Hizbullah getting stronger in Lebanon

The Shi'ite group's banners hang in south and it is reportedly still recruiting young men to its ranks.

October 4, 2007 05:56
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When 30,000 UN troops and Lebanese army soldiers were deployed across southern Lebanon at the end of last year's Israel-Hizbullah war, Hizbullah's presence shrank in the villages and hills facing the Israeli border and its influence seemed likely to diminish as well. But more than a year later, the Lebanese guerilla group appears to be again solidly entrenched across the country's south - looking, in fact, as if its fighters never really left but merely went underground. The Shiite Muslim 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. Judging from villagers' reports, 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 Hizbullah are now in control of the Lebanese army. And the UN peacekeepers are helping the army to establish its authority and maintain a buffer zone between the Litani River and the border - from 3 miles to 18 miles at various points - that's supposedly free of Hizbullah fighters. But in general, Hizbullah appears to be in a strong position north and south of the Litani, both in its political wing and as a militia. And the group - whose name means Party of God - says it is ready to fight again should Israel attack. It's unclear how much Hizbullah, 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. Israel has complained arms have been smuggled from Syria, and UN 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 Hizbullah, 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 and announced, "That one there is the party's warehouse for weapons." The woman asked that her name not be used for her safety, and it seemed unwise to go near to the building. Hizbullah boasts that it is both everywhere and nowhere, meaning it's hard to tell who's a civilian and who's a fighter. "Hizbullah is not from Mars, they're 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. "That guy over there may be a Hizbullah, or that one," he said, pointing to his son, who's really a policeman, not a militiaman. Last year's war ended after a UN Security Council resolution authorized up to 15,000 UN peacekeepers to help 15,000 Lebanese troops extend their authority throughout south Lebanon. Despite the resolution, Hizbullah 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 UN peacekeepers were killed in a June attack, the UN and Lebanese army had to rely on Hizbullah'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 Hizbullah fighters, as the UN first believed. Villagers say Hizbullah 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 since many youths are unemployed. Lebanese in the south have been saying for years that rich Shiite supporters of Hizbullah - 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. The chance of another war haunts the south. On Aug. 14 - the anniversary of the war's end - Hizbullah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah warned of a "big surprise" should Israel dare to attack again. Many took that to mean the militia had gotten a new delivery of anti-aircraft missiles. The talk of Hizbullah recruitment and training also indicate the militia is preparing for another conflict, with both ordinary people and Hizbullah supporters saying the fighting will be initiated by Israel, not the Lebanese militiamen. Hizbullah's yellow flags dominate southern Lebanon, as they did before the war. Posters and murals of Hizbullah's 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 6 miles from Israel's border, where 12 men from Hizbullah and 17 from allied groups were killed along with seven civilians in Israeli air strikes on a collection of buildings last July. One of the Hizbullah dead was Abbas Amin Dakroub who was hiding with about 70 relatives and neighbors in a bomb shelter when Israeli plans struck in the middle of the night. Dakroub's cousin, Hassan Ahmed, 23, survived to tell the story. "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 Hizbullah men in Srifa fought last year since 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 Israeli border, a huge banner covers the front of a two-story house belonging to the Abbas family. It has a simple message: "Death to Israel." Twenty-three of the village's people were killed by an Israeli missile as they tried to flee in a pickup truck on July 15, after the Israeli army warned through loudspeakers that the villagers must evacuate or face shelling. Marwaheen, one of six Sunni-populated villages along the border, sits on a mountain ridge, divided from Israel by a steep green valley. A military post on a nearby hill tells who's in charge in this embattled region - it was an Israeli position during Israel's occupation of south Lebanon, then Hizbullah 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 Hizbullah with admiration. "Hizbullah is a resistance movement, while Israel is the occupier and aggressor," said Hussein Ghannam, 58 who said he favored a peace treaty with Israel provided it was not "tantamount to submission" but respected everyone's rights. Wissam Abdallah and his sister Marwa - who survived the attack on the pickup truck - blame both Israel and Hizbullah for the loss of their mother, sister and brother in the attack. But their father, Mohammed Abdallah, who was in Beirut at the time, lays the blame only on Israel. "Who is Hizbullah? They're the people," he said. "There are Sunnis who are with Hizbullah."

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