UNIFIL 248 88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
In an effort to prevent a flare-up along the northern border, UNIFIL has increased its operations in southern Lebanon and has begun entering villages in search of Hizbullah weapons caches, according to information obtained recently by Israel.
In one recent successful operation in the eastern sector of southern Lebanon, UNIFIL peacekeepers uncovered close to 20 Katyusha rockets that were ready for launch.
UNIFIL operates under Security Council Resolution 1701, passed following the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Operations in villages have been a point of contention between UNIFIL and Israel, which said over the past three years that the peacekeeping force was failing to prevent Hizbullah's military buildup in southern Lebanon since it refrained from entering villages.
Hizbullah, the IDF believes, has deployed most of its forces and weaponry - including Katyusha rockets - inside homes in the villages. Until now, UNIFIL and the Lebanese army have mostly operated in open areas.
According to information obtained by Israel, UNIFIL has also succeeded recently in thwarting attacks that were planned against its own personnel.
UNIFIL's increased activity comes amid concerns in Israel that Hizbullah will launch an attack along the northern border to avenge the assassination of the group's military commander Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus last year.
Hizbullah was behind a thwarted attempt earlier this year to attack the Israeli Embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan, according to foreign sources. The group has also tried using Palestinian proxies for attacks within Israel, without success. These frustrations, Israel fears, might lead the group to try a retaliatory attack against the northern border, which would be easier operationally.
While Hizbullah has amassed tens of thousands of Katyusha rockets since the 2006 war, it is having trouble recruiting new fighters and is short several hundred men. Before the Second Lebanon War, the assessment in Israel was that Hizbullah had some 6,000 fighters.
The group's current recruitment difficulties are believed to stem from its failure to keep its promises to rebuild homes in Lebanese villages damaged during the war in 2006. This disappointment with Hizbullah is also understood in the IDF as being responsible for the group's defeat in parliamentary elections in Lebanon earlier this month.
Meanwhile, late Thursday night, Lebanese news agencies reported that the IDF was moving tanks and armored vehicles to the border area along the Mount Dov and Mount Hermon region. There was no Israeli comment on the reports.
Lebanese newspaper A-Safir reported that Israel had proposed direct political negotiations with the new Lebanese government, making the overture via an Israeli army delegation in contacts with its Lebanese counterpart under UNIFIL's auspices.
Earlier Thursday, Lebanese lawmakers overwhelmingly reelected a pro-Hizbullah parliament speaker, signaling that the political factions are moving toward a unity government.
Reelecting Hizbullah ally Nabih Berri for a fifth consecutive term is expected to smooth the way for the formation of a new government in the coming weeks, which majority leader Saad Hariri is tipped to head.
Hariri said picking Berri for the job "consolidates national unity and preserves civil peace."
The choice of Berri, a Shi'ite, is in accord with Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing structure, which calls for the speaker to be a Shi'ite, the prime minister a Sunni and the president a Maronite Catholic. Both parliament and cabinet are divided evenly between Muslims and Christians.
Berri heads the Shi'ite Amal movement that together with Hizbullah controls most of the Shi'ites' 27 seats in the 128-member legislature. He was the sole candidate for the post, which he has held since 1992.
Berri addressed lawmakers after his appointment, urging rivals to assist in the formation of a national unity government.
The Lebanese should "benefit from favorable regional and international developments... to consolidate peace and stability," he said. "This requires that we contribute toward the creation of a national government."
The June 7 vote brought victory for the Western-backed coalition, which fought off a strong challenge from Hizbullah and its allies. But it also underscored the deep divisions among the Lebanese.
AP contributed to this report.