A Hizbullah 'Maginot Line' on the Litani?

In Lebanon and Israel alike, everyone from taxi drivers to newspaper editors are speculating as to when the next round of fighting between Israeli forces and Hizbullah will begin. Though no good reason exists why either Hizbullah or Israel might want a reprise of the summer war of 2006, both are preparing for what each considers the inevitable.

In Israel, preparations for another round of fighting began even before the preliminary release of the Winograd Commission findings which highlighted Israel's strategic and tactical failures in the war. The Israeli military leadership knew following the 2006 debacle that more resources needed to be devoted to training and equipping the reserves, and that active-duty units - grown accustomed to operations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories after Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 - needed to be better prepared to fight in the environment of Southern Lebanon should another war break out to Israel's north.

On the Lebanese side of the border, though, the single most significant military development since the end of the 2006 war has been Hizbullah's construction of a defensive line north of the Litani River, first reported last February by Nicholas Blanford in The Christian Science Monitor.

As soon as the war with Israel ended, wealthy Hizbullah sympathizers began buying up land north of the Litani - outside UNIFIL's area of operations and in historically Christian and Druze areas - at prices well above the market rate. The repopulation of these areas with Shiites from the South is almost certainly intended to link the traditionally Shiite villages of the Western Bekaa Valley with those of Southern Lebanon.

It is only natural to see construction taking place in Southern Lebanon after the destruction of 2006. However, much of this construction is taking place far from the ruined villages of Bint Jbeil and Aita al-Shaab, along a new, Iranian-funded road being built along the Litani River's northern edge. Built by the Iranian Organization for Sharing in the Building of Lebanon, the road is at least four lanes wide and features signs every few hundred meters with slogans such as: "In the service of the people of Lebanon."

There is nothing implicitly wrong with the resettlement of impoverished Shiites or the development of large public works projects. But these moves mask the construction of a static defensive line that Hizbullah intends to use in another conflict with Israel. All along the Iranian-built highway, new roads and trails are springing up where once there were only trees and rocks. Where do these roads lead, and what is taking place there? It is difficult to tell because many of them have been designated closed "military areas," patrolled by Hizbullah gunmen. To longtime Lebanon observers, these areas evoke memories of border zones similarly off-limits between 2000 and 2006, in which Hizbullah built reinforced fighting positions the party used to great effect during the 2006 war.

Why, though, would Hizbullah build along the Litani? From the perspective of a Hizbullah military planner, it is difficult to surmise what strategic objectives Israel might seek to accomplish in another war. Thus Hizbullah is left in the awkward position of trying to answer the question of how Israel might fight without knowing why it would fight.

Hizbullah seems to think that despite Israel's heavy reliance on airpower in the last war - with ground forces deployed in only a limited fashion - the next war would begin with a much larger Israeli ground assault. Any attempt to defend the area south of the Litani would therefore be suicidal. Moreover, the deployment of 12,000 United Nations peacekeepers and several thousand Lebanese soldiers has made the construction of static defensive lines just north of the border much more difficult than before summer 2006. Accordingly, even as Hizbullah continues to train village units south of the Litani in the hope that they might slow an Israeli ground invasion, the group has constructed its main defensive positions to the north, where the terrain favors the defender and where Hizbullah could deny Israeli armor columns easy access to the Bekaa Valley.

Another good reason for Hizbullah to build positions north of the Litani is that this approach allows for entrenched positions that can house medium- and long-range missiles. Hizbullah successfully launched large numbers of short-range and largely ineffective Katyusha rockets into Israel in 2006, but the Israeli Air Force had knocked out its longer-range and more potent arsenal just a few days into the fighting.

Israeli planners, for their part, have never understood why Hizbullah felt the need to launch rockets from such advanced positions in the first place. Launching them from the other side of the Litani - over the heads of UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army - would have the advantage of leaving Hizbullah positions unharassed in the initial stages of an Israeli ground invasion. From positions north of the Litani, Hizbullah's Katyushas could comfortably reach major Israeli population centers - for example, the 16,000 people in Kiryat Shmona - while its longer-range missiles could reach more distant potential targets such as Haifa and even Tel Aviv.

It is also possible that Hizbullah's positions are being constructed as decoys, in the same way that others were constructed for this purpose between 2000 and 2006. Or, as some have argued, maybe these projects are just a way of keeping Hizbullah's gunmen busy while the real fight - the political one - takes place in Beirut. Most likely, though, Hizbullah is motivated by a genuine sense of urgency, unsure when the next round of fighting will begin and concerned that its pre-2006 defenses would be insufficient against a massed Israeli ground invasion (and too difficult to reconstruct with UNIFIL in the way).

There has been speculation that Hizbullah secretary general Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah's promised "surprise," mentioned in a recent speech commemorating the 2006 war, would be the inclusion of antiaircraft capabilities in the next round of fighting. Hizbullah hopes this could break Israel's air superiority. For American observers, however, the source of continued fascination remains Hizbullah's transformation from the world's finest guerrilla army into a force that, in 2006 and today, seems quite comfortable in fighting a conventional conflict as well.

Andrew Exum, a graduate of the American University of Beirut, is pursuing research at the War Studies Department of King's College in London. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.





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