TEL AVIV, Israel—The Hezbollah force that fought Israel to a draw in a month-long border conflict is the product of a two-decade, Iranian-nurtured program that took a guerrilla group and transformed it into a full-blown Shiite Muslim army.
Interviews with Israeli soldiers and officers as well as published accounts of battles and analyses by experts on military affairs show that Hezbollah has been able to integrate an astonishing array of military capabilities, far outstripping what many Israelis understood were its abilities.
How Hezbollah grew into what one commentator has called the fifth most powerful army in the Middle East is a lesson sure to be studied not only by Israelis but also by their potential opponents in Gaza and the West Bank and by militia groups the world over. In Iraq, where Iran is deeply involved in political developments, the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is said to have made Hezbollah the model for his Mahdi Army militia.
It also bodes ill for hopes that Hezbollah might be restrained by the presence of U.N. peacekeepers or the Lebanese army, which began deploying in southern Lebanon last week after agreeing not to search for Hezbollah weapons.
"They've been hiding their tracks beautifully," said Timor Goksel, a former U.N. peacekeeper who spent 20 years in southern Lebanon and now teaches a course in ethnic conflict at the American University of Beirut. "Even I'm surprised that they were able to build all these systems."
"This was a real army, a command army, well trained and well equipped," said political scientist Gerald Steinberg, the director of the Conflict Management and Negotiation program at Israel's Bar Ilan University. The Palestinian Hamas movement, he said, "will want it more than they ever wanted it before, and they'll have to work harder than ever to get it. Everybody is going to be much more aware and much more willing to let Israel take action precisely to prevent a situation where Gaza turns into south Lebanon."
To be sure, Israel knew much about Hezbollah's military capabilities. Israeli intelligence had detected a 2003 shipment of long-range, Iranian-made Zelzal-2 missiles, which arrived at the Damascus airport in flights returning to Syria after delivering blankets and other emergency relief supplies to earthquake victims in Iran. Israeli officials said they didn't reveal the shipment at the time because they were afraid of tipping off Hezbollah and its allies to their sources.
Israeli military officers also were aware that Hezbollah was constructing a network of bunkers and tunnels on Israel's northern border. One reserve general called them the "infrastructure of an underground Tehran." They knew as well that Hezbollah fighters were regularly shuttling between Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and Iran for advanced training.
But the depth of Hezbollah's development became clear only once Israel attacked its installations in Lebanon in what some initially envisioned as a one- or two-week campaign. After slightly more than four weeks, Israel agreed to a cease-fire that left Hezbollah intact as the strongest political and military force in Lebanon.
The Israeli invasion showed that Hezbollah, with Iran's help, had taken hundreds of small steps to create a powerhouse. Among them:
_It acquired thousands of Russian-made anti-tank missiles from Syria and Iran, then trained its forces to use them. The missiles were startlingly effective not just against Israeli tanks but also against houses and other buildings where Israeli troops sought shelter.
_It set up a top-down, stealthy military structure that tightly controls operations and is led by a covert chief of staff whose name isn't known to the Israelis or at least isn't made public. Israeli military officials think that some promising Hezbollah fighters have been sent to special Iranian command courses.
_It established a combat-ready organization: a logistics branch to handle the delivery of food, fuel and munitions; a black-clad special forces unit to conduct daring combat missions and abduct Israeli soldiers; navy commandos; and an infantry that trains for complex operations and supports the other units.
_It set up a reserve system that consists of former full-time fighters who can be called back to service and "weekend warriors" who undergo regular training but generally haven't seen combat.
It also created an intelligence unit that recruited a Bedouin spy inside the Israeli army and an air wing that sent drones on test runs over Israel in 2004 and 2005, on flight paths similar to those that its Katyusha rockets followed this summer as they rained down on Israel.
It has Shiite fighters who speak Hebrew, perhaps learned on patrols along the northern border in earshot of Israeli broadcasts. This makes some Israeli soldiers suspect that they were being overheard.
It's also kept its command structure largely secret.
Its uniforms have no emblems and insignia that could help Israeli soldiers sort out the commanders from the rank and file in combat. If Israeli intelligence has an organizational chart, it hasn't made it public.
"It's a well-organized army, unified, well-equipped—a big Shiite army," said Iftach Shapira, an analyst for The Middle East Military Balance, a publication of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. "It happened slowly. We knew this army was being built, but I think we didn't appreciate just how strong it was."
Israelis think that Iran is intimately involved in training Hezbollah, which was founded largely at the behest of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Muslim cleric who toppled the shah of Iran in 1978 and died in 1989.
At the time of Hezbollah's beginnings, Israel occupied southern Lebanon and the United States had sent peacekeeping forces in an effort to separate warring Lebanese sides in a civil war. Hezbollah's first homegrown military leader, Imad Mugniyeh, a Shiite who served with the Palestine Liberation Organization's elite bodyguard unit, is thought to have planned the suicide bombings in Beirut of the U.S. Embassy and the Marine barracks.
Iran dispatched an estimated 100 Revolutionary Guards to help Hezbollah set up military camps in the Bekaa Valley, where they provided ideological and Islamic education and boot camp-style training.
Since then, according to Israeli military intelligence estimates, as many as 1,000 Lebanese recruits a year have been sent to Iran for specialty training in using rockets, anti-tank missiles and other weapons.
To reinforce the recruits' fervor, their Iranian hosts take them on pilgrimages to shrines and mosques around the Shiite heartland, according to Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, until recently Israel's chief of intelligence analysis.
The pilgrimages are important, Kuperwasser said, to provide a religious underpinning to their training.
"The main thing they teach is brainwashing them with their Islamic interpretation of the Quran," he said. "A soldier without motivation is not a soldier."
Much of Israel's freshest information on Hezbollah presumably is coming from the 20-plus Hezbollah fighters it took prisoner in the conflict. Israeli television aired a seven-minute clip from one such interrogation, and provided McClatchy Newspapers with an English-language transcript.
In the clip, the prisoner, Hussein Ali Suleiman, 22, said he joined Hezbollah when he was 15 and studied Hezbollah ideology at a night school until, at age 17, he was sent to 45 days of basic training at a Hezbollah base in Baalbeck, in the Bekaa Valley.
Later that year, he and 40 to 50 others traveled to Iran, first by four-wheel-drive to Syria along a military lane that didn't require passport checks, then aboard a flight to Iran. There, he got advanced training in operating and firing anti-tank missiles in a four-man unit.
He said his unit was deployed twice to southern Lebanon to snatch Israeli soldiers. The first mission was unsuccessful. On the second, on July 12, they killed three soldiers and abducted two others. That raid touched off the most recent fighting.
His assignment: If Israeli armor pursued Hezbollah kidnappers, his unit would fire missiles at the tanks to immobilize them.
Israeli military officers said Suleiman's story illustrated the sophistication of Hezbollah's planning. They noted that not only was he briefed on his role but that his unit also practiced the operation four days before the border incursion.
Israeli officials acknowledge that intelligence gaps led to casualties. For example, Israel didn't know that Hezbollah had acquired sophisticated C-802 land-to-sea guided missiles, one of which struck an Israeli navy ship, the Hanit, off the Lebanese coat, killing four sailors.
Had Israel known about it, officers said, the ship's captain would have engaged an anti-missile system that would have averted the strike.
Israeli intelligence officers won't discuss whether Israel has penetrated Hezbollah successfully. But news accounts make it clear that Hezbollah has infiltrated Israel.
In one case Hezbollah recruited a spy, Israeli army Col. Omar al Heib, a Bedouin scout and Israeli citizen, who provided insights into how the army operated in exchange for heroin and hashish. He was discovered and convicted of espionage last year, and is serving a 15-year sentence.
Hezbollah also made use of unmanned Muhajir aircraft obtained from Iran and capable of carrying camera equipment to over-fly Israel. One of the drones passed over northwestern Israel in April 2005, hours before President Bush and then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon held a news conference in Crawford, Texas.
Israeli soldiers have been stunned by Hezbollah's first-strike strategy. First Sgt. Guy Nehama's paratroop unit lost its commander, a lieutenant, when Hezbollah commandos fired an anti-tank rocket through the wall of a house in the village of Ait a Shaab where they were staying during the third week of the conflict. The impact sent shards of metal flying, decapitating the commander before his eyes.
"Maybe the IDF knew," Nehama said, referring to the Israel Defense Forces. "But the people of Israel didn't know that the Hezbollah got so much stronger."
Goksel, the former U.N. peacekeeper, said that every Hezbollah member in south Lebanon had three changes of clothing in his closet: dress uniforms for parades, fatigues to fight in and the ordinary civilian clothes he wears by day to mask his membership.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Need to map