After the war, Hizbullah reevaluates

The Lebanese guerrillas admit they can't return to the south but defiantly reject calls to disarm.

A massive slab of reinforced concrete pokes from the stony earth of this desolate hillside like a broken tooth. It's all that remains of a dynamited Hizbullah bunker built just 100 yards from the Israeli border.

From this sprawling network of bunkers and tunnels, Hizbullah fighters withstood massive Israeli airstrikes during the recent war. It allowed the Lebanese guerrillas to fire rockets at northern Israel right up to the Aug. 14 cease-fire.

But the deployment of up to 15,000 foreign troops and another 15,000 Lebanese soldiers into south Lebanon, as well as tightened restrictions at Lebanon's sea and land entry points, suggests that Hizbullah will be unable to revive its well-entrenched military presence along the border with Israel, casting into doubt a future role for its vaunted military wing.

"The war was a definitive turning point in which Hizbullah has shown its military capability, but it was a capability it could only show once," says Rami Khouri, a Jordanian political commentator and director of the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

Hizbullah officials admit that there can be no going back to the situation along the border before the war. While insisting that the group will not disarm, Hizbullah's military commanders are currently reassessing the group's future.

"This transitional period takes time and thought regarding the form that the resistance will follow. Things have changed and we must have time for some introspection," Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hizbullah's deputy secretary-general, said in a recent interview with the London-based Ash Sharq al-Awsat newspaper.

The new situation here represents a third phase in Hizbullah's long struggle against Israel from south Lebanon. Between 1985 and 2000, Hizbullah was engaged in a campaign of resistance against Israeli forces occupying a strip of south Lebanon. After Israel's withdrawal in May 2000, Hizbullah began launching attacks against Israeli positions in the Shebaa Farms, a remote mountainside along Lebanon's southeast border.

Lebanon claims the farms are Lebanese, but the UN has ruled it Syrian territory, the fate of which is subject to talks between Syria and Israel.

Although Shebaa Farms were Hizbullah's only declared theater of military operations against Israel, the group was preparing an infrastructure along the entire length of the 70-mile Blue Line, the UN's name for Lebanon's southern border. Just how elaborate became apparent during the war this summer.

Take the bunker system at Labboune. Hizbullah fighters sealed off the hill to the public in 2002, turning it into a "security zone."

Although it was suspected that Hizbullah was building defensive fortifications, neither UN peacekeepers nor the Israeli military had any idea as to its scale. When Israeli troops discovered and dynamited the bunker days after the cease-fire, they found a structure consisting of firing positions, operations rooms, medical facilities, lighting and ventilation systems, kitchens and bathrooms with hot water – sufficient for dozens of fighters to live underground for weeks.

The bunker was built within view of a UN observation post and an Israeli military position, respectively 100 yards and 300 yards away. Neither the UN nor the Israeli army knew the bunker existed. "We never saw them build anything. They must have brought the cement in by the spoonful," says a UN officer.

The bunker at Labboune was only one of several similar fortifications strung along the border. Hizbullah also constructed permanent Katyusha rocket-firing positions. Abu Mehdi, a Hizbullah fighter who refuses to give his real name, says a colleague was taken to a mountaintop and told that he was in charge of a Katyusha launcher. "My friend looked around him and asked, 'Where is it?' The other man pressed a button and the launcher rose out of the ground next to him," he says.

The UN force in south Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, is being rapidly expanded, more than doubling since the cease-fire to more than 5,000 by the end of last week. Domestic political constraints will further hamper Hizbullah's ability to resume for now even its occasional assaults in the Shebaa Farms. Still, Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's leader, rejects dismantling the military wing and boasts that it possesses more than 20,000 rockets.

"There is no army in the world that can [force us] to drop our weapons from our hands," he said at a rally in south Beirut Friday, his first public appearance since the war began.

One possibility, analysts say, is to link Hizbullah's military wing more closely to the Lebanese Army, now deployed in strength in south Lebanon.

"If Israel violates the cease-fire and Hizbullah helps the Lebanese Army's legitimate response to that violation, I think it would be very hard for UNIFIL to intervene," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Lebanese expert on Hizbullah.

One example, apparently under serious consideration by Hizbullah, is how to retaliate against Israel's violations of Lebanese airspace. UNIFIL has recorded more than three dozen violations by Israeli aircraft since the cease-fire came into effect. "We have reported them to the UN Security Council. What more can we do? Shoot them down?" says UNIFIL spokesman Alex Ivanko.

But Hizbullah might attempt to do just that. "We were unable to make good use of our anti-aircraft capabilities during the war. This is something we are looking into for the future," says Abu Mehdi. "The resistance is planning a new strategy."

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