The latest bout of speculation over an Israeli or U.S.-led attack on Iran's nuclear facilities shows that the notion of another conflict between Hezbollah and Israel is never far away -- and both sides are aware that the next war promises to be of a magnitude that will dwarf the 2006 conflict. In the decade and a half that I have been following Hezbollah's military evolution, it was the secret underground bunkers built in southern Lebanon between 2000 and 2006 that underlined to me more than anything else the militant Lebanese Shiite group's single-minded dedication to pursuing its struggle against Israel.
These bunkers -- some of which I discovered and explored a few months after the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel -- were far more sophisticated than I or anyone else had expected, and the skill and patience in constructing them deep inside the hills of south Lebanon without anyone noticing was remarkable.
The 2006 war ended inconclusively, and Hezbollah and Israel are preparing for another war that neither side seeks but both suspect is probably inevitable. Hezbollah military sources tell me that new underground facilities have been constructed in Lebanon's rugged mountains since 2006, larger than before and more elaborate. Recruitment and training continues in hidden camps in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and in Iran. New battle plans have been drawn up and new weapons systems delivered.
For now, the anticipated level of destruction in both Lebanon and Israel has acted as a form of deterrence -- but none of the drivers that led to war in 2006 have been resolved, and the "balance of terror" between Hezbollah and Israel remains inherently unstable.
As Hezbollah Secretary-General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said on Nov. 11, on the occasion of the party's Martyrs' Day: "Lebanon -- through its army, people and resistance -- has become strong, but that doesn't mean that we should not remain vigilant. This resistance has always been vigilant."
ALMA SHAAB, SOUTH LEBANON — The dirt track wound through blossom-scented orange orchards before entering a narrow valley flanked by an impenetrable-looking mantle of bushes and small trees. Lizards and snakes slithered from under our feet, but we kept a wary eye open for unexploded cluster bombs left over from repeated Israeli artillery strikes on the western end of the valley during the month-long war between Hezbollah and Israel seven months earlier.
Every few seconds I glanced at the electronic arrow on my handheld global positioning system that was directing us toward what I hoped would be the entrance to one of Hezbollah's secret wartime underground bunkers. Since the end of the war, finding and exploring a Hezbollah bunker had become a near obsession, ever since I had been given a tantalizing hint shortly after the August cease-fire at what Hezbollah had covertly and skillfully constructed between 2000 and 2006.
Before the war, no one had imagined that Hezbollah was installing such an extravagant military infrastructure in the border district. Their visible activities generally consisted of establishing a number of observation posts along the Blue Line that eventually reached between twenty-five and thirty, stretching from the chalk cliffs of Ras Naqoura on the coast in the west to the lofty limestone mountains of the Shebaa Farms in the east. Hezbollah also placed off- limits several stretches of rugged hills and valleys in the border district.
The entrances were guarded by armed and uniformed fighters. Local farmers and even UNIFIL peacekeepers [members of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, which is charged with keeping in the peace along the Israel-Lebanon border] were denied access to some of these "security pockets." One valley, a deep ravine of limestone cliffs and caves that slashed through the western sector like a giant ax stroke, was marked as a no-fly zone on the maps used by UNIFIL's Italian air wing.
In August 2002, Hezbollah took over a hillside overlooking the coast outside Naqoura, the location of UNIFIL's headquarters. A narrow lane wound up the hill, ending at a small UNIFIL observation post at the long-disappeared farmstead of Labboune. It was a popular spot for tourists, as the ridge granted a grandstand view of western Galilee down the coast to Haifa and Mount Carmel, twenty- five miles to the south.
After Hezbollah seized the Labboune hillside for its own purposes, only UNIFIL was allowed to use the lane to reach its observation post. Shortly after the hillside was sealed off, I drove up the lane to see what would happen. About halfway up I spotted several fighters in the dense brush crouched beside a large object smothered in camouflage netting, possibly an antiaircraft gun. They scowled at me as I passed by and evidently alerted some of their colleagues by radio, as there was a small reception committee waiting for me beside the road as I returned to Naqoura.
"This is a military zone. You can't come here anymore," one of them chided me.
Two months later, a convoy of American diplomats from the U.S. embassy in Beirut ran into a similar problem when they were intercepted by armed Hezbollah men while en route to the Labboune viewing point, unaware that the hillside was no longer accessible. With the Hezbollah men refusing to allow the diplomatic convoy to proceed, the embassy's security team called off the planned tour of the Blue Line and headed back to Beirut.
As the motorcade drove north out of Naqoura along the coastal road, they were joined by two carloads of armed Hezbollah men, who wove between the convoy vehicles. The U.S. embassy and the State Department lodged formal complaints with the Lebanese government, but it was the last time diplomats attempted to peer into Israel from Labboune.