One Year Later: Hizballah Rebuilding, Israel Preparing for War

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

Biranit, Israel ( - One year after the Israeli-Hizballah war, Israel's northern border is the quietest it has been in decades -- but maybe not for long.

Hizballah is rebuilding its infrastructure and rearming itself with the help of Iran and Syria, and Israel is preparing to defend itself against any future attack, a senior Israeli military officer said.

Thursday marks the one-year anniversary of Hizballah's cross-border attack on an Israeli army patrol that killed four Israeli soldiers and led to the abduction of two reservists.

The attack sparked last summer's 34-day Israeli-Hizballah war, during which Hizballah launched nearly 4,000 thousand rockets at population centers in northern Israel, forcing more than a million Israelis to flee their homes or take refuge in bomb shelters. Israel launched aerial attacks on Hizballah targets as far north as Beirut.

Forty-three Jewish, Muslim and Christian Israeli civilians, 116 Israeli soldiers and more than 1,000 Lebanese were killed during the fighting. Although the Lebanese government said most of those killed were civilians, the Israeli army said about 600 of them were Hizballah fighters dressed as civilians.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Thursday that although there were many failures and weaknesses in Israel's war strategy, the decision to go to war with Hizballah was correct.

Israelis overwhelmingly supported the government's decision to go to war in Lebanon to counter the Hizballah threat, which had been building since Israel left Lebanon in 2000. But many reservists - and later, an inquiry commission - charged that the war effort was severely mismanaged from the top down.

The complaints were compounded by the army's failure to stop Hizballah rockets from raining down on the Israeli civilians and the overall impression when the war finally ended that Hizballah had won, simply by hanging in there.

Standing on the Israeli-Lebanese border on Wednesday overlooking Bint Jabil (dubbed Hizballah's "terror capital" last year), Lt. Col. Guy Hazoot, chief army operations officer of the Galilee Division, said Israel had chalked up "big achievements" during the war.

As a uniformed soldier, Hazoot said, he could not have stood unarmed and unprotected in broad daylight in full view of the border a year ago. Hizballah snipers were always ready to attack every Israeli soldier, Hazoot told reporters at the Biranit army base on the border.

The Lebanese army and the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) now occupy the former Hizballah outposts along the border, and the terrorist infrastructure near the border fence no longer exists, Hazoot said, describing that as one of the war's accomplishments.

But Hizballah has tried to rebuild its infrastructure over the last year, and most of the villages on the sprawling hillsides facing Israel are Shiite Muslim supporters of Hizballah, he said.

And although UNIFIL and the Lebanese army are working to prevent a Hizballah buildup, they are impeded by certain restrictions. For example, they are not allowed to go inside houses according to United Nations Security Council resolution 1701, which ended the war, Hazoot said.

Hizballah was embedded in civilian areas prior to the war. In the Lebanese village of Itai Shahib before the war, a kitchen cupboard could conceal a bunker with anti-tank missiles or katyusha rockets and a pathway to a trench leading to the other side of the road, said Hazoot.

Today, Israel doesn't know what is in those houses, but if Hizballah is involved in rehabilitating the area, it's a good bet that bunkers are being built as well, he added.

Hizballah has not lost its rocket launching capabilities, the smuggling of weapons from Syria is continuing and Hizballah has succeeded in hiding new weapons in civilian areas, he said.

Hazoot would not confirm specific details, but he said that Syria and Iran are working to strengthen Hizballah.

As a professional officer, he said, Israel is preparing itself for a worst-case scenario, which would be war, but it is not preparing itself to attack Lebanon or Syria and would do so only in the event that it was attacked.

Deputy army chief Maj.-General Moshe Kaplinsky voiced concern over Syria's military buildup but said on Wednesday that a war with Syria was unlikely this summer. In any event, Israel is prepared, he said.

Missing soldiers

On Thursday major Israeli Internet sites suspended their activity for five minutes at 9:05 a.m., the precise time one year ago when the two Israeli reservists, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, were abducted.

The websites displayed a message reading, "The soldiers cannot be found" -- imitating the message that web surfers receive when an Internet page "cannot be found."

There has been no word about the condition of Goldwasser and Regev since they were taken a year ago.

U.N. Middle East envoy Michael Williams is urging Hizballah "to give indication of the condition of the soldiers."

Hizballah is expected to hold a major rally in Beirut on Thursday to mark the anniversary.

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