BEIRUT : Recently uploaded satellite images to the online Google Earth portal reveal what appears to be a Hezbollah military training ground constructed since 2006 in remote hills in the eastern Bekaa Valley along the border with Syria.
The facility near Janta includes a suspected driver training course, a 100-meter firing range and a possible urban terrain assault course, according to imagery analysts and European intelligence officials who first noticed the unusual hillside markings in 2008.
Google Earth images also reveal considerable – and surprisingly overt – construction activity in sealed-off Hezbollah security pockets in southern Lebanon, particularly in the hills south of Jezzine, which became the group’s main line of defense following the 2006 war with Israel and subsequent redeployment from the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon-patrolled border district.
The scale of the activity hints at the enormous efforts Hezbollah has undertaken since the 2006 war to prepare itself for the possibility of another conflict with Israel. But the construction work also raises questions as to the purpose of these facilities, which are easily visible to Israel’s near daily aerial reconnaissance violations as well as to satellite surveillance by Western nations and now to anyone with Google Earth installed on their computer, assuming they know where to look.
The Google Earth image of the Janta area is dated May 21, 2011, and when compared to the previous image dated Nov. 28, 2005, shows substantial activity such as new tracks and buildings alongside the more militaristic facilities.
These rugged hills contained Hezbollah’s first training camps when the nascent organization and Iranian Revolutionary Guard instructors began a recruitment drive in late 1982 in the Shiite villages of the Bekaa to build a resistance force to combat Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June that year.
A then-youthful Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s current secretary-general, was one of several clerics who delivered religious lessons to the recruits at these camps. There are few trees on the barren hills in the eastern Bekaa, making them vulnerable to observation and attack by Israel. Hezbollah abandoned these training areas following a deadly nighttime air raid in June 1994 by Israeli jets and helicopters against the Ain Dardara camp which left over 40 recruits dead.
However, between 2008 and 2009, Western intelligence analysts noticed some unusual earthworks in the hills which were subsequently identified, according to one, as a “significant and active training camp.”
The new buildings in the area may well be of civilian nature, but there are four sites close to the border with Syria that raise interest. One conforms to the driver-training course and consists of a track with a series of hair-pin bends. Beside it is an unidentified object consisting of three graded strips in the shape of an arrow. Another nearby feature includes two parallel rows of three small roofless buildings each and a larger structure at the southern end. Some 400 meters southwest of the three facilities is the alleged firing range. The image shows what looks like a white SUV parked at the entrance.
If this is a genuine military site, it is evident that Hezbollah does not care who notices it as no effort has been made to conceal the facilities. The lack of camouflage suggests that the site is for specialized training and is not regularly used.
In the Jezzine area, numerous buildings and new roads have appeared in the hills south of the town in areas sealed off by Hezbollah after the 2006 war. These security pockets are not secret and their existence is common knowledge locally. The hills are strategically advantageous with clear overviews of the western Bekaa to the east and the coastal littoral to the west, both traditional axes of advance for invading armies from the south.
Hezbollah’s zones here echo the security pockets it manned in the border district between 2000 and 2006. Everyone knew where those zones were located, but no one knew exactly what Hezbollah was up to in them.
Only after the 2006 war was it revealed that Hezbollah had built an extensive network of hidden rocket-firing positions and bunkers and tunnels with ingeniously camouflaged entrances. The difference with the post-2006 security areas north of the Litani river is that while there appears to be an attempt to camouflage some sites, the bulk of the construction is surprisingly obvious and in the open. Much of the construction appears to consist of metal-roofed utility buildings for industry or agriculture, although at present neither activity is discernible in the area.
Whatever is going on in these hills is occurring under Hezbollah’s authority as the party maintains a tight grip on the area. According to diplomatic sources, a former defense attaché at the Dutch Embassy in Damascus drove into these hills in 2010 to have a look for himself. He was quickly stopped at a checkpoint where armed and uniformed Hezbollah fighters told him to leave at once.
It is possible that the construction is genuinely of a civilian nature and is providing the foundation for future agricultural or industrial projects.
But there is another alternative. Hezbollah’s military leaders are masters of deception, which raises the possibility that the construction activity is nothing more than a decoy to keep everyone guessing while the militarily significant work is conducted under camouflage and in secrecy elsewhere.
The truth presumably will remain unknown until the next war with Israel.