Hizbullah militants regroup amid war jitters
By Nicholas Blanford Mon Apr 14, 4:00 AM ET
Kfar Shuba, Lebanon – In south Lebanon, where the 2006 summertime war between Israel and militant Shiite Hizbullah was played out, villages are abuzz with talk of another devastating conflict between the two archfoes.
Over the past few weeks, military activity on both sides of the border has contributed to war jitters as both Israel and Hizbullah are seemingly poised to strike.
The Israeli military just wrapped up a nationwide war drill it dubbed “Turning Point 2,” and Hizbullah appears to have devised new battle plans that include cross-border raids into Israel and has mounted a sweeping recruitment and training drive, even marshaling non-Shiites and former Israeli-allied militiamen into new reservist units.
“The holy fighters are completely focused on the next war, even ignoring families and friends. They are just waiting for the next war,” says Jawad, a Hizbullah fighter.
Still, many diplomats and analysts in Beirut say that neither side has an interest in coming to blows again, despite the buildup.
“The elements of conflict are still there, and it is possible that something small can get out of hand with neither side wanting it,” says Timur Goksel, a university lecturer in Beirut and veteran observer of the Hizbullah-Israeli conflict. But, he adds, the heightened activity is “mainly posturing.”
Hizbullah continues to recruit and train new combatants at a furious pace. Indeed, it has noticeably increased in the past two months, ever since the assassination in Damascus of Imad Mughnieh, Hizbullah’s top military commander, sparked fears of a fresh war.
Many recruits are sent to Iran for 45-day advanced training sessions, according to Hizbullah fighters. Jawad says he recently returned from Iran, his second trip in a year, where he was taught how to fire antitank missiles.
“There’s a lot of training,” he says. “The holy fighters are leaving universities, shops, places of work to go and train.”
New tactics are being taught, including how to “seize and hold” positions, a requirement that Hizbullah’s guerrilla fighters – traditionally schooled in hit-and-run methods – never needed before. One local commander in south Lebanon said that Hizbullah had fought a defensive war in 2006.
“Next time, we will be on the offensive and it will be a totally different kind of war,” he says.
Jawad says that the next war will be “fought more in Israel than in Lebanon,” one comment of many from various fighters that suggest Hizbullah is planning commando raids into northern Israel.
Hizbullah admits that its rocket arsenal has increased since 2006 and it has the ability to strike anywhere inside Israel.
Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the party’s leader, in February said that Hizbullah had evolved into an “unparalleled new school” that is part guerrilla force and part conventional army.
A European diplomat in Beirut, who has been watching Hizbullah’s preparations, likened attacking the organization to “punching a sponge” – it absorbs the blow then bounces back – and questioned whether Israel still fully appreciates what it is up against.
Hizbullah’s military buildup is not confined to Shiite Lebanese. Sunnis, Christians, and Druze also are being recruited into reservist units called “Saraya,” or battalions.
Building ties to Sunnis serves for Hizbullah the double purpose of expanding support while also helping improve Shiite-Sunni relations, strained due to political divisions in Lebanon.
In the southern coastal town of Sidon, a Sunni Islamist militant group called the Fajr Forces, which fought invading Israeli troops in the early 1980s, has been resurrected as a Hizbullah ally.
Sheikh Afif Naboulsi, a prominent Hizbullah cleric, last month was quoted as saying that next time “the Israelis will find resistance fighters from all sects and denominations.”
Hizbullah has been particularly active, according to residents, in the eastern pocket of the zone patrolled by the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). The area is the mainly Sunni Arqoub district and faces the Shebaa Farms, an Israeli-occupied mountainside running along Lebanon‘s border with the Golan Heights.
Having lost ground here to political rivals after the 2006 war, Hizbullah is now seeking to regain its influence through funding a new group called the Arab Resistance Front, a reservist force for local Sunnis. Even former members of the now disbanded Israeli-allied South Lebanon Army militia have joined the new group, according to local residents.
“Hizbullah will not turn down anyone who wants to join the resistance,” says Izzat Qadri, the Sunni mayor of Kfar Shuba and an ally of Hizbullah.
Despite the frequent recruiting in the border zone, officials with UNIFIL say there is no evidence Hizbullah has reactivated its bunkers and rocket-firing positions that the militants abandoned at the end of the 2006 war.
Hizbullah fighters presently are deployed along a new front line above the Litani River, north of the area patrolled by UNIFIL. In the past 18 months, Hizbullah has purchased land from local Druze and Christians, constructed an entire Shiite-populated village, and turned the mountains and valleys of the area into sealed-off military zones.
“There are armed and uniformed Hizbullah men crawling all over the hills. We often hear gunfire and explosions from their training,” says one local resident.