TCS Daily

'Iran's Front Line'?

By Nicholas Blanford - April 7, 2006 12:00 AM

South Lebanon is a long way from Iran, but if the United States or Israel decides to mount an attack against Iran's nascent nuclear industry, part of Tehran's retaliation may well come along this volatile 70-mile frontier.

From the chalk cliffs of Ras Naqoura on the Mediterranean coast in the west to the soaring snow-streaked limestone peaks of the Mount Hermon foothills in the east, the battle-hardened fighters of Lebanon's Hizbullah organization face off against the Israeli army, separated only by an electrified fence.

The Israeli army recently has been on high alert along the border in expectation of a possible Hizbullah attack. On Wednesday, Israel's Northern Command concluded a three-day exercise along the border to test "operational readiness" to face "possible threats in the Golan and terrorist acts that Hizbullah may stage from Lebanon".

Hizbullah has been busy along the border too, bolstering its series of observation posts and bunkers spanning the frontier.

"There has been a lot of construction activity recently. They are reinforcing and expanding their positions all along the Blue Line," says a United Nations peacekeeper in south Lebanon referring to the UN's name for the boundary corresponding to the Lebanon-Israel border.

The uncomfortable proximity in which these bitter foes find themselves is best illustrated on this wind-swept hill-top 2,400 feet above the plain of northern Galilee, a patchwork quilt of well-irrigated fields, marshes, woods and meadows stretching eastward to the distant Golan Heights. Nestled against the Israeli side of the fence is a massive concrete structure, like a beached battleship, bristling with antennae, cameras and rotating radar dishes -- the observation slits draped in camouflage netting. Yards away on the Lebanese side is Hizbullah's bunker consisting of two medieval-looking circular metal look-out turrets, salvaged from abandoned Israeli military positions in south Lebanon, which Hizbullah has had fitted with thick mirrored bullet-proof glass windows. The turrets are surrounded by ramparts of bulldozed earth reinforced with concrete blocks and smothered in the ubiquitous camouflage netting. Closer to the fence, Hizbullah has erected two poles some 20 feet high carrying surveillance cameras pointed at the Israeli position and the approach road. Directly facing the Israeli compound is a billboard displaying gruesome pictures of dead and dying Israeli soldiers, victims of confrontations with Hizbullah in the 1990s when Israel occupied south Lebanon. "Sharon! Your soldiers are still in Lebanon," reads a message in Hebrew and Arabic.

Hizbullah mans some 25 to 30 observation posts along the border, not all of them as well-entrenched as the example on Sheikh Abbad hill, and conducts regular patrols of the frontier fence by vehicle and foot.

The border has remained tense although generally calm since Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in May 2000, ending a 22-year occupation. Since then, fighting between Hizbullah and the Israeli army has been confined mainly to the Shebaa Farms, a remote unpopulated 12-square mile mountainside located along Lebanon's southeastern border with the Golan Heights.

The last serious flare-up along the border was in November when Hizbullah attempted to abduct Israeli soldiers from the Israeli-occupied village of Ghajar lying at the foot of the Shebaa Farms hills. The coordinated assault by several Hizbullah squads was foiled, however, and four of the attackers were killed. The fighting lasted nine hours and over 800 tank shells, mortar rounds and Katyusha rockets were traded by both sides. An Israeli jet bombed a small road bridge crossing the Hasbani river 1.5 miles north of Ghajar.

Four months later, the bridge has yet to be repaired. Instead, the sparse traffic in this rural corner of Lebanon is forced to detour from the road down a rutted dirt track and across a temporary earth and concrete bridge. On the eastern bank of the river, cut into the rich chocolate-colored soil is a track that hugs the meandering river southward to the northern tip of Ghajar. Hizbullah built the access track to allow fighters and supplies to reach its base in Ghajar without being spotted by the Israeli position on the village's eastern outskirts and other outposts that dot the Shebaa Farms mountain peaks 3,000 feet above the grassy plain to the east.

Ghajar is a curiosity along Lebanon's southern frontier, the only place where you can find a Syrian with Israeli citizenship living on Lebanese soil. The southern two-thirds of the village lie in Israeli-occupied Syria and the remaining third is in Lebanese territory, an anomaly caused by the northward expansion of the small village when Israel occupied south Lebanon from 1978 to 2000. When the UN delineated the Blue Line in the spring of 2000 prior to the Israeli withdrawal, it discovered that the border now cut through Ghajar rather than skirting the northern edge as it once had done.

The Israeli army was deeply unhappy at leaving the northern "Lebanese" third unfenced from the southern two-thirds, describing Ghajar as "Israel's soft underbelly" -- and with good reason too. Hizbullah soon deployed into the northern part of the village, setting up a command post in an old bomb shelter. Unlike most of the disheveled and poor villages in this corner of Lebanon, Ghajar consists of neat houses, many painted in pastel shades, lining streets smothered in bougainvillea. Ghajar owes much of its wealth to drug smuggling, having been for years a major conduit for Lebanese hashish and heroin into Israel. After 2000, Hizbullah co-opted the existing drug smuggling connections, allowing the trafficking to continue in exchange for intelligence on Israeli military and civilian sites in northern Israel.

On Monday, the British Daily Telegraph quoted an Israeli army officer as saying that through Hizbullah Iran has established a "network of control towers and monitoring stations" along the Lebanon-Israel border.

"This is now Iran's front line with Israel," The Telegraph quoted an Israeli officer as saying. "The Iranians are using Hizbullah to spy on us so that they can collect information for future attacks. And there is very little we can do about it."

The article vastly over-exaggerates the reality along the Blue Line. One of the "control towers" cited in the piece is the four-foot high metal turret surmounting Hizbullah's bunker on Sheikh Abbad hill described above, actually of Israeli origin, not Iranian, having been abandoned in south Lebanon by retreating Israeli troops in May 2000. Indeed, the recent reinforcing of Hizbullah's border posts has little military value. The fighters tend to vacate their posts an hour or two prior to their comrades mounting an operation in the Shebaa Farms knowing full well that Israel will take advantage of Hizbullah's attack to destroy as many border positions as it can. Furthermore, Hizbullah's jerry-built surveillance camera platforms and routine patrols along the Blue Line pale into insignificance compared to Israel's sophisticated integrated intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance border security system known as "Solid Mirror" which grants the Israeli military an operational strategic depth of about 5 miles into Lebanese territory. That's not to mention the near daily aerial reconnaissance patrols flown by Israeli jets and drones in Lebanese airspace, which the UN routinely condemns and Hizbullah seizes upon to justify retaining its military wing to defend against Israeli "aggression."

Still, the media rhetoric and well-publicized states of alert and military exercises along Israel's northern border feed into the expectation that the frontier will become a theater of conflict should the cold war between the West and Iran suddenly become hot.

It is in this context that much attention is paid to Hizbullah's arsenal of long-range rockets which could be deployed against targets in Israel as part of an Iranian-backed retaliation to a US or Israeli attack.

Hizbullah typically remains tight-lipped on its weapons inventory, although it is certain that the organization has amassed a considerable number of long-range rockets, including the 240mm Fajr 3 with a 26 mile range, its big brother the 333mm Fajr 5 with a 43 mile range and 220mm Katyusha-style rockets. This arsenal brings much of northern Israel within range, including the coastal port of Haifa and its industrial suburbs.

Although Hizbullah possesses an enormous quantity of more conventional weapons such as mortars, anti-tank missiles and Improvised Explosive Devices, it's the rocket arsenal that gives the organization strategic leverage and is Israel's principle concern.

At present, Hizbullah is under intense international and domestic pressure to disarm in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1559 of September 2004. Hizbullah refuses, arguing that its weapons are a necessary component of Lebanon's defense strategy, a somewhat disingenuous argument, but one that resonates with the Shia community, Lebanon's largest sect.

The principal purpose of the long-range rocket arsenal is to deter Israel from retaliating disproportionately to Hizbullah's periodic attacks in the Shebaa Farms. If Israel was to target Lebanese infrastructure in response to mortar attacks against Israel positions in the Farms, Hizbullah would unleash its rockets against northern Israel. That "balance of terror" has helped prevent the sporadic clashes along the border from spilling out of control. But there is also no doubt that Hizbullah's rockets serve as an element of Iranian deterrence to an attack on its nuclear installations, a reality that US and/or Israeli planners have to take into account when drawing up options for a strike on Iran.

Although there seems little prospect of Hizbullah's disarmament in the near to medium term, the intense pressure on the organization and the need to preserve its grassroots support does represent a restraining factor on Hizbullah's margin of maneuver. Lebanon's Shia may support Hizbullah's anti-Israel agenda, but they would have little sympathy for the organization if it was to jeopardize Lebanese stability by attacking Israel in a knee-jerk defense of Iran's nuclear ambitions.

A decision to "open up" the Lebanon-Israel front following an attack on Iran would have to be weighed carefully against alternative Iranian reprisals, of which there would be no shortage. The danger, however, is that even if Iran and Hizbullah declined to retaliate via Lebanon, the US or Israel might launch a pre-emptive strike against Hizbullah's suspected rocket facilities in order to degrade Iran's retaliatory options simultaneous with -- or just prior to -- an attack on Iran.

Such a development would guarantee a powerful Hizbullah counter-strike into Israel -- endorsed by Lebanon's Shiites -- igniting a conflict which would have disastrous consequences for both Lebanon and Israel.

Nicholas Blanford is a Beirut-based correspondent for British and American newspapers and has extensively covered Hizbullah for over 10 years. He is the author of "Killing Mr. Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and its Impact on the Middle East" to be published by I.B. Tauris in August 2006.


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