Underneath Lebanon, Israel sees hidden battlefield
By MATTI FRIEDMAN, Associated Press Writer Matti Friedman, Associated
Press Writer – Sat Aug 14, 2:03 pm ET
MOUNT ADIR, Israel – 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.
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
Hezbollah, which is armed by Iran and Syria and is more powerful than
the Lebanese military, stayed out of the Aug. 3 fight. But its leader,
Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, threatened that he would intervene next time.
He has also said that if war breaks out again his forces will fire
rockets into Tel Aviv.
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.
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 military would not allow
her name to be used because of the sensitivity of her job.
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.
Israel's intelligence probably comes from surveillance flights over
Lebanese territory, spy satellites and Lebanese agents. But the
military provides no proof of its claims, saying that could compromise
its sources, and the peacekeeping force says it sees no evidence of new
military infrastructure. Hezbollah officials did not respond to
requests for comment on Israel's accusations.
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.
South Lebanon is festooned with posters of the bearded, turbaned
Nasrallah, but the only visible hint of Hezbollah fighters are the
bearded men in civilian clothes who travel on motorbikes or in cars and
occasionally approach reporters working in the area.
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
In 2006, Israel responded to the Hezbollah border raid with a heavy
bombardment of the south and then invaded, while Hezbollah fired
thousands of rockets into northern Israel. The fighting killed 160
Israelis and around 1,200 Lebanese, according to official counts from
each side. Israelis were dismayed to find their military suffering from
organizational and supply problems, and were infuriated by
international censure over the civilian death toll. That criticism was
repeated even more forcefully over Israel's Gaza offensive two winters
But the Lebanon border has been largely quiet since 2006. Hezbollah has
not fired a rocket in the past four years — though Palestinian militant
groups have — and the Israeli officer killed in early August was the
military's first fatality on the frontier since 2006.
UNIFIL, the international peacekeeping force, "has not found any
evidence of new military infrastructure in its area of operations,"
said spokesman Neeraj Singh. "Only on a few occasions, UNIFIL found
armed elements in the area with personal weapons like AK-47s."
While saying UNIFIL had made "significant progress" in helping the
Lebanese army secure the south, he acknowledged that the peacekeepers
are barred from searching private property, where the Israelis say much
of the evidence of the guerrillas' presence would be found.
Some indications of Hezbollah activity in the south have surfaced
unintentionally. When a building at Khirbet Silim exploded on July 15,
2009, peacekeepers identified it as an actively maintained Hezbollah
arms warehouse. Another storehouse blew up in October, the Israelis
say, and in December, according to Singh, peacekeepers caught a "group
of individuals" with about 250 kilograms (550 pounds) of explosives.
UNIFIL's performance has implications beyond south Lebanon. If the
Israelis turn out to be right about the Hezbollah buildup, it will
undermine their trust in international forces to police other volatile
areas, such as Gaza and the West Bank, under a peace treaty.
In preparation for a new round against Hezbollah, the Israeli military
has simulated parts of south Lebanon at a training base called Elyakim,
about an hour's drive south from the border. A second facility in
central Israel is nearing completion.
One day in late July, near a mock Lebanese village of gray concrete, a
company of sweating Israeli infantry recruits staged a maneuver through
thick Lebanese-style undergrowth, complete with rockets hidden in the
bushes and bombs camouflaged as rocks.
A square metal cover on the earth opened onto a concrete tunnel where
Lt. Natan Mann stood in the dark, drilling his men for the real thing.
"The army has made tactical changes and changes in its mindset," said
Mann, 23, one hand on the plastic grip of his rifle. "We're either at
war, or we're training for war."
Associated Press Writers Elizabeth A. Kennedy and Zeina Karam reported
from Beirut, Lebanon.