Armed to the hilt and forged in the flames of Syria, a new Hezbollah is bullish about its next conflict with mortal enemy in southern Lebanon
MAROUN AL-RAS, Lebanon – An Israeli drone buzzes overhead, and the midday southern Lebanese sun shimmers on a mini replica Dome of the Rock, an Iranian-funded homage to the holy site in Jerusalem.
At this border area, the Iranian garden is part theme park, part political message. Ostensibly, it's a pleasure garden – complete with obstacle course, basketball courts, paintball and huts and gazebos for picnicking families.
But it's imbued with a morbid symbolism – there are 34 huts, one for each day of the 2006 war, and seven gazebos – each one representing one of the local dead from the nearby village.
Overlooking Israel, or "occupied Palestine" as the land is called in Lebanon, the park is a "message", says the park manager, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The park was a gift from Iran to Lebanon, after Hezbollah's proclaimed victory over Israel in the 2006 war (Israel also claimed to win the war, but that's not how it's seen here). The conflict killed about 1,200 Lebanese civilians, and around 40 Israelis.
A woman and a girl walk past the replica of the Dome of the Rock in Maroun al-Ras, which bears the emblem of the Islamic Republic of Iran (AFP)
"When the architect was building this place, Hezbollah told him not to make it too big, or to spend too much money on it, because in the next war, the Israelis would just destroy it."
Defiant, he ignored their recommendations. The final plan required flattening a hilltop, and came out at an untold price. It was "very, very expensive", the manager says.
The architect, a Hezbollah member, died in 2013 fighting on behalf of the Syrian government in Aleppo.
There is nothing that the Russians gave to the Syrians that has not gone to Hezbollah. So now Hezbollah are able to shoot planes down
- Hezbollah brigade leader, south Lebanon
"He told them, if we can keep this place going for one year, the message has been delivered already, and that means the whole world will come, and see it, and stand right at the border, and look at Palestine."
And as for that next conflict, he warns: "The next war is going to happen now."
With a confluence of various pressures, "the war is coming, definitely we will have another round with the Israelis", agrees a Hezbollah brigade leader and local official in a nearby southern town. "It's just a matter of timing."
He spoke to MEE on condition of anonymity, as he is not authorised to speak to the media.
A plane shot down, and 'a new era'
In early February, an Israeli aircraft was shot down for the first time in 35 years as it was returning home from Syria, where it had been bombing Iranian military positions.
"After the plane went down, we entered a different era," the brigade leader says, speaking to MEE from his breezy reception room, overlooking the hills of the south.
"Plus, there is nothing that the Russians gave to the Syrians that has not gone to Hezbollah. So now Hezbollah are able to shoot planes down. It was something the Israelis considered a big loss, and a hard blow."
Russia, Iran and Hezbollah have been vital allies to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is soon to enter the eighth year of a devastating civil war against his own people. Hezbollah says it is fighting "terrorists" in Syria to prevent them from attacking Lebanon.
Read more ►
Their military and financial support turned around what once looked like a more even battle, ensuring Assad could win back much of the land lost to rebels, at a brutal human cost.
But while Hezbollah has lost an estimated 1,500-2,000 "martyrs" in Syria, the party has only become stronger, the brigade leader says, through combat experience, weapons procurement and increased recruitment abilities.
"The anti-aircraft weapon is already in our possession in Lebanon," said the brigade leader.
As the park manager puts it: "Everything we have today, it came from God's blessings, and from the Islamic Republic of Iran."
In the last war with Israel, in 2006, the brigade leader says "we only had 5,000 men along the borders, fighting the Israelis. I can assure you that in the next round, we will have at least 80,000 in Lebanon, along the borders."
Timur Goksel, a former spokesperson for UNIFIL, the UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, says the 2006 figure sounded accurate but that the current total sounds inflated.
"It may be the number of their armed supporters in southern Lebanon," he added.
And Randa Slim, an expert on Lebanon and director of the Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Programme at the Middle East Institute, says that while she cannot comment specifically on the figures, Hezbollah's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, "has already warned that the next fight with Israel will involve more than one front and other armed actors, in addition to Hezbollah".
Before the 2006 war, the Hezbollah brigade leader continues, "when you mentioned the Israelis, people got scared, they felt fear".
Now, however, "I could take you to any border village, and you ask any 11- or 12-year-old boy what he thinks of the Israelis", he says.
The Hezbollah brigade leader makes a dismissive tutting sound. "They would say, 'puh-lease'.
"The fear barrier has been broken. Israel couldn't take any village and stay in it."
But how would any conflict arise?
General Mouawad Tannous, a former officer in Lebanon's military intelligence and former defence attache with the Lebanese embassy in Washington DC, believes that any new conflict between Israel and Lebanon will start in Syria.
The [Israeli] response will be to destroy the ministry of defence and the presidential palace and the electricity and the telephones and the central bank
- Mouawad Tannous, former officer in Lebanon's military intelligence
"I know that the Israelis have asked the Russians many times to move those" Iranian fixed military positions within 60km of the Israeli border, says Tannous. (Many are already believed to have been destroyed by Israel, directly before its plane was shot down in February.)
"I know that the Russians, in the beginning, said to the Israelis, 'We will try.' And then now, I don't think that they are going to be able to do anything. I think they cannot do anything."
But were Israel to again target Iranian positions within Syria, Hezbollah might be tempted to become involved, Tannous believes.
The obstacle course on the border with Israel (MEE/Olivia Alabaster)
"Let's say Hezbollah feels that there is a plane that they can shoot down with their missiles..." he says, trailing off.
The Israeli response, he warns, would be fierce, and would target Lebanese infrastructure, including civilian facilities.
"They see Hezbollah and Lebanon as the same thing.
"I can tell you if this happens, the response will be to destroy the ministry of defence and the presidential palace and the electricity and the telephones and the central bank," he says.
"This is their plan because this is what they told us many times in secret channels."
Aside from the existing regional political tensions, there are a number of other potential catalysts for a new conflict. Israel and Lebanon are locked in an ongoing dispute over their maritime border, buttressed by a desire to monopolise deep sea oil reserves, and in another dispute over the Israeli construction of a border wall. Israel also violates Lebanese aisprace on a near daily basis, according to the UN.
And at home, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is increasingly under pressure, as four parallel corruption investigations seem to close in on him daily.
Israeli soldiers in south Lebanon, August 2006 (AFP)
Could a conflict be just the necessary ticket to deflect attention from himself?
Here, the Hezbollah brigade leader and the retired Lebanese general agree.
"As far as Hezbollah is concerned, Israel might start a war to release pressure from the inside," the former military intelligence officer puts it, with the latter concurring, "If I am Netanyahu, I would do anything… he is getting mad about it, it is not just one case, but four investigations."
"I myself, I see this confrontation happening," Tannous adds.
Israeli government and military officials are prone to making threats against Lebanon, and Hezbollah. But is this merely psyops, or are the threats real?
In October, Education Minister Naftali Bennett said that Lebanon's state institutions would not be spared in any future Israeli conflict with Hezbollah.
I think now there is a heightened rhetoric, but there's a big difference between the rhetoric and the reality
- Andrea Tenenti, UNIFIL spokesperson
"If Lebanon has Hezbollah as part of its government, and it's harbouring thousands and thousands of missiles in its homes, then Lebanon is game," Bennett was quoted as saying by Haaretz.
"Its infrastructure, international airport and government facilities – it's all game. Because if you don't want that to happen, it doesn't need to happen. You just dismantle this thing called Hezbollah."
But Andrea Tenenti, the current UNIFIL spokesperson, believes that while talk of war may be heating up, it is merely words.
"I think now there is a heightened rhetoric, but there's a big difference between the rhetoric and the reality, because the reality on the ground is when you talk to the parties, no one wants to change the situation on the ground."
UNIFIL, aside from maintaining a presence of some 10,500 peacekeepers stationed between the Litani River and the Blue Line that temporarily demarcates the border between Israel and Lebanon, also mediates between the two armies, holding tripartite meetings in Naqoura, in southern Lebanon, and bilateral meetings with each side.
But while such meetings – either tripartite or bilateral – used to be held at least once a month, Tenenti says they are held "almost daily now". He sees this as a positive step.
"It's a sign that they're taking advantage of our coordination mechanism in order to defuse tensions," he says. "I would be worried if we did not have meetings."
Read more ►
UNIFIL has mediated 110 tripartite meetings – which includes around six generals from each army, as well as UNIFIL military and political advisers – since 2006, "and no one ever walked out of one of those meetings".
These meetings, obviously, do not include Hezbollah.
And the Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace, Tenenti says, not only increase tensions, but are "undermining the work of the Lebanese army, and our work".
There's also the small fact of Lebanon and Israel still technically being at war – the "cessation of hostilities" signed at the close of the summer 2006 war was not a "ceasefire".
"At the moment we have two countries at war."
Iran, Tannous says, is "winning the whole game".
"Hezbollah is a Lebanese entity, but they're not independent politically or militarily or whatever, because they are related to Iran, and that's the reality," he says.
I would never have believed that the Iranians would be here. They are not Arabs. They are not on our border
- Mouawad Tannous, former officer in Lebanon's military intelligence
"They will tell you that, not me, and they are not ashamed of it, they are proud of it."
Indirectly forced to take early retirement by Syrian general Ghazi Kanaan, the de facto governor of Lebanon at that time, because of his criticism of the then Syrian occupiers, Tannous resents a new foreign occupation in the guise of Iran.
Once upon a time, he says, "I would never have believed that the Iranians would be here. They are not Arabs. They are not on our border. They have played the game, of Sunni versus Shia. I never thought it could happen here."
For the Hezbollah brigade commander, this Iranian support is to be celebrated.
"Hezbollah is not a small group any more like it used to be, a local, small militia. Hezbollah now, it's international. It's in Bahrain, Iraq, Yemen, everywhere."
And for the manager of the Iranian garden, this support only means one thing.
Gesturing across the border, towards the Galilee, he sounds undeterred by the prospect of a fresh conflict.
"If they attack this site, and destroy it, we will rebuild it, and I can't promise you we'll build it here - we might build it inside Israel."