Hizbollah is buying up large tracts of land owned by Christians and other non-Shias in southern Lebanon as the militant group rebuilds its defences in preparation for a new war with Israel, The Sunday Telegraph has been told.
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.
The Shia encroachment into a mixed area of Christians, Shias and Druze Muslims threatens to disrupt Lebanon’s delicate sectarian balance, which is already teetering after three years of political tumult.
“Christians and Druze are selling land and moving out, while the Shia are moving in. There is an extraordinary demo-graphic shift taking place,” said Edmund Rizk, a Christian MP for the area until 1992.