U.S. government, the United Nations, and various non-governmental organizations.

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