CHBAIL, Lebanon — Hezbollah is buying up large tracts of land owned by Christians and non-Shi’ite Muslims in southern Lebanon as the militant group rebuilds its defenses in preparation for a new war with Israel, local and national officials say.
The land grab is thought to be driven by the Iranian-backed guerrillas’ efforts to rearm themselves and fortify the strategically important ravines north of the Litani River, just north of the front line in last year’s 34-day conflict with its Jewish neighbor.
Here, Hezbollah has been free to press forward without harassment from the 13,000 U.N. peacekeepers and 20,000 Lebanese army troops who were deployed south of the Litani as part of the cease-fire agreement that ended the conflict.
Just south of the Litani, the U.N. force is conducting hundreds of patrols each day in a bid to keep Hezbollah out of the area, but the peacekeepers’ mandate ends at the river. The Lebanese army, meanwhile, is about 50 percent Shi’ite and seems to be turning a blind eye to Hezbollah’s activities north of the river.
The area’s forested wadis, or valleys, make ideal terrain for Hezbollah’s brand of guerrilla warfare and, just 10 miles from the border, are within rocket range of Israeli cities.
The Shi’ite encroachment into a mixed area of Christians, Shi’ites and Druse Muslims threatens to disrupt Lebanon’s delicate sectarian balance, which is already teetering after three years of political tumult.
“Christians and Druse are selling land and moving out, while the Shias are moving in. There is an extraordinary demographic shift taking place,” said Edmund Rizk, a Christian member of parliament for the area until 1992.
On a scenic, sparsely populated ridge, the farming village of Chbail was once Christian. Today, the land belongs to a wealthy Shi’ite businessman with purported ties to Hezbollah. Its new residents are recent Shi’ite transplants from the Hezbollah-controlled south.
Entry to the village is forbidden to outsiders — not by the Lebanese army that technically holds sway here, but by the “chabab,” the plain-clothed, bearded youths who act as lookouts in Hezbollah territory.
“The village is closed for security reasons,” said a youth who recently moved from a Hezbollah-controlled area near the regional capital, Tyre.
On the western edge of Chbail, a metal sign strung across an unmarked dirt track warns in Arabic: “Entry forbidden. Hezbollah area.” The closure is manned by a pair of teenage gunmen in olive green fatigues, armed with walkie-talkies and AK-47 assault rifles.
The buy-up of land in Chbail and half a dozen Druse and Christian villages is said to be the work of a wealthy Shi’ite businessman, Ali Tajeddine, who made his fortune trading diamonds in Sierra Leone before returning to Lebanon and starting a successful construction company.
Mr. Tajeddine, who keeps a Hezbollah charity box in the waiting room of his Tyre office, is seen as a major player in Hezbollah’s massive reconstruction program called Jihad al Bina, or the Building Jihad.View Entire Story
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