Even though they are unarmed, their presence deters United Nations peacekeepers from approaching the house in Khirbet Silim, preventing the UN troops from fulfilling their mission, which is to stop Hezbollah from rearming.
“The UN can’t just come around here and go into people’s houses,” said Rassan Salim, a municipal official in the village and a Hezbollah militia member. “Our weapons are to defend Lebanon.”
Hezbollah’s efforts to stockpile arms became obvious on July 14 when weapons hidden in a house in the village blew up, according to officials from the UN Interim Force in Lebanon. Four days later, peacekeepers looking for arms tried to raid the house the militiamen now guard, about a kilometer from the one that exploded. Villagers stoned the soldiers, injuring 14, and blocked the incursion.
Hezbollah, which has the backing of Iran and Syria, is rebuilding its force in the south, undaunted by its loss in Lebanon’s June elections, in which a pro-U.S. coalition won a parliamentary majority. The peacekeepers’ stay in south Lebanon expires on Aug. 31 and the UN Security Council must decide whether to extend it without change or authorize them to impose the weapons ban by force even without the support of the Lebanese army.
Free of Hezbollah
The 12,000 UN soldiers were sent to Lebanon after a 2006 war with Israel that began when Hezbollah, which the U.S. and Israel consider a terrorist organization, captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.
After the fighting ended, the Security Council passed a resolution prohibiting “weapons or authority in Lebanon other than that of the Lebanese state.” The peacekeepers were deployed to keep south Lebanon free of Hezbollah’s militia and arms, a role they have to perform with the cooperation of the Lebanese army.
The Lebanese military can’t disarm Hezbollah, said Elias Hanna, a former Lebanese army general and political science professor at Beirut’s Notre Dame University. “Half the army is Shiite and will not fight Shiites,” he said.
The military sat out the 2006 conflict. Prime Minister- designate Saad Hariri has said Hezbollah’s disarmament will be subject to a “national dialogue.”
Timur Goksel, a former spokesman for the peacekeepers, said the problem is that the UN operates under passive rules that depend on the host country’s consent.
“In the south, Hezbollah, not the government of Lebanon, is the real host,” he said.
Israel is also violating the UN resolution with daily air surveillance flights over Lebanon, according to Andrea Tenenti, the peacekeepers’ spokesman.
Israeli Defense MinisterEhud Barak told Army Radio on Aug. 4 that Hezbollah has stockpiled more than 40,000 rockets and “if there is a conflict on our northern border, we will use all necessary force.”
Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, appearing on a giant screen at a Beirut rally on Aug. 14, warned that the group would bomb Tel Aviv if Israel bombed the Lebanese capital.
In the 2006 war, Israel bombed Lebanon and sent in troops backed by tanks. Hezbollah struck back, firing 4,000 rockets across the border. More than 1,000 Lebanese, mostly civilians, died and 120 Israeli soldiers and 43 civilians were killed.
“War is probably inevitable, though no one can say when it might come,” said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, author of a forthcoming book, “The Iran Connection: The Alliance with Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.”
“Hezbollah is busy trying to develop deterrence to an Israeli invasion,” she said.
Analysts in Beirut say Hezbollah is buttressing its defenses based on part-time village units supplemented by full- time militiamen who operate anti-tank weapons and inaccurate short-range rockets. The group is gathering Russian-made SA-8 radar guided anti-aircraft missiles that can shoot down fighter planes and has SA-18 shoulder-fired missiles that are used against helicopters, said Saad-Ghorayeb. Hezbollah plans to send commandoes into Israel and obtain long-range missiles to hit towns south of Haifa, she added.
“In the next war, Hezbollah will want to use counter- offensive methods,” she said. “Hezbollah is setting the bar high for itself.”
Hezbollah officials wouldn’t comment on specific weapons or tactics.
“Of course they are rearming,” said Shlomo Brom, a former director of strategic planning in the Israeli army. “We are also rearming.”
The Israeli army said it “tracks Hezbollah’s military build-up through both visible and invisible means and is ready to act at any point in time.”
Tenenti said the UN mission has succeeded: there is no fighting. He said it’s up to UN commanders to raid or not, in coordination with the Lebanese army. “We have not witnessed weapons being brought into the south,” he said.
He wouldn’t speculate whether arms had been smuggled in, or even say whether he’d heard of such a thing.
In 2006, Israeli troops didn’t reach Khirbet Silim, though it was shelled and bombed, residents say.
In the village and nearby, Hezbollah members said taking away their weapons is out of the question.
“This was never in doubt, never,” said Hossama Ramaan, 40, the Hezbollah mayor of Aadaisse, another border town.