A bunker grows in Lebanon

Cross-border villas were unpleasant surprise for northern kibbutz

For the last six years, residents of Kibbutz Yiron on the northern border watched the upscale three and four-story villas going up one after the other just across the mountainside in the Lebanese village of Maroun A-Ras with growing satisfaction. The construction, which began after Israel pulled out of Lebanon in 2000, was viewed by the kibbutz residents as a sign that the Lebanese economy was flourishing and that peaceful times were ahead. But beneath the surface, all was not as it appeared. "There was a feeling that came about after Israel's pullout from Lebanon that it was possible to lead a quiet life here in the North," said Ronit Badler, who heads the state-of-the-art Galil Mountain winery at the kibbutz, of the initial reaction to the construction. "We were sure that this building was a good sign of economic recovery and a new era of prosperity," concurred Yael Shavit, a PR consultant who lives in the nearby community of Yesud Hama'ala. Shavit, who had grown accustomed to the occasional sighting of Hizbullah fighters waving their flags across the border, had even considered promoting a story about the real-estate surge just across the border over the last couple of years. "The idea was that if they were building homes on their side of the border then we could be safe," she added. Unbeknown to the kibbutz residents at the time, the villagers building the new houses had been approached by Hizbullah with an enticing offer: in exchange for money provided by Iran to build the homes, Hizbullah fighters would take up residence on the ground floor and build underground bunkers in the basement, the head of kibbutz security department Shlomi Flax said Monday. The information of what was really going on just two kilometers away from the kibbutz - which is famed for its children-friendly wildlife pond - would remain unknown for six years, until last month's war against Hizbullah in Lebanon. "We simply thought that the villagers were returning to their homes, when in essence something very sinister was going on," Flax said. Israeli soldiers who entered the nearby Lebanese border village of Yaroun during the 34-day battle stumbled upon 1,200 square meter villas, complete with marble Italian flooring and state-of-the-art electronics, the likes of which even overshadowed Israel's swanky Savyon community, he said. But in the backyard of the houses, instead of finding a doghouse, Katyusha launchers were discovered, Flax added. The lack of basic intelligence of what was happening just across the wind-whipped hilltop that overlooks the border was not unique to just that area of the border, Shavit said. A similar situation was going on in the border community of Metulla and the nearby Lebanese village of Kila, she said. "It was all one big illusion," she concluded.