Medieval Flame Throwing Trebuchet Is Israel’s Latest Weapon

Israeli troops are using ancient weapons to set fires across the border with Lebanon in order to give Hezbollah fewer places to hide.
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IDF using flame throwing trebuchet
via X

Since the war in Gaza began in October 2023, there has been no shortage of dramatic combat footage from both sides, much of it both harrowing and astonishing. But a video showing Israeli troops using a flamethrowing trebuchet — a catapult-like siege engine popular in the Middle Ages — is perhaps the most bizarre so far.

The brief video, which began to circulate on social media yesterday, shows Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers using the trebuchet, which is mounted on a wheeled trailer, to launch incendiaries across the border and into Lebanon. The clip shows the device lobbing one of the flaming projectiles over the border wall in a scene that could have been transplanted from a medieval siege and which, at first glance, appears entirely at odds with one of the most modern and well-equipped armies anywhere in the world. Only at second glance is it obvious that this is not a historical reenactment but the front line of a present-day conflict.

A picture taken during a media tour organised by the Israeli military, shows the border fence separating northern Israel from southern Lebanon on October 21, 2023. (Photo by YURI CORTEZ / AFP) (Photo by YURI CORTEZ/AFP via Getty Images)
The border fence separating northern Israel from southern Lebanon, on October 21, 2023. Photo by YURI CORTEZ/AFP via Getty Images YURI CORTEZ

As for the IDF trebuchet, this is little-changed from the ancient weapon, although much smaller than some of the better-known medieval versions. Whatever the size, these devices essentially comprise a rotating arm with a sling attached to one end to launch a projectile. A counterweight at the other end serves to swing the arm. The result is a weapon that can launch heavier projectiles than a traditional catapult and propel them over longer distances.

At first, there was some speculation that the IDF troops may have been taking part in some kind of prank. On multiple occasions in recent months, Israeli troops have filmed battlefield practical jokes, some of questionable taste, and some of dubious legality, and posted them to social media.

An explanation for the use of this bizarre weapon was provided by the Israeli military, which clarified that the purpose of the trebuchet was indeed to set fires on the other side of the border.

The flaming projectiles — the nature of which are not immediately clear — are designed to burn through the dense vegetation on the Lebanon side of the border area, removing cover that could be used by Hezbollah fighters to launch attacks on the IDF or infiltrate into Israel. This should be especially effective now it’s summer and this foliage will be dry.

One particular concern for the IDF is Hezbollah’s use of the Iranian-made Almas anti-tank missile, the arrival of which along the Lebanese-Israeli border you can read about in this past TWZ report.  Last week, Hezbollah released a video that appeared to show a launcher for Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system, only a few miles from the border, apparently being struck for the first time, likely by an Almas. While the results of that attack are open to debate, it underscored the threat posed by the Almas and other weapons along the Lebanese border. Removing vegetation in this area would help locate Hezbollah firing positions.

According to the Israel Hayom newspaper, earlier in the conflict, IDF reservists had attempted to use Molotov cocktails to set vegetation ablaze on the other side of the border. The same report says that Lebanese sources have also reported the use of white phosphorus, which starts fires, as well as “incendiary drones.” 

Imagery of Molotov cocktails being used by IDF soldiers has also emerged, although it’s unclear how recent this is. This extemporized solution involves using compressed gas to fire a bottle from a tube.

After the appearance of the flamethrowing trebuchet, another video appeared, this time showing an IDF soldier using a bow and arrow to launch a flaming projectile over the border fence and into Lebanon. This also relatively ancient application would seem to provide a more rapid means of setting fires, albeit delivering smaller projectiles over reduced ranges.

Overall, however, the suggestion is that using more conventional, modern weapons to achieve the same effect — likely either some form of artillery or air-launched munitions — is overly expensive and wasteful.

There is also the possibility that other types of incendiary weapons might have a disproportionate effect as well as being seen as overly heavy-handed in what is a delicate situation on the border.

Israeli soldiers patrol an area near the northern kibbutz of Kfar Blum close to the border with Lebanon after Hezbollah said its fighters carried out an aerial attack with two drones against an Israeli air defense system site in the border region on January 25, 2024. Photo by JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images

Removing cover that could be used to the enemy’s advantage is a battlefield tactic that’s even older than the trebuchet. In the past, it has also led to some unorthodox methods being used, including the notorious Agent Orange defoliant deployed over Vietnam.

While there does not appear to be an immediate precedent in modern warfare for using a trebuchet in a similar role, there are examples of Syrian militia using ad-hoc trebuchets to launch Molotov cocktails against enemy positions during that country’s civil war.

The IDF confirmed that the trebuchet was developed locally by IDF troops as an expedient to respond to the growing threat of Hezbollah attacks, but is not in widespread use.

As to the nature of the threat from Hezbollah, earlier this week the Lebanese militants launched their biggest salvo of rockets at Israel since the war in Gaza began. The IDF said that more than 170 projectiles were fired from Lebanon in three barrages. While several rockets were intercepted, others struck inside Israel, causing fires in parts of the north.

Rockets fired from southern Lebanon are intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome air defence system over the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on May 17, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border clashes between Israeli troops and Hezbollah fighters. (Photo by Jalaa MAREY / AFP) (Photo by JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images)
Rockets fired from southern Lebanon are intercepted by an IDF Iron Dome air defense system over the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on May 17, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border clashes between Israeli troops and Hezbollah fighters. Photo by JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images JALAA MAREY

The Hezbollah rocket attacks were retaliation for Israel’s killing of a senior field commander, Taleb Abdallah. He was killed along with three other Hezbollah operatives by an Israeli airstrike on the village of Jouaiya in southern Lebanon on Tuesday.

These latest developments bring Israel and Hezbollah closer to all-out conflict, something that has been a fear since the start of the Gaza war, and which would also threaten to draw Iran further into the fighting.

A picture taken from Kiryat Shmona in northern Israel shows an Israeli fighter jet firing a flare over southern Lebanon on May 16, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border clashes between Israeli troops and Hezbollah fighters. (Photo by Menahem KAHANA / AFP) (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images)
A picture taken from Kiryat Shmona in northern Israel shows an Israeli F-16 fighter dropping a flare over southern Lebanon on May 16, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border clashes between Israeli troops and Hezbollah fighters. Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images MENAHEM KAHANA

While Hezbollah began firing rockets and mortars against Israel a day after Hamas launched its October 7 attack, this has been lower intensity conflict rather than a full-scale one.

There are now signs that could be about to change.

“We will increase the intensity, strength, quantity, and quality of our attacks,” the senior Hezbollah official Hashem Safieddine said at Taleb Abdallah’s funeral yesterday.

Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened an “extremely powerful” response to Hezbollah’s ongoing attacks, which have also included drone strikes.

The flare-up in aggression has so far killed 71 Lebanese civilians and around 500 members of Hezbollah, 18 Israeli soldiers, and 10 Israeli civilians.

With tensions around the border with Lebanon at their worst since October 7 and growing fears of an all-out war between Israel and Hezbollah, it is perhaps not surprising that IDF troops have been calling upon innovative — albeit antiquated — methods to ensure they have the upper hand.

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