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All's Quiet on Israel's Northern Front -- for Now

Authorities say Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon could be tempted to strike if war erupts and Iraq threatens Jewish state.

February 01, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

ZARIT OUTPOST, Israel — Just across the border in Lebanon, less than 100 yards from a cluster of watching Israeli soldiers, the yellow flag of Hezbollah flutters atop a spindly metal guard tower manned by two Islamic guerrillas.

But on this day, combatants on both sides of the frontier eye one another with a certain nonchalance. It's quiet here on the northern front; and as the United States intensifies its preparations for war with Iraq, Israel is hoping it stays that way.

In Israeli military and security circles, however, few take anything for granted where Hezbollah is concerned.

The Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim group, whose name means Party of God, has always been something of a wild card in the region's complex interplay of rivalries, enmities and shadowy alliances. Israeli intelligence assessments in recent weeks, based in part on Hezbollah's words and actions, suggest a diminishing likelihood of significant military action by the group against Israel. But an outbreak of war in the region -- particularly one in which Iraq threatens Israel -- could tempt the guerrillas to strike, analysts and security officials say.

As longtime observers of the group's methods and tactics point out, Hezbollah thrives on chaos and languishes in times of relative calm.

Hezbollah is implacably opposed to Israel's existence and sees itself as the standard-bearer for the Arab world in the battle against the Jewish state. Its fighters spent nearly two decades bloodying Israeli troops in southern Lebanon and proclaimed glorious victory when Israel forces unilaterally withdrew in May 2000.

Since then, the two sides have shifted their conflict from the hills and valleys of southern Lebanon to the border, a meandering line approved by the United Nations but disputed by Hezbollah. Israel spent millions of dollars fortifying outposts and a sensor-equipped double row of high fencing that begins at the Mediterranean and runs along the Israeli-Lebanese frontier and the northern edge of the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War. White surveillance blimps stand out against the azure daytime sky, and infrared cameras mounted at high points scan the inky night for the slightest sign of movement.

In recent days, Israeli warplanes have flown surveillance missions deep into Lebanese airspace, drawing angry protests from Lebanon.

Hezbollah's attacks along the border, while persistent, have mainly been in the form of low-level violence that Israeli military officials believe is designed to harry rather than provoke serious retaliation.

In 2000, Hezbollah kidnapped three Israeli soldiers who are now believed to be dead. Since then, however, the guerrillas have confined their activities largely to firing antiaircraft weapons at Israeli fighter planes, shelling Israeli positions in a disputed area near Mt. Hermon known as the Shabaa Farms and planting explosives on the Lebanese side of the fence that can be detonated by remote control when Israeli patrols pass. Late last year, an Israeli soldier lost his legs in such a blast.

Hezbollah fighters, now ensconced in former Israeli military positions, operate freely throughout what was once the Israeli buffer zone in heavily Shiite southern Lebanon.

"It's Hezbollahland," said a senior Israeli security official. "We had hoped that the Lebanese government would assert its authority and deploy its army along the border, but Hezbollah has free rein."

Unburdened by conflict with Israel on its home turf, Hezbollah has used the 2 1/2 years since the Israeli pullout to engage in a concerted arms buildup. Israeli intelligence officials say the group has about 10,000 rockets and missiles with a range of up to 40 miles, putting population centers such as Haifa on the coast and Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee within reach. Intelligence indicates that Hezbollah has the capability to launch about 200 rockets almost simultaneously.

"You can imagine the panic among the civilian population if there were Scuds from Iraq falling on Tel Aviv and then suddenly rockets fired from Hezbollah are hitting the north of Israel," said a high-ranking military official.

The intelligence sources say Hezbollah's weapons are flown from Iran to the Syrian capital, Damascus, and then ferried by land over mountains to the group's stronghold in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Israel closely tracks the movements of these arms convoys. However, in line with promises to the United States to avoid actions that would inflame tensions in the Arab world in advance of possible conflict with Iraq, the Israelis have not acted against them.

The strength of Hezbollah's arsenal -- like that of its fighting force -- has never rested in size but in mobility. Its rockets and missiles are mainly small projectiles such as Katyushas, which can be fired from launchers mounted on light trucks or set up in almost any terrain by a small band of fighters.

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