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ISRAEL: Army declassifies intelligence material showing Hezbollah's tactics

July 8, 2010 |  7:39 am

In the past, Israel has released intelligence material to justify controversial strikes in the vicinity of civilians, showing weapons caches and armed combatants nearby. Often, by that point, few are listening and the damage is done.

But as Israel continues to grapple with the Gaza operation and the Goldstone report, the learning curve is up and officials are getting proactive. Now Israel is presenting information in advance as a warning and to early on establish legitimacy for its potential targets in Lebanon.

Since the second Lebanon war, Hezbollah has turned more than 100 villages in southern Lebanon into military bases, the Israel Defense Forces said Wednesday. The army presented declassified intelligence material, with maps and aerial photographs tracking Hezbollah's practice of storing weapons near civilian facilities such as schools and hospitals, as well as a 3-D animated video marking their locations in a specific village, Al Khiam.

The army noted a shift in Hezbollah tactics. In the second Lebanon war, officials said, Hezbollah largely stored weapons in open areas, making them relatively easy and acceptable targets. Since then, the caches have been moved into the villages, "essentially institutionalizing the tactic of using human shields on a large scale," the army said.

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Israeli army Col. Ronen Marley said Hezbollah was driven into built-up areas by the deployment of U.N. forces in southern Lebanon in keeping with Security Council Resolution 1701 that ended the war. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon has no authority inside the villages, he said.

Relations between Lebanese civilians and international peacekeepers in southern Lebanon have become increasingly tense as U.N. forces were perceived as exceeding their mandate, intensifying patrols and their presence in the villages. After a few minor scuffles, one altercation went downhill as French peacekeepers fired in the air to disperse a crowd. They were attacked, and two of their guns snatched before the Lebanese army intervened.

Marley said Hezbollah was stepping up intelligence gathering, stockpiling armaments and laying infrastructure for a future conflict. Most experts agree another armed confrontation will erupt sooner or later. The current wisdom is the other side -- consisting of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah in the big picture -- isn't looking for trouble just now, though interests change. Haaretz columnist Aluf Benn even declared Syrian President Bashar Assad his "man of the week" for showing a balanced position, though on something else: Israel's relations with Turkey.

So Hezbollah is moving into the villages and trying to keep UNIFIL at a harmless distance. And Israel just made a move that put the you-know-that-I-know on the record for future reference, trying to out Hezbollah for everyone else to know too -- before things blow, not after.

The timing is interesting. It's been a decade since Israel withdrew from the security zone it declared in southern Lebanon after the first Lebanon war and four years since the second, and Israel is still learning lessons from both.

Hezbollah's rockets during the war in 2006 pinned down a third of the country and confined Israelis to bomb shelters for weeks. Since then, Israeli officials say, Hezbollah has quadrupled its arsenal and extended its rocket range to reach deeper into Israel. Predictions about the next round of fighting say Hezbollah may fire 600 rockets a day into Israel. One of Israel's lessons from four years ago was the need to improve home-front preparedness and coordination of emergency and civilian authorities. It now tests these in an annual nationwide drill.

The subtext of recent war "anniversary" summaries was that they are only halftime summaries. Recently, Israel's deputy chief of staff, Benny Gantz, was quoted by Defense News as saying that Israel would win a third Lebanon war, though it probably wouldn't be the last. Lebanon keeps a bull in its china shop, he said, and when the china starts breaking, it shouldn't blame Israel for the damage.

But maybe there's another thing with the timing. Summer is when Israel prepares its budget and government bodies fight for bigger pieces of the pie. And the defense establishment has a long shopping list.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem 

Illustrations: Intelligence materials released by the Israel Defense Forces. Credit: IDF, YouTube

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