Lebanon – In Hizbollah Country

No1559.jpgA view through the lens at Southern Lebanon prior to the current hostilities.


The warning shots for the latest Israel/Lebanon crisis can be traced directly and ominously to November 2005. On the 21st of that month, Hizbollah launched a massive artillery and mortar barrage on Israeli positions along the border, triggering a similar response from the IDF – including the use of air strikes. These attacks by Hizbollah were designed to divert attention from their attack on the contested border village of Ghajar, with the aim of capturing Israeli soldiers. It was by far the heaviest fighting between the two embittered foes since the Israeli armed forces begrudgingly left South Lebanon in May 2000, after 22 years’ occupation. Just a few days earlier I had visited the region:

In Sidon we obtained the appropriate passes from the ‘authorities’, our Shiite driver then driving us south-east, via Nabatiye, to the deserted and former SLA base of Beaufort Castle. Later, we were shown around the macabre Al Khiam prison by two edgy Hizbollah members. A group of visiting American Lebanese were on hand to do the translating, and perhaps help with their financing.

Our driver checked in on his father (Khiam being his home village) before taking us south on a close-up tour of the border; Kfar Kila, Fatima Gate, a major UNIFIL base, and then further south along the border, before winding through the rugged hills to the coast.

We had dinner in Tyre after cutting a deal to visit the ancient Roman ruins. Then it was on up the now destroyed coast road to Sidon, and back to Beirut. Little did we know that a major storm was brewing…A storm that would soon destroy the newly optimistic and rebuilt Lebanon; once again turning this country into a battle-ground, with the same major players, dirty hands and huge gambles to play.


An Amal member replaces a torn flag on a billboard remembering Amal martyrs. Hizbollah started out as an Amal splinter group.


Views from the damaged watch-tower of Beaufort castle. Beaufort’s strategic value may well come into hand, once again.


Beaufort Castle’s strategic hill-top location over-looking South Lebanon, has been fought over and occupied many times over the past millenium. In the 1970’s Palestinian guerrillas briefly occupied it, until Israel invaded and made it one of their main bases. In its retreat in May 2000 the IDF blew up parts of this historic castle to destroy traces of its occupation.


Downtown Beirut’s re-building, spearheaded by former president Rafik Hariri, is more reminiscent of Europe rather than the troubled Middle East.


Two un-armed Hizbollah members patrol the ruins of Baalbek. The Bekaa Valley has long been a stronghold and training ground for Hizbollah. Ironically, Baalbek was one of Lebanon’s biggest tourist draw cards.


A local man stands defiantly next to an Israeli army base along the border.


A tattered Hizbollah flag flies threateningly next to an Israeli base along the border.


The provocative Hizbollah moniker of an arm, gripping a AK47, marks its territory along the border.


The battered remains of the massive Holiday Inn is a constant reminder of the 15 year civil war. It became a favorite sniper position and in turn attracted firepower of all calibres. There were plans to restore the hotel to it’s former glory, including its once famous revolving restaurant.


Israeli Defence Force bases line the border at about one every mile. Although you couldn’t see anyone at home, you were left with the distinct feeling you were being watched.


A mural at the former Israeli/SLA detention camp of Al Khiam commorates the release of the prisoners in May 2000.


A mural on the wall of the once notorious Al Khiam prison.


From the watchtower of the reclaimed Al Khiam prison, Hizbollah has strategic views overlooking the disputed Shebaa farms area and beyond to Mount Miron.


Pictures of Hizbollah secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah are common place in the southern suburbs of South Beirut. Hizbollah was originally founded in response to the Israeli invasion of 1982.


At the former Al Khiam prison camp, Hizbollah art fully use a Katyusha missile launcher to show what they think of UN resolution 1559. This calls upon (among other things) “all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon and for the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias.” Since the Syrian army withdrawl last year, Hizbollah remain the only serious player to aggravate Israel.


In Rafiq Hariri’s home town of Saida (Sidon), men relax with an Arak (lions milk) or Nargileh (waterpipe). At least 6000 years old, Saida was once a prominent and wealthy Phoenician city. At the Lebanese Armed Forces headquarters, we gained our necessary visas to continue south and into Hizbollah country.


Rafik Hariri and his entourage were assasinated outside the St George Yacht Club by a massive bomb on Feburary 14th 2005. The Valentines day massacre of the former President, threw Lebanon into a crisis that eventually forced the withdrawl of Syrian forces. The bomb site was still cordoned off as of Nov 2005 as UN investigators put together their case.


The ancient ruins of Tyre, with the modern and now also ruined city.


The imposing Israeli border base on the high-ground south of Kfar Kila, dwarfs it’s UN neighbours. Hizbollah forces in the bunker just behind us were tense, in contrast to the basket-balling Indians. Pictures were out of the question.


A UN base on the border south of Al Khiam.


There was no problem taking photographs at the UN base’s gate. At the Hibollah bunker 100 meters away they were a bit more camera shy!


The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon was formed in 1978 with a mandate to oversee the Israeli forces withdrawal, and ensure the return of the Lebanese Government’s control of the region. Instead, Israel did not hand over control and installed their own militia, the South Lebanese Army.


The United Nations’ Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) 27 year “interim” mandate is well and truly over. Its mandate to “confirm the withdrawl of Israeli forces; to restore international peace and security; and to assist the government of Lebanon in ensuring the effective authority in
the area”, has been another long term major UN blunder.


The United Nations’ Interim Force in Lebanon, on patrol along the border near Fatima Gate. Approximately 250 UNIFIL troops have been killed since their mandate began in 1978. Fatima Gate, adjacent to the town of Kfar Kila was a border crossing during the war. After the Israeli withdrawal it became a minor tourist attraction, with fantastic views into Israel and the opportunity to purchase Hizbollah flags and souvenirs.


Author and Photographer – Fergus Cunningham.

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