By Charles Levinson in Chbail, Lebanon, Sunday Telegraph
Last Updated: 12:35am BST 12/08/2007
Hizbollah is buying up large tracts of land owned by Christians and other non-Shias in southern Lebanon as the militant group rebuilds its defences in preparation for a new war with Israel, The Sunday Telegraph has been told.
A UN soldier in Lebanon, Hizbollah buys frontier land to attack Israel
Hizbollah is buying land beyond the reach of the UN
The land grab is thought to be driven by the Iranian-backed guerrillas' efforts to rearm themselves and fortify the strategically important ravines north of the Litani River, just north of the front line in last year's 34-day conflict with its Jewish neighbour.
Here, Hizbollah has been free to press forward without harassment from the 13,000 United Nations peacekeepers and 20,000 Lebanese army troops who were deployed south of the Litani as part of the ceasefire agreement that ended the conflict.
Just south of the Litani, the UN is conducting hundreds of patrols each day in a bid to keep Hizbollah weapons out of the area, but the peacekeepers' mandate ends at the river.
The Lebanese army, meanwhile, is about 50 per cent Shia and seems to be turning a blind eye to Hizbollah activities north of the river.
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In these rugged gorges, the group appears to be readying for round two with Israel, and many fear it is not far off after the inconclusive end to last year's war and reports of -Hizbollah rearming.
The area's forested wadis, or valleys, make ideal terrain for Hizbollah's brand of guerrilla warfare and, just 10 miles from the border, are within rocket range of Israeli cities.
The Shia encroachment into a mixed area of Christians, Shias and Druze Muslims threatens to disrupt Lebanon's delicate sectarian balance, which is already teetering after three years of political tumult.
"Christians and Druze are selling land and moving out, while the Shia are moving in. There is an extraordinary demo-graphic shift taking place," said Edmund Rizk, a Christian MP for the area until 1992.
On a scenic, sparsely populated ridge, the farming village of Chbail was once Christian. Today, the land belongs to a wealthy Shia businessman with alleged ties to Hizbollah. Its new residents are recent Shia transplants from the Hizbollah-controlled south.
Lebanon and Israel locator, hizbollah buys frontier land to attack Israel
Entry to the village is forbidden to outsiders - not by the Lebanese army that technically holds sway here, but by the chabab, the plain-clothed, bearded youths who act as look-outs in Hizbollah territory.
"The village is closed for security reasons," said a youth who had recently moved from a Hizbollah-controlled area near the regional capital, Tyre.
Like many neighbouring hamlets, Chbail has steadily decayed ever since civil war broke out in 1975. Fleeing first Palestinian guerrillas, then invading Israeli soldiers, and finally Hizbollah, villagers steadily migrated to seek better lives in Beirut or overseas.
While The Sunday Telegraph was at Chbail's outskirts, a rust-coloured Volvo station wagon rolled in, piled high with wooden building beams. A dozen or so other young men with dirt-caked fingernails came and went freely. On the wadis' western edge, a metal sign strung across an unmarked dirt track erased any doubt about what, or rather who, now lies beyond.
"Entry forbidden. Hizbollah area," the sign read in Arabic. The closure was manned by a pair of teenage gunmen in olive green fatigues, armed with walkie-talkies and AK47s.
The buy-up of land in Chbail and half a dozen Druze and Christian villages is said to be the work of a wealthy Shia businessman, Ali Tajeddine, who made his fortune trading diamonds in Sierra Leone before returning to Lebanon and starting a successful construction company.
Squat and bearded, Mr Tajeddine keeps a Hizbollah charity box in the waiting room of his Tyre office. He is believed to be a major player in Hizbollah's massive reconstruction programme called Jihad al Bina, or the Building Jihad.
During an interview, Mr Tajeddine fidgeted nervously as he denied any connection with Hizbollah. He said his projects at Chbail represent just a fraction of the dozens of developments he is building throughout Lebanon.
But his distinctive arc of land-buys around Hizbollah's new stronghold has triggered alarm among the district's Christian and Druze leaders, who say he is using Iranian funds to buy land from destitute villagers at up to four times the going rate. Druze sheikhs have responded by forbidding the sale of land to Shias and wealthy Christians have been asked to buy property in the area to stem the Shia tide.
In Chbail and two neighbouring Christian villages, Mr Tajeddine has already bought 200-300 acres of land, according to the mayor, Kamil Fares. "There are new people coming," he said. "Shias have moved into apartments belonging to Ali Tajeddine. But we're poor. What can we do?"
In the Druze village of Al Sreiri, the mayor, Hafed Kiwane, told a similar story. "We have nothing here, so it was good to see money coming into the area, but now we fear there are suspicious motives," he said.
Among the Hizbollah settlements is the fledgling village of Ahmediyya, where a billboard in Hebrew warns Israeli invaders: "Do not enter!"
Dozens of housing units have been built here in the past year. A supermarket is open for business, and 10 Shia families have moved in so far. Among them is project foreman Mohammad Atwa, 51. As two men photographed The Sunday Telegraph's car, he said: "The rockets of the resistance showed us there was someone to defend us."
Critics fear that Ahmediyya will further stretch the Shia reach to the north-east, as part of a grand scheme to create a strip of Shia-controlled land connecting the south to Hizbollah's other power centre in Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley.
"It is part of Hizbollah's plan to create a state within a state," said Walid Jumblatt, a Druze leader. He also pointed to the four-lane road being built to connect the Hizbollah stronghold of Nabatieh in the south to the western Bekaa.
Banners openly proclaim the source of the road's funding: "510km of new roads paid for by the Iranian Organization for Sharing in the Building of Lebanon".