In his latest book, "Warriors of God," Nicholas Blanford goes searching for one of Hezbollah's secret war bunkers, constructed mere feet from the Israeli border.
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.
It was unclear to us exactly what Hezbollah was up to inside these security pockets, although clues hinting at clandestine activity emerged from time to time. In early June 2002, residents of two small villages at the foot of the Shebaa Farms hills were kept awake at night by the sound of dynamite explosions emanating from a remote wadi near an abandoned farmstead. The peak of Hezbollah's construction activities appears to have been in 2003, when UNIFIL was recording "sustained explosions" numbering as many as twenty-five at a time, all in remote wadis and hillsides.
But it was only following the August 14 cease-fire ending the month-long war in 2006 that the astonishing scale of Hezbollah's underground network of bunkers and firing positions in the southern border district came to light.
For example, the Labboune hillside, which was covered in thick brush and small evergreen oaks, was the source of almost constant rocket fire by Hezbollah throughout the war, from the first day until shortly before the 8am cease-fire on August 14. The Israeli military attempted to stanch the flow of rockets with air strikes, cluster bombs, and artillery shells packed with phosphorus, but the Katyusha fire was relentless. After the cease-fire, Israeli soldiers deployed onto the hill and discovered an elaborate bunker and artillery firing system sunk into solid rock some 120 feet deep and spread over an area three-quarters of a square mile. The bunkers included firing positions, ammunition storage facilities, operations rooms, dormitories, medical facilities, lighting and ventilation, and kitchens and bathrooms with latrines and hot and cold running water- sufficient to allow dozens of fighters to live underground for weeks without need for resupply.
A day after the bunker was dynamited by the Israelis, I visited the site with Lorenzo Cremonesi, a correspondent for Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper. We gingerly followed a caterpillar track into the old minefield running on the Lebanese side of the border fence. All that remained of the bunker was a field of churned earth and slabs of yard- thick reinforced concrete poking out of the ground like broken teeth.
Yet the most extraordinary discovery was not that Hezbollah had built the bunker beneath a minefield, but that the bunker began just a hundred yards from, and within full view of, the UNIFIL observation post on the border. It was only fifty yards from the lane used by UNIFIL traffic each day. The bunker was also in full view of an Israeli border position some four hundred yards to the west on the other side of the fence. How was it possible for Hezbollah to construct such a large facility with neither UNIFIL nor the Israelis having any idea of its existence?
"We never saw them build anything," a UNIFIL officer told me. "They must have brought the cement in by the spoonful."
Spiders and Claustrophobia
The sight of the dynamited ruins at Labboune inspired me to find an intact bunker. Although the border district was littered with newly abandoned bunkers, finding them was difficult and hazardous given their remote locations, the presence of unexploded munitions, and the superbly camouflaged entrances, some of them covered by hollow fiberglass "rocks" similar to those used to hide IEDs.
After several false leads, I acquired a set of map coordinates marking the locations of Hezbollah bunkers and rocket firing posts near the village of Alma Shaab. Punching the coordinates into a handheld GPS device, I headed into a former Hezbollah security pocket accompanied by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, an intrepid war correspondent for The Guardian and a photographer for the Getty agency.
We had walked along the track at the bottom of the valley for about ten minutes when the arrow on the GPS began to rotate to the right. We left the track and, once beneath the canopy of dense foliage, noticed numerous thin trails made by Hezbollah militants crisscrossing the hillside. Steps of rock-hard sandbags helped overcome the steeper sections. We scanned the footpath carefully, not only for cluster bombs but also for possible booby traps. Hezbollah had rigged some simple IEDs consisting of trip wires attached to blocks of TNT around some of their old positions to deter snoopers
After a five-minute climb, my GPS informed us that we had reached our destination. But there was no bunker entrance to be seen, just outcrops of rock, thickets of thorn bushes, scrub oak, and tree roots snaking across the bedrock beneath a carpet of dead leaves and dried twigs. Thinking the GPS must be off by a few feet, I moved away to examine the surrounding area for the entrance. But it was Ghaith who found it.
He was tapping the ground with a stick when he struck something metallic and hollow-sounding. Together we brushed away the leaves and twigs to reveal a square matte black metal lid with two handles. Dragging the heavy lid to one side exposed a narrow steel-lined shaft that dropped vertically about fifteen feet into the bedrock. Dank, musty air rose from the gloom. It had taken seven months to finally discover one of Hezbollah's war bunkers; but any exhilaration was dampened by the dread of claustrophobia.
"If we have to crawl when we're down there, I can't do it," Ghaith said.
MAHMOUD ZAYAT/AFP/Getty Images