- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 12, 2007

CHBAIL, LebanonHezbollah 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.

In these rugged gorges, the group appears to be readying for Round 2 with Israel, and many fear it is not far off after the inconclusive end to last year’s war and reports of Hezbollah rearming.

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.

During an interview, Mr. Tajeddine denied any connection with Hezbollah and said his projects at Chbail represent just a fraction of the dozens of developments he is building throughout Lebanon.

But his distinctive arc of land-buys around Hezbollah’s new stronghold triggered alarm among the district’s Christian and Druse leaders, who say he is using Iranian funds to buy land from destitute villagers at up to four times the going rate. Druse sheiks responded by forbidding the sale of land to Shi’ites, and wealthy Christians were asked to buy property in the area to stem the Shi’ite tide.

In Chbail and two neighboring Christian villages, Mr. Tajeddine already bought 200-300 acres of land, according to the mayor, Kamil Fares. In the Druse village of Al Sreiri, the mayor, Hafed Kiwane, told a similar story. “We have nothing here, so it was good to see money coming into the area, but now we fear there are suspicious motives,” he said.

Among the Hezbollah settlements is the fledgling village of Ahmediyya, where a billboard in Hebrew warns Israeli invaders: “Do not enter.” Dozens of housing units were built there in the past year. A supermarket is open for business, and 10 Shi’ite families have moved in so far.

Critics fear that Ahmediyya will further stretch the Shi’ite reach to the northeast, as part of a grand scheme to create a strip of Shi’ite-controlled land connecting the south to Hezbollah’s other power center in Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley.

“It is part of Hezbollah’s plan to create a state within a state,” said Walid Jumblatt, a Druse leader. He also pointed to the four-lane road being built to connect the Hezbollah stronghold of Nabatieh in the south to the western Bekaa.

Banners openly proclaim the source of the road’s funding: “510 km of new roads paid for by the Iranian Organization for Sharing in the Building of Lebanon.”

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