BAFLAY, Lebanon — When 30,000 U.N. and Lebanese troops deployed across southern Lebanon at the end of last year’s Israel-Hezbollah war, the Islamic militant group’s presence shrank in the zone bordering Israeli and its influence seemed likely to diminish as well.
But more than a year later, Hezbollah appears to again be solidly entrenched across Lebanon’s south — looking, in fact, as if its fighters never really left but merely went underground.
The Shiite militia’s banners hang everywhere, boasting of the “divine victory” over Israel and thanking its chief sponsor, Shiite-majority Iran, for helping with post-war reconstruction. Villagers report the militia’s recruitment of young men is booming and its popularity is firm.
A few things are different. Hilltop posts near Israel once held by Hezbollah are now controlled by the Lebanese army. And U.N. peacekeepers are helping the army establish its authority and maintain a buffer zone between the Litani River and the border — from three to 18 miles deep at various points — that is supposedly free of Hezbollah fighters.
But Hezbollah appears to be in a strong position north and south of the Litani, both politically and militarily. And the group — whose name means Party of God — says it would be ready to fight again should Israel attack.
Unclear how group regained strength
It is unclear how much Hezbollah, which is labeled a terrorist group by the United States but not by the European Union, has been able to beef up its missiles pointed toward Israel and other weaponry. The Israeli government has complained arms have been smuggled from Syria, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged Syria and Iran to cooperate with Lebanese authorities to prevent weapons shipments into the country.
Villagers across the south point to various places they say are arms depots for Hezbollah, but it was not possible to verify their statements.
In the village of Barflay, about 10 miles north of the border, a middle-aged woman pointed to a low building nestled in trees and brush.
“That one there is the party’s warehouse for weapons,” said the woman, who asked that her name not be used for her safety.
Hezbollah boasts that it is both everywhere and nowhere, meaning it is hard to tell who is a civilian and who is a fighter.
“Hezbollah is not from Mars. They are the people of this land,” said Hussein Ayoub, a 40-year-old Shiite in the nearby village of Selaa. Ayoub said he lost six cousins last year when Israeli planes bombed two houses in Selaa.
“They are among us, even if we don’t see them,” interjected his uncle, Ahmed Ayoub.
Shiite population trusts Hezbollah
Last year’s 34-day conflict between Israel and Hezbollah ended on Aug. 14 with a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing up to 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers to help 15,000 Lebanese troops extend their authority throughout south Lebanon.
Despite the resolution, Hezbollah remains the only force trusted by most of the majority Shiite population of the South, and respected — or feared — by most of the minority Christians and Sunni Muslims.
When six Spanish U.N. peacekeepers were killed in a June attack, the U.N. and Lebanese army had to rely on Hezbollah’s cooperation to investigate. Their findings have not been released, but Lebanese intelligence officials believe the attackers were al-Qaida-inspired militants from a Palestinian refugee camp — and not Hezbollah fighters, as the U.N. first suspected.
Villagers say Hezbollah is still recruiting men aged between 16 and 19. Those who agree to join receive basic training for about a month. Those who show resilience and have skills get more training and remain with the guerrilla group at an attractive salary — a big inducement in a place where many youths are unemployed.
Residents in southern Lebanon have been saying for years that rich Shiite supporters of Hezbollah — many who made money as traders in Africa — have been buying land from Christians and Sunnis near the Israeli border, boosting the guerrilla group’s control. They say the purchases have accelerated recently.
Militant warns of 'big surprise'
The chance of another war haunts the south.
On the anniversary of the end of last year’s war, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah warned of a “big surprise” should Israel attack again. Many took that to mean the militia had gotten a new delivery of anti-aircraft missiles.
The talk of Hezbollah recruitment and training also indicates the militia is preparing for another conflict, with both ordinary people and Hezbollah supporters saying the fighting will be initiated by Israel, not the Lebanese militiamen.
The last war began on July 12, 2006, after Hezbollah fighters crossed into Israel, killing three soldiers and seizing two others. Israel then invaded southern Lebanon and bombarded the country. More than 1,000 Lebanese — mostly civilians— were killed; 158 Israelis, 119 of them soldiers, also died.
Hezbollah’s yellow flags dominate southern Lebanon, as they did before the war. Posters and murals of its fallen fighters — set against a background of red tulips, a symbol of martyrdom — adorn walls and utility poles along the mountain roads.
A poster of Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei greets visitors to the main village square in Srifa, about six miles from Israel’s border. Twelve Hezbollah fighters and 17 from allied groups were killed in Israeli airstrikes, along with seven civilians.
Hezbollah member speaks out
One of the Hezbollah dead was Abbas Amin Dakroub who was hiding with about 70 relatives and neighbors in a bomb shelter near his home when Srifa was struck in the early days of the war.
Dakroub’s cousin, Hassan Ahmed, 23 — whose job is helping organize Hezbollah rallies — survived.
“I’m with the resistance,” he announced proudly. “I was in the same bomb shelter. It was the highest death toll of fighters in one attack.”
He said none of the young Hezbollah men in Srifa fought last year because Israel only attacked with bombs and artillery, never sending ground forces into his town.
“I was here, but not as a fighter,” Ahmed said, speaking with a tinge of regret.
In Marwaheen, a Sunni Muslim village along the border, a huge banner with the message “Death to Israel” covers the front of a two-story house belonging to the Abbas family.
Twenty-three from the village were killed by an Israeli missile as they tried to flee in a pickup truck on July 15 after the Israelis warned villagers through loudspeakers to evacuate or face shelling.
Villagers blame Israel for violence
Marwaheen, one of six Sunni villages along the border, sits on a mountain ridge, divided from Israel by a green valley. A military post on a nearby hill signals who is in charge of this embattled region. It was an Israeli position during Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon, then Hezbollah held it, and today it’s controlled by the Lebanese army.
Although Marwaheen is now protected by the army, some Sunni villagers still speak of Hezbollah with admiration.
“Hezbollah is a resistance movement, while Israel is the occupier and aggressor,” said Hussein Ghannam, 58. Still, he said he favored a peace treaty with Israel provided it was not “tantamount to submission” but respected everyone’s rights.
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