The military build-up, only six months after the last Lebanon-Israel conflict, is being conducted in valleys and hillsides guarded by uniformed Hezbollah fighters in the rugged mountains north of the Litani river, which is the limit of the 12,000-strong U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil).
Christian- and Druze-owned land is being bought for cash by a Shiite businessman. Hezbollah's opponents believe the goal is to create a Shia-populated belt spanning the northern bank of the Litani, allowing the Lebanese group to operate away from prying eyes.
"The state of Hezbollah is already in existence in south Lebanon," the Druze leader and arch Hezbollah critic Walid Jumblatt told The Times.
Since the end of the month-long clash last summer, Unifil's strength has increased sixfold, with reinforcements from European countries such as France, Italy and Spain. An additional 20,000 Lebanese troops have flooded the area, making it impossible for Hezbollah to resurrect its military presence along the border with Israel.
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"There have been no instances of attempts to smuggle weapons into the area," said Milos Strugar, Unifil's senior adviser, adding that no armed fighters had been seen since September.
Instead, Hezbollah's fighters are preparing a new system of fortifications and expanding old positions in the mountains on the northern bank of the Litani. Residents say that the activity has increased lately, and peacekeepers confirm this.
"We can see them building new positions. There's a lot of trucks coming into the area as well," a Unifil officer said.
When a Times reporter visited the area two Hezbollah fighters wearing camouflage uniforms and carrying automatic rifles and walkie-talkies emerged from bushes beside a stone track on a hillside overlooking the river. They politely but firmly asked The Times for identification, saying that the area was off limits.
Less than a mile to the west, a shiny chain suspended between two concrete blocks along a dirt track marked the entrance to another Hezbollah "security pocket." A sign hanging from the chain read: "Warning. Access to this area is forbidden. Hezbollah." Beside the entrance stood a small sentry box housing another Hezbollah fighter who worked a landline telephone at the approach of strangers. More fighters could be seen on a pine-tree-studded hill overlooking the checkpoint.
A veteran Hezbollah fighter told The Times that long-range rockets were fired at Israel during the last clash from underground platforms in the surrounding hills.
"We have evidence to support their presence there. It seems to be an expansion of what was there before the war," a Western diplomat said.
Hezbollah readily admits that it is rearming. Lebanese customs police on the edge of Beirut stopped a truck loaded with rockets and mortars three weeks ago. Hezbollah said that the weapons were intended for its military wing and asked for their return. The Lebanese minister of defense said they would be handed to the Lebanese army. This month Hezbollah's leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said that weapons were being transported to "the front" in south Lebanon.
"We have weapons of all kinds and quantities, as many as you want. We don't fight our enemy with swords made of wood," he said.
The area in which Hezbollah is consolidating lies at the confluence of several Shiite, Christian and Druze villages, hamlets and farms.
For the past year, Ali Tajiddine, a Shiite businessman who traded in diamonds in West Africa before expanding into property development, has been buying swaths of land from Christians and Druze. Two thirds of Sraireh, a Druze village, has been bought along with more than 2 million square yards of land in the nearby Christian hamlet of Qotrani, where 30 houses under construction have been sold to Shiite owners, according to residents.
A new community of houses and shops called Ahmadiyeh is being built on a barren hillside beside a quarry owned by Tajiddine. His interest in the remote mountainous corner of Lebanon has puzzled residents and raised the suspicions of Jumblatt, whose Druze fiefdom cuts into the area. He suspects that Iranian funds are being used to buy the land, which will be turned into a Hezbollah military zone.
Tajiddine's connections to Hezbollah are well known in south Lebanon. In May 2003, one of his relatives was arrested in Antwerp on charges of laundering money for Hezbollah, using West African diamonds.
Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah's deputy leader, told The Times that Jumblatt's allegations were unfounded. He said that the Druze leader "likes to stir calm waters". Tajiddine also denied the claims. He said that he was buying land in the area because it was rich in quarrying opportunities.
Some Lebanese officials view Hezbollah's rearming as part of the looming showdown between the United States and Iran over its nuclear ambitions.
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