Hizbollah has stepped up the rebuilding of its military infrastructure in southern Lebanon despite the deployment in recent weeks of thousands of Lebanese troops and international peacekeepers to limit the Islamic militant group’s activities.
Standing firm against international pressure to disarm, the Shia group is rearming and rebuilding tunnels and trenches destroyed by the Israeli army during this summer’s 34-day war.
Locals in Bint Jbeil, a town which saw fierce fighting, told yesterday how Hizbollah was using the major reconstruction efforts to rebuild their security infrastructure.
“They are working extremely fast,” said one, who did not want to be named. “Militants in Shia strongholds have interconnected tunnels and bunkers under their houses. These are being rebuilt under cover of the reconstruction work.”
He said cables and telecommunications equipment had been installed and the number of trucks delivering aid and supplies made it easy to disguise weapons smuggling.
“They have a security network of hundreds of motorcycles, linked up by walkie-talkies. Wherever outsiders move in the south they are followed. You don’t see guns, but Hizbollah knows exactly where you are.” On the crater-lined streets of Bint Jbeil, there was evidence of substantial reconstruction and young men on motorcycles, but it was impossible to discern whether any were Hizbollah fighters.
Another resident said: “Hizbollah is everywhere. But after the war the fighters put away their guns and uniforms and went back to being school teachers, engineers, farmers and business people.”
The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) argues that the presence of 8,800 “blue helmets” and 12,000 Lebanese soldiers between southern Lebanon’s Litani river and the Israeli border since the Aug 14 ceasefire has severely restricted Hizbollah activity.
UN vehicles were in plentiful evidence yesterday, and at numerous points Lebanese soldiers scrutinised traffic.
“We have fixed outposts between which we patrol night and day,” said Lt Laurent Trochet, the deputy commander of the French Unifil contingent based north of Bint Jbeil. “This makes the smuggling of arms very difficult.”
But Lt Trochet admitted that the UN forces had very little intelligence about Hizbollah activity. “I imagine that the people here are Hizbollah, but they don’t show themselves,” he said. “We’re trying to make contact with the militants, but it’s difficult because they’re so disciplined.” UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which brought an end to the conflict, calls for Hizbollah to disarm and stop smuggling arms from Syria. The UN argues that its patrols have no mandate to disarm militants, merely to prevent the smuggling of arms, track suspicious trucks and boats, and report their findings to the Lebanese army.
But locals argue that Hizbollah’s popularity among the south’s predominantly Shia population has provided it with an extensive spying network, which makes such work increasingly difficult.
Despite increasing pressure from the international community for Hizbollah to put aside its weapons, analysts see it as highly unlikely that the group will disarm voluntarily.
Timur Goskel, a former Unifil spokesman with close connections to the group, said: “If Hizbollah is in parliament, having only been born in 1982, it’s there because of the guns. They’re never going to give those guns up.”
In Bint Jbeil, the overwhelming feeling among the locals was that Hizbollah should keep its weapons.
“Still the Israelis come over the border, with their drones and jets” said one woman. “Only Hizbollah keeps us safe. If they leave the area, we will leave too.”