Hezbollah Rearms and Bides Its Time

A buffer zone keeps fighters away from Israel's border

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Women carry photos of "martyred" Hezbollah fighters at a commemoration in Beirut last month.

By SHARE
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BEIRUT—The signs warn outsiders not to enter the new "security zone" just north of Lebanon's Litani River. Ignoring that prohibition draws a quick visit from a bearded young man on a motorcycle who is polite but firm: No foreigners are allowed in this area without permission from Hezbollah's press office, a request the group is not likely to grant.

There is a good reason why the Lebanese Shiite movement, designated a terrorist group by the United States, wants to avoid prying eyes. Hezbollah, by various accounts, is establishing new bunkers, arms caches, and other military positions, replacing those it lost a few miles to the south after the 2006 war with Israel. For years, Hezbollah controlled the rock-strewn hills south of the Litani River to the Israeli border. As part of a cease-fire, some 13,500 United Nations peacekeepers and 15,000 Lebanese troops now patrol southernmost Lebanon, creating a buffer zone south of the Litani. Hezbollah has refused to disarm as called for under the U.N. resolution that ended last year's 34-day war.

Cause for concern. As new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks get underway, Israeli officials have reason to be concerned about developments in Lebanon, where Hezbollah's leaders vow no letup in their hostility to the Jewish state. The group is building up positions just north of the Litani River, reportedly buying land from Christian and Druze villagers. The location puts Hezbollah's paramilitary force still within range to fire rockets at Israel but away from the prying eyes of the U.N. peacekeepers and Lebanese Army. The location also overlaps routes to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, which has been the supply point for clandestine arms trafficking and training and logistics bases.

Hezbollah officials openly brag about the rebuilding without disclosing specifics, a common Hezbollah public-relations tactic that makes it hard to separate fact from bluster. "Of course we were able to rearm, and why shouldn't we? We are the legitimate resistance of Lebanon and are the only force capable of protecting the people from Israel. We have also added many new fighters since the war, but I won't tell you what new weapons we have, I just promise we have them," says one Hezbollah commander who has been a reliable, if vague, source of information in the past.

Regional intelligence officials confirm the rearming and point to Hezbollah's access to high-tech weaponry and training from Iran and Syria. In many cases, the group has been equipped with the latest generations of Russian-made weaponry, which allowed it to successfully fight the Israeli military directly in 2006 instead of relying on the guerrilla tactics that forced Israel from southern Lebanon in 2000 after 18 years of occupation. Israel has complained to the United Nations that Hezbollah's new arsenal includes rockets with a range of 155 miles, capable of hitting Tel Aviv. "They have what they need to fight and the expertise to use it. They're brilliant at adapting weaponry to their tactics and vice versa," said a regional intelligence official earlier this year. "The war changed nothing."

At this point, Hezbollah is caught up in a domestic power struggle with Lebanon's western-backed government led by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, which wants Hezbollah fighters disarmed or incorporated into the Army. Hezbollah asserts it is not required to disarm since Lebanese law recognizes it as a "resistance" group against Israel, not a militia. Iran and Syria, meanwhile, may see a rearmed Hezbollah as a deterrent threat to the United States and Israel amid the tensions over Iran's nuclear activities and Syria's support for Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, anti-Israel groups that the United States classifies as terrorist organizations.

Analysts don't anticipate Hezbollah's instigating a new war with Israel in the near term. But many were caught by surprise when a cross-border Hezbollah attack on an Israeli patrol set off the war in July 2006.