Israeli soldiers in an area near the Israel-Lebanon border. (Reuters)
Lebanon’s Hezbollah has sought to show that Israel is building up defences in anticipation of another conflict, after a string of statements from Israeli officials warning of a potential confrontation. The powerful Shiite group, which fought a devastating war with the Jewish state in 2006, brought dozens of journalists on a rare and highly-choreographed trip to the demarcation line between Lebanon and Israel. “This tour is to show the defensive measures that the enemy is taking,” said Hezbollah spokesman Mohamed Afif, on a hilltop along the so-called Blue Line.
A military commander identified as Haj Ihab, dressed in digital camouflage and sunglasses, said the Israeli army was erecting earth berms up to 10 metres (30 feet) high, as well as reinforcing a military position near the Israeli border town of Hanita. “Because their position is directly by the border and the enemy fears that the resistance will advance on it, they have constructed a cliff and additional earth berms and put up concrete blocks,” he said. “The Israeli enemy is undertaking these fortifications and building these obstacles in fear of an advance” by Hezbollah, he said.
As he spoke, an Israeli military patrol of two armoured cars and a white bus wended their way along a road behind a fence, as two yellow bulldozers moved earth nearby. There has been rising speculation about the possibility of a new war between Israel and Hezbollah, a powerful Lebanese paramilitary organisation, more than a decade after their last direct confrontation. The 34-day conflict in 2006 led to the deaths of 1,200 people in Lebanon, mainly civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers. Israel’s army chief warned recently that in a “future war, there will be a clear address: the state of Lebanon and the terror groups operating in its territory and under its authority.”
There have been periodic skirmishes along the UN- monitored demarcation line between Israel and Lebanon, longtime adversaries which are technically still at war with each other. Israel withdrew its forces from southern Lebanon in 2000, after an 22-year occupation.
Yesterday’s tour sought to paint Israel as afraid of a new conflict, while depicting Hezbollah as ready for war despite having committed thousands of its fighters to bolstering Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Journalists were taken from the southern Lebanese town of Naqura, with Hezbollah fighters in full military regalia stationed along the route alongside the group’s yellow flag — despite an official ban on any armed paramilitary presence in southern Lebanon. Faces smeared with black and green camouflage, they stood silently holding guns and RPG launchers.
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On the demarcation line, officially patrolled by the Lebanese army and the UN peacekeeping force known as UNIFIL, there was little sign of tension. The scents of wild thyme and yellow gorse mingled in the air, the landscape peaceful beyond the noise produced by the sudden scrum of visitors. While eager to discuss the measures they say Israel has been taking, Hezbollah officials refused to be drawn on their own preparations for war, beyond insisting on their ability to fight if one comes.