Exactly three months after a UN-brokered cease-fire ended Israel’s war in Lebanon, IDF officers told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday that Hizbullah gunmen disguised as civilians were back on the border and collecting intelligence on IDF positions.
Although 15,000 Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and 8,000 UNIFIL soldiers were deployed in southern Lebanon, between the border and the Litani River, the IDF said Hizbullah still had a presence in the area.
“They [Hizbullah] are still there,” an officer in the Northern Command said. “We are watching them and they are watching us.”
Armed Hizbullah men, the officer said, were no longer along the border like it was before the war, when it maintained military outposts right next to Israel.
But he said, the Hizbullah operatives lived in villages along the border and were spotted conducting surveillance on Israel.
“They are there but they cannot operate freely like they used to,” the officer said. “There is UNIFIL and the LAF there and this does complicate things for them.”
UNIFIL rejected IDF allegations that Hizbullah guerrillas had returned to the border. The UN force’s chief liaison officer, Col. Alexan Lalan, told the Post Tuesday that the IDF’s actions, in particular the daily IAF flyovers, were strengthening Hizbullah and creating new militants for the Shi’ite group.
“The flyovers harm the credibility of UNIFIL, the credibility of the LAF and the credibility of the state of Lebanon,” Lalan said in a phone interview from his office in the southern Lebanese town of Naqoura.
“Every flyover creates new Hizbullah militants and new sympathy for Hizbullah since it shows and demonstrates that UNIFIL and the LAF are not powerful and able to stop them,” Lalan said.
Following the cease-fire that went into effect on August 14, UNIFIL set up a liaison office in Northern Command headquarters in Safed and stationed several officers there. Lalan said the officers were responsible for maintaining a good “flow of information” between the IDF and UNIFIL.
UNIFIL also complained about the continued IDF presence in the northern part of the village of Ghajar, split in half by the border between Israel and Lebanon. The IDF has been in the Lebanese part of the village since the beginning of the war, saying it would only withdraw when it felt that UNIFIL and the Lebanese army had deployed effectively both inside the village and nearby. Ghajar was the scene of a thwarted Hizbullah attempt to kidnap IDF soldiers last year.
“I cannot say when the IDF will withdraw from Ghajar but we hope it will be soon since it
is important for the implementation of [Security Council] Resolution 1701,” said Milos Strugar, a spokesman for the UN group and a civil affairs adviser to its commander, French Maj.-Gen. Alain Pellegrini.
Strugar could not confirm IDF claims that weapons were being smuggled into Lebanon from Syria – the justification for the continued IAF flyovers – but said Hizbullah was no longer present in UNIFIL’s area of operations in southern Lebanon.
“UNIFIL is not deployed along the border with Syria and therefore we do not know what happens there,” he said. “In our area of operations, there is no physical presence of Hizbullah armed people, and on a few occasions UNIFIL came across weapons and [Hizbullah] assets and we informed the Lebanese army and they came and destroyed them.”
The IDF officer said he thought the Lebanese army would prevent Hizbullah from taking up arms and returning to the border in the same numbers as before the war. “The Lebanese government does not want to repeat the events of this past summer,” the officer said. “To ensure this they need to enforce their sovereignty in southern Lebanon.”•