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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Hezbullah buying land, preparing weapons north of the Litani

Earlier this week on his blog Charles Levinson of the London Daily Telegraph reported on Hezbullah actions that could be viewed as preparation for war north of the Litani river.
The area that is widely believed to be the focal point of Hezbollah’s rebuilding project is a system of steep, wooded wadis east of the Shiite staunchly pro-Hezbollah village of Rihane (Find it in the center near the top of the map spelled Ar Rayhan). Obviously, this is not the only place Hezbollah is working, but it does appear to be one of the most ambitious and visible. One line of speculation goes that this is where Hezbollah’s heavy weapons, long range rockets, and intricate underground bunkers, etc., could be concentrated, while south of the Litani Hezbollah would focus its preparations on lighter arms in urban centers, where they can more easily escape the notice of UN peacekeepers.
All of the areas under discussion are mapped out in great detail on a map that Levinson put on his blog, and if you look at them you will see that much of the area under discussion is actually quite close to the part of Israel known as "Etzba HaGalil" (the Finger of the Galilee), which is the area around Metulla in the northern part of the Galilee.

Levinson reports that much of the land in the area, which was previously Christian and Druze villages, has been bought up by one Ali Tajeddine:
All these villages are poor, in a state of general decline, and were thus unable to resist when a wealthy Shiite businessman named Ali Tajeddine offered to buy their land for two and four times its estimated value. Tajeddine is originally from the village of Hanaouay outside Tyre. He made his money trading diamonds in Sierra Leone before moving back to Lebanon and starting a successful contracting business. It’s said he’s funded by Iran and he’s widely believed to have strong ties to Hezbollah. He is reportedly a key player in Jihad al Binna (the Building Jihad), Hezbollah’s post-war reconstruction outfit.
It's clear that Hezbullah is storing weapons in this area, and while Israelis may be tempted to draw their conclusions based upon that, Levinson says that there may be an even more sinister motive:

There are, however, more sinister accusations. Jumblatt and other Druze leaders have been most vocal with accusations that Hezbollah has a grand plan to Shiitize what was heretofore a mixed Christian-Druze area in an attempt to create a contiguous swath of land connecting the south with Hezbollah’s other stronghold in Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley.

Getting rid of this irksome band of Christian and Druze villages would not only split the Druze off from their ancestral home in the Chouf Mountains, but would also mean weapons from Syria would have unfettered access to Hezbollah in the south without passing through potentially unfriendly territory. See the map below which has been floating around various anti-Hezbollah circles and claims, rather dubiously I think, to depict Hezbollah’s secret plans for a Shiite state inside Lebanon.

But Levinson goes on to give strong evidence that Jumblatt is right:

Most curiously perhaps, the by far most ambitious road project I witnessed anywhere in Lebanon was in this area in and around Rihan, even though this area was scarcely bombed during last summer’s war. It’s a massive at least four lane wide asphalt autostrade stretching from the Hezbollah stronghold of Nabbatiye north east into the Western Bekaa. There was no comparable road project anywhere in the south that I saw. Every few hundred feet along the new road, banners proclaim the project has been funded by “The Iranian Organization for Sharing in the Building of Lebanon.” It should be noted that similar banners are all over the south, but we were still puzzled by the scope of the project in an area one would have least expected it based on which areas were most damaged last year.

Also, notice the announcement by the Lebanese telecom minister about a secret Hezbollah underground communication network stretching from Zawtar al Sharqieh (find it due south of Nabbatiya on the map) all the way up to the Western Bekaa village of Yohmoor al Bekaa. Evidence perhaps that linking the two regions is indeed tactically important to Hezbollah, but also evidence that the Hezbollah buildup is focused on other areas north of the Litani besides the one I talk about here.

Read the whole thing and look at Levinson's big map (which is much more detailed than either of the other maps in this post).

This morning, Levinson takes his report to a wider audience in the London Sunday Telegraph, and it sounds more ominous than the earlier blog report:

The land grab is thought to be driven by the Iranian-backed guerrillas' efforts to rearm themselves and fortify the strategically important ravines north of the Litani River, just north of the front line in last year's 34-day conflict with its Jewish neighbour.

Here, Hizbollah has been free to press forward without harassment from the 13,000 United Nations peacekeepers and 20,000 Lebanese army troops who were deployed south of the Litani as part of the ceasefire agreement that ended the conflict.

Just south of the Litani, the UN is conducting hundreds of patrols each day in a bid to keep Hizbollah weapons out of the area, but the peacekeepers' mandate ends at the river.

The Lebanese army, meanwhile, is about 50 per cent Shia and seems to be turning a blind eye to Hizbollah activities north of the river.

In these rugged gorges, the group appears to be readying for round two with Israel, and many fear it is not far off after the inconclusive end to last year's war and reports of -Hizbollah rearming.

The area's forested wadis, or valleys, make ideal terrain for Hizbollah's brand of guerrilla warfare and, just 10 miles from the border, are within rocket range of Israeli cities.

Here is a description of one such village in the Telegraph report:

Entry to the village is forbidden to outsiders - not by the Lebanese army that technically holds sway here, but by the chabab, the plain-clothed, bearded youths who act as look-outs in Hizbollah territory.

"The village is closed for security reasons," said a youth who had recently moved from a Hizbollah-controlled area near the regional capital, Tyre.

Like many neighbouring hamlets, Chbail has steadily decayed ever since civil war broke out in 1975. Fleeing first Palestinian guerrillas, then invading Israeli soldiers, and finally Hizbollah, villagers steadily migrated to seek better lives in Beirut or overseas.

While The Sunday Telegraph was at Chbail's outskirts, a rust-coloured Volvo station wagon rolled in, piled high with wooden building beams. A dozen or so other young men with dirt-caked fingernails came and went freely. On the wadis' western edge, a metal sign strung across an unmarked dirt track erased any doubt about what, or rather who, now lies beyond.

"Entry forbidden. Hizbollah area," the sign read in Arabic. The closure was manned by a pair of teenage gunmen in olive green fatigues, armed with walkie-talkies and AK47s.

But the Israeli government is still waiting - for what I don't know - and is not taking any action to prepare itself for yet another Hezbullah attack. The government of Prime Minister Ehud K. Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Feigele Livni is more interested in keeping itself in power by avoiding blame for last summer's debacle and pursuing their FantasyLand vision than they are in correcting the problems that resulted in a quarter of Israel's population having to flee their homes last summer.

And Israel may yet - God forbid - burn as a result.


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