Friction between IDF soldiers and Hezbollah operatives a few years ago was considered an unusual event; now, it happens daily. I see Hezbollah’s men every day as I tour the border. Some of them are commando operatives who returned two years ago from the fighting in Syria. They don’t usually wear uniforms; an ordinary person won’t notice they’re armed. Sometimes I see them patrolling in a long column, walking along the fence, stopping and making threatening gestures and then continuing on their way. Sometimes they pop up from observation posts with binoculars and cameras, documenting every Israeli movement along the border.
For 15 years, I have been touring the Israeli-Lebanese border, showing guests from abroad the integration of Hezbollah into the civilian domain in Lebanon. I would explain to the guests that we don’t see Hezbollah but they see us, and reference the tens of thousands of missiles hidden in the Shiite villages that are visible to the naked eye. But in the last year, the situation on the border has visibly changed. Everywhere I go along the border, Hezbollah operatives see me. I’m followed or threatened. For its part, the IDF has renewed the construction of the land barrier. All this happens in the shadow of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s latest threats against Israel, should no compromise be found between Israel and Lebanon regarding the maritime border and exploration of natural gas reservoirs.
Hezbollah is a terrorist army with a high level of adaptability. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the war in 2006, forced Hezbollah to change its operational doctrine. The resolution “Calls for Israel and Lebanon to support a permanent ceasefire and a long-term solution based on the following principles and elements: full respect for the Blue Line by both parties; security arrangements to prevent the resumption of hostilities, including the establishment between the Blue Line and the Litani river of an area free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the Government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL [the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon] ...”
Hezbollah’s first big investment in the postwar years was in a military deployment within the urban areas of Shiite villages, using the local civilians as human shields to conceal its military activities. UNIFIL, with a total of 10,000 troops, is not permitted entrance into private areas. Hence the houses in the Shiite villages in south Lebanon, within UNIFIL’s active area, quickly became rocket depots, headquarters, and launching positions.
Hezbollah also sought to create operational redundancy by mapping the entire territory of southern Lebanon up to the Litani River (UNIFIL’s full area of activity) and defining it as the “first line of defense.” Within this area, Hezbollah stores mainly mortars and short-range rockets or missiles: Grad and Fajr multiple rocket launch systems, with a range of 75 kilometers, and Burkan mobile short-range ballistic missiles, with a range of 5 kilometers. Antitank and antiaircraft missiles are also stored in these populated areas, putting ordinary Lebanese at risk of being used as human shields.
A few years after the 2006 war, Hezbollah began to exploit uninhabited areas and geographical features for training areas, shooting ranges, and perhaps rocket launches while gradually barring UNIFIL from these areas. Hezbollah implemented its strategy through intimidation and threats, blocking roads and claiming that UNIFIL is prohibited from patrolling this area without a Lebanese army presence. Over the years, these incidents have been communicated in UNIFIL’s reports, and analyzing these reports makes it possible to pinpoint Hezbollah’s areas of activity outside the villages, mainly in wadis and forested areas. At the Alma Center, we have publicized 10 out of about 20 such areas. Among them is the area of activity in Yater, where Hezbollah apparently uses natural caves for military purposes.
Another area was located near the village of Zibqine—the same location where Hezbollah trained for the cross-border abduction of Israeli soldiers in 2006.
In the latest follow-up report on Resolution 1701 published last July, ahead of the resumption of the UNIFIL mandate at the end of August, UNIFIL reported three shooting ranges detected from the air by helicopter patrols. Until now, UNIFIL has not been given access to these shooting ranges, and it has refrained from disclosing their exact locations.
Another example of Hezbollah’s presence in the uninhabited areas was a video interview with a Hezbollah operative in south Lebanon conducted a few weeks ago by a TV station affiliated with Yemeni rebels. The interview took place in an area known for Hezbollah military activity. The operative, in uniform, displayed a kind of underground “museum” with bunkers, rocket launchers, and missiles used to fire rockets against Israel in the 2006 war. Everything seemed ready for reuse. In concluding his remarks, the operative sent a message to Israel about the capabilities of the resistance today, explaining that “it is clear that the resistance has developed since 2006 and has other great surprises for the Israeli enemy.”
Alarmingly, in recent months, Hezbollah appears to have moved UNIFIL away from the border and positioned itself directly facing Israel, building some 20 positions along the border under the cover of a civilian organization with the cynical name “Green Without Borders.” Some of these positions consist of portable structures that can be evacuated quickly. Some are built with bricks to a height of two to three floors.
Green Without Borders was registered as a Lebanese civic association with the Lebanese Ministry of the Interior in 2013. Hezbollah established the civilian activities of Green Without Borders by planting trees, putting out fires, and assisting in constructing public gardens. Starting in 2017, individual Hezbollah positions occasionally surfaced on the border under the Green Without Borders banner; the IDF reported to the U.N. that Hezbollah operatives were carrying out intelligence gathering from these positions. In 2019, Hezbollah fired an antitank missile from between two Green Without Borders positions against a military ambulance traveling on the Israeli side of the border.
But what is happening today is unlike anything we have seen before. The personnel manning these positions do not pretend to be activists concerned with the environment. Instead, armed military operatives belonging to Hezbollah’s military units man these positions around the clock. Some belong to Hezbollah’s commando units, the Radwan Brigades, whose mission in the case of war will be to infiltrate Israeli territory and attack IDF posts and civilian communities inside Israel. Others belong to the Nasser unit, which operates on the western part of the border and up to the Litani River, and the Aziz unit, which operates on the eastern part of the border as far as the western Beqaa Valley in the north.
Hezbollah’s military operatives monitor and document every civilian or military movement on the Israeli side. Sometimes they also provoke IDF soldiers. Through this activity, Hezbollah aims to improve its intelligence gathering capabilities and operational readiness to respond to or initiate an incident. Hezbollah also uses the Lebanese Army’s observation towers (touring the border, they can be recognized by their black color), which are not routinely manned.
Symbolically, such a position also surfaced at the point where Israeli soldiers were abducted in 2006, a few meters from a U.N. flag on one side and a Hezbollah flag on the other.
According to various reports, Hezbollah is on its highest alert since 2006. The terror group reportedly conducted a competency test for its command posts and military communications system. Its reserve array of about 20,000 to 30,000 reservists was put on alert (but not yet mobilized). Hezbollah units were called back to Lebanon from Syria, and operatives in south Lebanon were reinforced. On social networks, Hezbollah is waging a campaign to “rally the troops,” preparing them for war with clear threats against Israel while demonstrating its ability to attack in the air, at sea, and on land.
Recently, the Alma Center received a version of an internal Hezbollah flyer, which addresses Hezbollah operatives and encourages them religiously, spiritually, and psychologically in preparation for possible combat (the authenticity of the flyer has not yet been verified by us). The flyer declares that victory is imminent, the commanders and operatives are ready, and “Sahib-al Zaman” (the Mahdi’s nickname) stands alongside the activists. It also states that the enemy (Israel) is frightened and trembling in his house.
The flyer mentions three battles fought by Hezbollah, regarded by the terror group as “heroic victories”: the Battle of Maydoun in 1988, in which Hezbollah fought against the IDF; the Battle of Dabsha in 1994, in which Hezbollah operatives managed to hoist their banner on the outskirts of an IDF post (the “Dla’at” outpost) in the security zone; and Jarrod, referring to the battles against ISIS and the Syrian rebels in Al-Qalamoun and Arsal (on the Lebanon-Syria border) during the Syrian civil war.
There are several reasons for the evolution in Hezbollah’s deployment along the Israeli border.
In the first years after the war in 2006, Hezbollah was engaged in civilian and military reconstruction. Around 600 Hezbollah operatives were killed in the war, demonstrating low battlefield capabilities. At the same time, Hezbollah also lost support within Lebanon due to the great damage caused by the war. In 2011, the civil war broke out in Syria; by 2019, Hezbollah was busy fighting there.
In 2019, two things happened: First, the civil war in Syria ended in most areas, and Hezbollah’s military operatives began to return home with a great deal of military experience and aggressive ambitions. Second, the IDF exposed and blocked or blew up Hezbollah’s cross-border tunnels, which meant that Hezbollah had to find another way to get closer to the border, which it did by overpowering UNIFIL and preventing its access to the border. In 2020, COVID-19 emerged, accompanied by worsening economic and political crises, including the May 2022 parliamentary elections.
Today, the pandemic is over. The election results were not to Hezbollah’s satisfaction. On the border, military operatives are itching for action. Lebanon is in such a severe state of economic and political crisis that peacetime may be less desirable than wartime, in which Lebanon would receive exponentially more unconditional international aid.
We cannot assess with certainty whether Hezbollah is interested in an imminent war with Israel. But without a doubt, its military preparedness and the level of friction its military operatives have sought at the border leave plenty of room for concern.
Lt. Col. (Res.) Sarit Zehavi is the president and founder of the Alma Research and Education Center, which focuses on Israeli security challenges on the northern borders.