Unlike urban areas of the country, the air in southern Lebanon is free from pollution. The hills are lush with early-spring growth and the entire landscape has a rugged beauty that belies the violence it has experienced. The only visible marks of war are martyrs’ posters that line the streets winding through picturesque villages—young local men lost in a decades-long conflict with the neighboring Jewish state of Israel.
Just a few kilometers away from the border, where Israel is in the process of erecting a hotly disputed wall to separate itself from the Hezbollah-controlled south, a local official and brigade leader in the Iranian-backed Shia militant group smoked a slim cigarette as he discussed the prospect of yet another round of violence. Every now and then, a villager wandered into his house, which sometimes doubles as an office, to get documents stamped, and the conversation paused until the visitor was gone.
The last major episode in the conflict took place in 2006, when Israel invaded Lebanon in a retaliatory offensive unsuccessful in eradicating Hezbollah, which has been celebrating its victory over the invaders ever since. The 2006 war was an impressive win for the group, in that it successfully fought the most powerful army in the Middle East until it was forced into a cease-fire, with fewer Hezbollah casualties and more Israeli casualties than expected. Hezbollah has been consolidating power and weaponry ever since, fully funded by its Iranian benefactors and increasingly alarming its neighbor, which is better accustomed to facing the much less imposing Palestinian Hamas.
“The situation is very tense in the south and we are closer than ever to conflict,” the Hezbollah official said. “The Iranians and Hezbollah are now at the borders of Israel in Lebanon and Syria; any upcoming war will be endless.”
The official, like all the Hezbollah members interviewed for this article, asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak with foreign press. He was referring to the political atmosphere after an Israeli F-16 jet was shot down over Syria on February 10, where Hezbollah is fighting on behalf of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The jet was responding to an Iranian drone’s incursion into Israeli territory when it reportedly took fire from up to four different kinds of Russian-made antiaircraft missiles and crashed in northern Israel. Israel then launched a second raid, which it claims damaged a significant portion of Syria’s air-defense systems, hitting 12 Iranian and Syrian targets.