With tensions mounting along their shared border, Israel’s military says Hezbollah is moving fighters and weapons into the villages of south Lebanon, building up a secret network of arms warehouses, bunkers and command posts in preparation for war.
AP The Israeli military has begun releasing detailed information about what it calls Hezbollah’s new border deployment, four years after a cross-border raid by its guerrillas triggered a 34-day war.
A reminder of the volatility came on August 3, when Lebanese troops fired at Israeli soldiers clearing brush on their side of the border. One Israeli officer was killed, another badly wounded, and a retaliatory helicopter strike killed two Lebanese soldiers and a reporter.
Neither side has signaled that another war is imminent, but the Israelis’ unusual openness about what they claim to know of Hezbollah’s preparations seems to have two goals: to show the reach of their intelligence, and to stake their claim that if another war breaks out and many civilians die, it will be because Hezbollah placed its armaments and fighters in their midst.
Israel’s military says Hezbollah has changed strategy since the last war, moving most of its fighters and weapons from wooded rural areas into villages. It says the aim is to avoid detection and use to civilians for cover if war erupts.
The military says all of this exists under the nose of 12,000 international peacekeepers who, by their own count, conduct up to 340 patrols a day in south Lebanon but are hobbled by a hostile population and rules preventing them from searching private property.UN peacekeeping patrol has found large quantities of explosives in southern Lebanon near the border with Israel, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has announced.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Mount Adir, a hill overlooking the border, an officer from the military’s Northern Command pointed through the summer haze at the village of Aita al-Shaab.
One of its southernmost buildings, a white structure housing mentally handicapped children, is a Hezbollah lookout post, the officer said. Several guerrilla command posts are in civilian buildings in the center of Aita al-Shaab, she said, with several dozen fighters able to move among houses through underground tunnels.
The village also houses a network of warehouses holding arms trucked in from Iran via Syria, she said, some in stand-alone structures and some in smaller stashes in garages, basements and buried under backyards.
The officer said the guerrillas now have 5,000 fighters operating in the buffer zone between the border and the Litani River — a strip ranging from 5 kilometers to 30 kilometers (3 miles to 18 miles) wide — which is supposed to be free of militant activity under the 2006 cease-fire. In late 2009, Nasrallah said Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal stood at 30,000. Israel says it’s now about 40,000.
It’s difficult to independently confirm the allegations on the ground. The south Lebanese, mostly Shiite like Hezbollah, tend to support the movement and rarely criticize it publicly or volunteer information. Hezbollah members or supporters often attach themselves to journalists entering villages, shadowing them and discouraging photography.
In July, looking to build its case that Hezbollah is digging in among civilians, the military released maps, photographs and a 3-D simulation of the streets and houses of another Lebanese town, Khiam.
The simulation shows one arms storeroom, a squat, freestanding building colored red, located 130 meters (150 yards) from a school, colored blue. A map on the military’s Web site purports to pinpoint 12 arms storerooms and three command posts in the town.
The Israeli implication is clear: If another war erupts, many civilians will die.