Hezbollah militants regroup amid war jitters

The Lebanese Shiite group is recruiting Sunnis, training in Iran for a possible second war with Israel.

Lutfallah Daher/AP
Border: Peacekeepers with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) installed fencing last week along the southern Lebanese border with Israel.
Rich Clabaugh
Nicholas Blanford
A banner above a highway in south Lebanon shows a picture of Imad Mughnieh, Hizbullah's former top military commander. The banner reads 'O our leader: Our Fingers are on the trigger and our ees are on Jerusalem.' Hizbullah continues to recurit and train new combatants, especially after Mr. Mughnieh's assassination, contributing to war jitters between Hizbullah and Israel; the 2006 war between the two played out in south Lebanon.

In south Lebanon, where the 2006 summertime war between Israel and militant Shiite Hezbollah 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 Hezbollah 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 Hezbollah 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 Hezbollah-Israeli conflict. But, he adds, the heightened activity is "mainly posturing."

Hezbollah 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, Hezbollah's top military commander, sparked fears of a fresh war.

Many recruits are sent to Iran for 45-day advanced training sessions, according to Hezbollah 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 Hezbollah's guerrilla fighters – traditionally schooled in hit-and-run methods – never needed before. One local commander in south Lebanon said that Hezbollah 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 Hezbollah is planning commando raids into northern Israel.

Hezbollah 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 Hezbollah 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 Hezbollah'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.

Hezbollah'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 Hezbollah 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 Hezbollah ally.

Sheikh Afif Naboulsi, a prominent Hezbollah cleric, last month was quoted as saying that next time "the Israelis will find resistance fighters from all sects and denominations."

Hezbollah 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, Hezbollah 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.

"Hezbollah will not turn down anyone who wants to join the resistance," says Izzat Qadri, the Sunni mayor of Kfar Shuba and an ally of Hezbollah.

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.

Hezbollah 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, Hezbollah 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 Hezbollah men crawling all over the hills. We often hear gunfire and explosions from their training," says one local resident.

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