Weapons are reaching Hizbullah from Syria "on a weekly basis," usually at night, evading UNIFIL peacekeepers stationed in Lebanon, officers in the IDF's Northern Command told Vice Premier Shimon Peres on Tuesday. Peres, accompanied by OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, was visiting the Lebanese border to learn about preparations for a possible regional flare-up in the near future.
Ben-Eliezer: 'Don't turn a blind eye to Hizbullah'
Although there were problems, "there is no need for hysteria," Peres said. Hizbullah had not regained its strength, he said. "They have not restored their weapons stockpiles to the level they were before the war," he said, adding that strength was "not only measured by arms, but also by deployment, freedom of movement and other variables."
The vice premier contradicted the assessment of Brig.-Gen. Yossi Baidatz, head of Military Intelligence's Research Division, who told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday that Hizbullah had "returned to its pre-war capabilities and has even become stronger."
Instead, Peres agreed with Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who told the same panel that "Hizbullah has not increased its strength, but merely its potential."
"We know Hizbullah is reequipping itself with arms, and this is a catastrophe, first and foremost for Lebanon itself," said Peres. "Lebanon is about to get $7.5 billion in aid, and if Hizbullah attempts to misbehave, it will destroy the country," he said.
Peres said the enlarged UN force deployed in Lebanon was far more effective than previous versions. Nevertheless, he said UNIFIL must take increased measures to stop the smuggling of arms to Hizbullah.
"I don't think Hizbullah has managed to rearm to its pre-war level. It sustained a serious blow during the summer and is still trying to recuperate," he said.
Peres traveled west to east along the border, finishing his tour at the IDF's Tulip outpost near Ghajar, where he answered questions from Golani Brigade soldiers.
Peres said the army was investing a great deal of effort to fix the flaws that became evident during last summer's war in Lebanon, emphasizing training - which, he said, had now reached a much higher level.
"Mistakes have been made. Whereas totalitarian regimes just sweep all their problems under the carpet, as Hizbullah has done, we [admit] them publicly and out in the open," he said. "The real test is whether we are fixing our mistakes, and I can tell you that we are... The situation on the northern border is far better than before the war."
"Israel's position is that there cannot be a Hizbullah presence on the other side of the border... From what we are witnessing, [Hizbullah head Hassan] Nasrallah is ridiculing the UN, admitting that the group has been engaging in arms smuggling," said Peres, adding there was "no such thing in the world as a nation that has two armies."
He downplayed forecasts that another conflict with Hizbullah was imminent. "We need to be on a high state of alert, but under no circumstances do we need to be on edge," he said.
Concerning Syria, Peres said it was not an "independent agent" in the region. "It, too, is taking a very close look at the map and is definitely not satisfied," he said, noting that Syria shares borders with Iraq, Israel, Turkey and a "mixed-up Lebanon."
According to Eizenkot, the reality Israel faces is "not a simple one," but it has changed for the better.
"Hizbullah outposts along the border have been destroyed, the multinational force and the Lebanese army have deployed tens of thousands of troops in southern Lebanon, and I can assure you we have the IDF's finest units in this sector," he said.
"We need to remember that the force that held de facto sovereignty over southern Lebanon just seven months ago is no longer one that can operate freely in the region," continued the OC northern command, adding that Hizbullah was no longer conducting paramilitary activity in the region.