Hezbollah fighters stationed near the Israeli border with Lebanon told an American TV crew last week they were watching Israel and waiting for a signal to attack, newly bolstered by fighting experience gained from battles in Syria.
The armed men spoke to NBC from a position near the border, in a possible contravention of a 2006 UN Security Council resolution that was supposed to create a demilitarized buffer zone between Israel and Lebanon.
“Any Israeli movement, we will see it,” one fighter said according to the report, published Saturday. “This area is all Hezbollah members preparing only for [them] … Whether it’s Israelis or Daesh, we fear no one,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
Israeli officials have raised alarms and complained to the UN about members of the terrorist organization apparently taking up positions near the border, despite peacekeepers and the Lebanese army tasked with keeping the area clear of armed Hezbollah fighters.
Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy, last fought an all-out war against Israel in the 34-day conflict known as the Second Lebanon War. Under the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, a ceasefire agreement reached in August 2006, the area must be “free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons,” other than UN peacekeepers and the Lebanese military, south of the Litani river, a natural barrier that at in its southern part lies roughly 20 kilometers from the Israeli border.
In the video, the Hezbollah terrorists could be seen holding rifles, which would indicate a breach of the UN resolution, though it was not clear if the “rugged hills close to the Israeli border,” were indeed within the forbidden area.
Despite saber-rattling from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, most analysts believe the group is both deterred by the threat of Israeli military response and too weakened by fighting in Syria alongside regime forces to mount an offensive against Israel. But with Iran and Iranian-backed militias gaining a foothold in Syria, including near Israel’s border, tensions have ramped up amid concerns the group may actually be bolstered, with new rocket capabilities provided by Tehran.
“All the tactics have changed and there are new surprises now that will shock the Israelis,” one fighter told NBC. “The atmosphere with the guys is very relaxed. We’re happy and we have high morale. We just want one word so we can go in, fight them and kill them.”
All of the Hezbollah members spoke to NBC on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak with foreign press.
A Hezbollah field commander, indicating a map showing the line of neighboring countries Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, said the territory now forms a “Shia crescent,” a reference to the branch of Islam that dominates the rule in those countries and echoing Israeli concerns of a corridor from Tehran to Beirut.
“The Shia Crescent they were so afraid of — we stepped on their noses and created it. There is now an open road from Tehran to Dahieh,” the field commander said, referring to a Hezbollah-dominated suburb of Beirut.
Another Hezbollah commander said that America’s involvement in Iraq was what enabled Iran to extend its influence all the way to Lebanon.
“The Americans removed Saddam Hussein and handed over the affairs of Iraq to the Iranians,” he said. “Actually, it was America that made Iran strong in the region. They gave them Iraq, and now they have a common enemy” — meaning Islamic State.
In April Hezbollah organized a tour for journalists along the border in which members pointed out Israeli defense positions and units. Israel has fingered positions supposedly belonging to agricultural NGOs as serving as Hezbollah lookout posts.
In June, the IDF published photographs and a film showing what it said were Hezbollah observation posts near the Israeli-Lebanese border, set up ostensibly on behalf of an organization called “Green Without Borders.”
Israel’s envoy to the UN, Danny Danon, in a letter to the UN Security Council, said Hezbollah’s purported use of such facilities under cover of the NGO was a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, passed at the end of the Second Lebanon War in August 2006.
But the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) later said that while “Green Without Borders” members have planted trees in the area, it “has not observed any unauthorized armed persons at the locations or found any basis to report a violation of resolution 1701.”
Last week the IDF began its biggest exercise in decades, during which tens of thousands of soldiers practiced defending the country against a Hezbollah incursion, and then an expected counterattack into Lebanon.
Judah Ari Gross and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.