The towering Mount Sannine, at 8,622 feet above sea level the highest point of the Mount Lebanon range, was the first foothold Hizballah grabbed in its bid to dominate Lebanon (as first revealed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly 356 on July 11).
Iranian and Syrian radar and anti-air weapons officers were then installed on this peak. And Hizballah moved on.
Our military sources disclose that the armed Shiite group went on to grab positions on the Western ridge of Jebel Barukh, east of Jezzine, a move which has brought it closer to the Israel border. (See the map accompanying this article:
Perched atop the two tallest mountain peaks in Lebanon, Hizballah, Syria and Iran are able to control most of Israel’s air space to the south and the heartlands of Lebanon’s Christian centers. Its two-pronged grip on the Western slopes of Mt. Lebanon extends this control down to the Mediterranean coastal plain.
The accompanying map represents the findings of Lebanon intelligence on June 22, after local Christian villagers fought – and failed – to drive Hizballah gunmen from Mt Sannine. Their militiamen from Baskinta village were on a routine patrol of the mountain slopes when, as they neared the summit, they came under fire.
That was how they discovered for the first time that Hizballah had seized the mountaintop.
Our intelligence sources report that the US Sixth Fleet intelligence arm was equally unaware of this until the Lebanese intelligence report reached Western hands. And so was the Israel Defense Forces command.
Neither US nor Israel were prepared to act
Neither realized until too late that Hizballah was ensconced at the most valuable strategic point in Lebanon and had gained command of the eastern Mediterranean waters patrolled by the Sixth Fleet, as well as southern Lebanon and northern Israel.
Even when the news reached competent hands in Washington and Jerusalem, neither the policy-makers nor the military echelons were prepared to act on it.
The Americans feared that letting this explosive cat out of the bag would endanger the political process hoped to produce a stable Lebanese government under president Michel Sleiman, and derail the steps taken by Washington and Paris to start mending their fences with Syrian president Bashar Assad.
The Israelis, who were finally, after two years, about to recover from Hizballah two kidnapped soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, shrank from disclosures that might overturn this precarious transaction.
But every passing day since that deal went through on July 16, more evidence comes to light of the prohibitive price Israel and its army have paid for this uneven exchange of prisoners for bodies. The conditions the Israeli army will have to contend with in another outbreak of hostilities with the Hizballah grow vastly more complicated and perilous, because the Olmert government gave way to popular pressure at the expense of overriding national strategic interests.
Tuesday, the former foreign ministry director-general Prof. Shlomo Avineri, a respected political analyst, said: “The deterioration of the debate over a difficult strategic issue to the level of a soap opera is worrying and outrageous.”
He called on the government and army to change the rules of the game, instead of being “dragged into” Hizballah’s and Hamas’ turf.
Hizballah is back in strength in the South
The new Lebanese intelligence picture revealed here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s exclusive sources pinpoints Hizballah’s deployment across South Lebanon, from which the armed group was barred by the UN Security Council Resolution 1701 that ended its 2006 war with Israel.
Hizballah is back in strength in the military enclaves circled on the accompanying map which have been declared off-limits to civilians.
Contrary to the picture presented by Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, Hizballah has surreptitiously established scores of military bases around three main centers close to the Israeli border at Marjayun, Nabatiya and Hasbaya.
Marked on the map are two lines of fortifications and large-scale concentrations of fighting strength:
1. One, northwest of the Zahrani River, is arrayed to obstruct Israeli forces attempting to break through to Jebel Barukh and Mt. Sannine, as well as shielding the 10th and 14th Syrian armored divisions straddling the Syrian-Lebanese border opposite the Israeli positions on Mt. Hermon and Mt. Dov.
2. North-west of the first line is a long chain of positions, ranged across the breadth of South Lebanon, from Mt. Hermon in the east, up to Sidon on the Mediterranean coast to the west.
This chain for fortifications is designed to stand in the path of Israeli invaders heading for the Hizballah-ruled Shiite heartland in the central Lebanese towns of Baalbek, Eir al Amr and the Beqaa Valley.