Israeli military officials say Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah is openly manning new military outposts along the Blue Line, an area patrolled by UN peacekeepers following Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon 23 years ago.
Tensions have been mounting in the region since the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict in which more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians and 44 Israelis were killed. A total of 121 Israeli soldiers and about 250 Hezbollah fighters also died in the conflict.
The remarks by soldiers to Bloomberg confirm the growing stand-off after Israel complained to the UN about the construction of 27 outposts last month, saying they breached a post-war UN Security Council resolution.
UN resolution 1701, agreed on by Lebanon and Israel, said Hezbollah and the Israeli army should withdraw forces from the area, creating a demilitarised zone patrolled by troops from the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil), which was expanded after the war. The Lebanese army is also allowed to patrol the area.
Hezbollah has long been building a dense network of defences north of the Blue Line area but the new emplacements, which Israeli soldiers say are now manned by uniformed militants, could raise the risk of clashes.
On Thursday, a rocket was launched from Lebanon at Israel and the Israeli military struck back.
Complicating the security situation, Palestinian militants also operate in the border area and have fired rockets into Israel in the past, drawing Israeli fire in response.
In May, five members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine were killed in an explosion in the Lebanese town of Qusaya, which the group blamed on an Israeli air strike, although Israel said it was not involved in the incident.
In April, Israel blamed Hamas militants based in Lebanon for firing 34 rockets into Israel, which again led to retaliatory strikes. The incident constituted the most serious exchange of fire across the border since the 2006 war.
“During the past year Hezbollah has erected at least 27 new military outposts along the Blue Line,” Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, wrote in a letter to the Security Council late last month.
“Since the construction of these outposts there has been a significant increase of friction and incidents, initiated by Hezbollah’s operatives.”
“Hezbollah systematically deprives Unifil of its ability to implement its core missions in order to assure that its military build-up continues unhindered in Southern Lebanon."
But according to a UN document from March, Israeli aircraft flew over the Blue Line on 182 occasions between November 3 and February 20 and the country occupies the northern portion of Ghajar, a town that straddles the line.
Hezbollah has said it shot down an Israeli drone over south Lebanon.
Unifil doesn’t deny there is cause for disquiet.
“Any presence or activity on the north side of the Blue Line not belonging to Unifil or the Lebanese Armed Forces is a concern,” spokeswoman Kandice Ardiel said.
“Peacekeepers must have full freedom of movement along the Blue Line and throughout our area of operations.”
A UN report from March says despite repeated requests “Unifil has yet to gain full access to several locations of interest”.
Hezbollah, funded mostly by Iran and thought to have more than 100,000 rockets and missiles at its disposal, would be certain to play a role in any bigger conflict.
Analysts say in the event of a conflict, Israel would be struck with at least 2,000 rockets a day, a significantly higher number than during the 2006 war. Hezbollah has also upgraded its rocket and missile arsenal to include guided weapons that are far more accurate than the bulk of its rocket artillery.
Israel has in turn warned in any conflict it would not hesitate to target Hezbollah installations wherever they are, putting civilian infrastructure at risk. Aharon Haliva, the head of Israel's Military Intelligence Directorate, warned in May that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was "close to making a mistake that could plunge the region into a big war".
Israeli officials speculate the group has been encouraged by the return to Lebanon of personnel who fought in Syria, who have transformed the group from a guerrilla outfit to a fully-fledged military organisation with professional soldiers.
Israeli officials say that as Lebanon declines further into one of the worst economic and financial crises in history, Hezbollah is becoming more powerful – and Lebanon’s official army, the Lebanese Armed Forces, is not strong enough to police it.