- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 15, 2003

MISGAV-AM, Israel Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas and Israeli soldiers are eyeball to eyeball at their outposts near this hilltop kibbutz, constantly watching and reporting each other's every move and always ready for outbursts of unfriendly fire.

They are ranged along one of the most heavily guarded and closely monitored borders in the Middle East, often within speaking distance, but no impromptu words are ever exchanged, only occasional bullets, anti-aircraft shells and missiles.

U.N. peacekeepers, recruited from Ghana and India 2,000 of them, down from the nearly 9,000 who made up the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) until Israel's pullout from its longtime "security zone" in southern Lebanon May 25, 2000 are deployed on the Lebanese side of the line.

There is no longer any room for them to be stationed between the two sides, so the peacekeepers are often adjacent to Hezbollah positions.

The stated reasons for these three-sided military arrangements is to maintain a semblance of peace for the benefit of the civilian population on both sides of the line. But it is constantly interrupted by the sound of explosions that always are too close for comfort.

"The Hezbollah fires anti-aircraft guns, but at a 45-degree angle instead of the conventional 90 degrees," said Capt. Avital, an Israeli officer who declined to give her first name. "The shells quickly disintegrate and usually don't cause damage." She said a series of ear-splitting thuds might be from Israeli gunners engaged in target practice.

However, Hezbollah frequently fires anti-aircraft salvoes at Israeli reconnaissance flights overhead, as it did Sunday. No Israeli aircraft have been shot down, but the metallic fallout has hit nearby towns and kibbutzim.

Senior intelligence officers here do not rule out the possibility that Hezbollah might open a second front against Israel in the event of a U.S.-led attack against Iraq. They discount the remarks of a Hezbollah member of Lebanon's parliament to the effect that the guerrillas would not act unless Israel moved first.

Capt. Avital led the way to one of Israel's newest and most sophisticated fortifications facing Hezbollah, a multistory concrete structure built to withstand every type of munition known to be in the guerrillas' arsenal.

This facility, packed with state-of-the-art equipment, looks out on a broad swath of southern Lebanon, enabling Israeli troops to keep track of every vehicle, civilian or guerrilla, moving within its range.

"You have to take the elevator to go up to the top," Capt. Avital said. "We spent a fortune building this installation. It is one of the most sophisticated of its kind in the world." Just out of earshot on the other side of the electronic fence, a Hezbollah fighter was photographing the Israeli side.

He wore civilian clothes, as did a comrade slightly behind him who was tapping away on a laptop. "They report every detail instantly to their headquarters," she went on, "including our presence here."

These men, who appeared to be in their 20s, belong to the small complement assigned to the outposts facing Israel that stretch 40 miles from the Mediterranean Sea on the west to the slopes of snow-capped Mount Hermon in the east.

They are bolstered by a sizable corps of reservists who divide their time between business or professional activity and active guerrilla duty.

The Israeli military command takes Hezbollah seriously.

Its main concern is the stockpile of surface-to-surface missiles that Hezbollah, a Shi'ite guerrilla organization, has received from Iran through Syria. The missiles can hit targets 60 miles to the south, such as Hadera, where Israel's main electricity-generating plant is situated. Their field of fire includes the industrial city of Haifa and all of Galilee, where nearly a third of Israel's population lives.

Iran operates an arms airlift to Hezbollah by way of Damascus airport, according to Israeli intelligence. This information evidently comes from the Israeli army's hard-won observation post atop Mount Hermon, from which all of Syria's air traffic is monitored.

Once a week, Iranian cargo jets unload weapons and ammunition that are carried by heavy trucks to Lebanon and through the mountain pass to the Hezbollah bases.

Among the curiosities along the hilltops of upper Galilee, across which the U.N.-demarcated international boundary runs, is the grave of an ancient Jewish sage, Rabbi Ashi, which the Muslims regard as that of an Islamic sheik. Half the horizontal gravestone is on the Israeli side and half on the Lebanese side. A U.N. flag flutters from its midpoint, and a yellow and green Hezbollah pennant soars over its northern edge.

The Lebanon-Israel boundary also runs through the Alawite Muslim village of Rajar, or Ghajar in Arabic. Half its residents have Israeli citizenship and half Lebanese or Syrian. There is no fence or wall demarcating the two sections, but no one dares cross from one side to the other, at least not during daylight.

The Hezbollah deployment raises a serious political question in the opinion of Israeli observers, because it does not conform to U.N. Security Council Resolution 425, on the basis of which Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon 22 years after the world body called on it to do so.

The resolution's text implies that the Lebanese army was supposed to take over when the Israelis left. This objective is defined as part of the UNIFIL'S mission: "confirming the withdrawal of Israeli forces, restoring international peace and security and assisting the Government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area."

In the post-withdrawal reality, Hezbollah is the only "effective authority" in southern Lebanon.

The Lebanese Army has not deployed in the former Israeli-occupied zone.

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