Two years ago, Israeli air and ground forces were attacking suspected strongholds of the group Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. And Hezbollah was bombarding northern Israel with Katyusha rockets. Both sides claimed victory after a month of fighting. It's debatable whether either side won. But one thing is certain: Iran-backed Hezbollah is back at full strength. And some believe a new, Iranian funded road in southern Lebanon is helping to arm the militants. The World's Aaron Schachter reports.
All photos: Rafael D. Frankel
Schachter: Iran began paving what had been little more than a dirt track just over a year ago. Signs posted along the new road every few hundred yards announce it's quote "in the service of the Lebanese people." In fact, drivers here are bombarded by road signs promoting Iran's good works in south Lebanon. - 200 infrastructure projects, 108 miles of roads, 25 medical clinics, 75 educational centers - and so on. This road isn't anything special by US standards, but consider what was here before.
"In the service of the Lebanese people""In the service of the Lebanese people"
Schachter: This is the bone-jarring drive over a part of the road where construction has yet to start. So you can imagine the wide, smooth tarmac of the new road is a welcome relief. But on this glorious summer day, the road is nearly empty.
Schachter: We stop at shops along the road. But no one will talk with us, at least not on the record. One man says bluntly "keep me out of it." He says the area is "very sensitive" and he doesn't want to jeopardize the roadside business he and his family have just built. As we get set to drive away, he warns Hezbollah may consider us spies and detain us. "If you want my advice, he says, go back to Beirut." But others aren't quite so fearful about voicing their opinions. Francois El Helou is a doctor in the Christian village of Jezzine.
Helou: ï¿½It's the front line of Hezbollah and Iran in our region. This in future it's catastrophic. I can show you on the map here.
Schachter: The new road will mean a quick trip from Helou's village to the Bekaa Valley in the east and to the Mediterranean in the westï¿½ That means the road will essentially connect the country's two Shiite strongholds. Wealthy Shiite investors have recently bought up large chunks of land near Jezzine to build homes for Shiites. Pointing at the map, Helou says the road will disturb the balance here.
Helou: ï¿½It's not just a road, it's demographic, okay. Look, Sunni, Christian, Christian, Christian all this area. Here, Druze. Lebanon is small country, you can not play with demographics, you cannot play with political history in land. So, you play with the balance of communities, it's a big explosion.ï¿½
Schachter: Hezbollah officials say the real estate purchases are merely to accommodate the "natural growth'' of Lebanon's Shiite population. Some people here, though, think the road is designed to accommodate something else. They suspect it's being used to restock Hezbollah's cache of weapons, depleted during its war with Israel. But other observers are skeptical. Why would a super-secretive organization like Hezbollah use a highway to bring in supplies from Syria? The road makes travel easier, but it's also one huge target.
Goksel: ï¿½The only thing remarkable about that road is, as far as I know, it's the only road built to specifications because the Iranians check where their money goes. Come on. ï¿½
Schachter: Timor Goksel is a former spokesman for the United Nations force in south Lebanon. He is now a lecturer at American University Beirut.
Goksel: ï¿½The problem of weapons coming into Lebanon is not the presence of roads; it's the absence of a border. There are already roads, right, and believe me - after having watched Hezbollah for more than 20 years in south Lebanon - they are not very keen on using super highways. Believe me, I know that.
"The billboard shows Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. In the background is a donation box for the Islamist organization."The billboard shows Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. In the background is a donation box for the Islamist organization.
Schachter: But most people believe Hezbollah is re-arming and training in the area. The group argues that its militia is a necessary deterrent to Israel, which occupied southern Lebanon in the 80s and 90s. Hezbollah has been tight-lipped about allegations that the road is used to ferry weapons. But while I wasn't stopped on the day I drove south, it's not unusual for foreigners and Lebanese to alike to be pulled over by gunmen in the Bekaa Valley and told, "the road's closed."
For The World, I'm Aaron Schachter, south Lebanon.