Olmert: Lebanese Army, UNIFIL Are Keeping Hezbollah in Check

Ashkenazi: IDF may have to deal with Hezbollah's rearmament; Lebanese army fires at IAF drones.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rebuffed on Wednesday assessments Hezbollah had recovered from last year's war with Israel, saying UN peacekeepers and the Lebanese army were keeping the guerrilla group in check.

Olmert said that though the Shi'ite militia was rearming, it was finding it hard to regroup in its former border strongholds.

"When they try to surface now they are disarmed and arrested by the international force and the Lebanese force," Olmert told foreign reporters. He said it was now "almost impossible" for Hezbollah to function in its heartland, southern Lebanon.

"I am not certain that they have any appetite to fight with Israel again," Olmert said.

Meanwhile, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi said Wednesday that Israel may have to confront Hezbollah to halt the militant group's attempts to rearm after last summer's war in Lebanon.

Also Wednesday, Lebanese anti-aircraft guns fired at unmanned Israel Air Force drones near the southern Lebanese port city of Tyre on Wednesday, a Lebanese military spokesman said.

Ashkenazi said Israel delivered a tough blow to Hezbollah during the 34-day war, but the group, and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, are rapidly trying to refortify the militia.

"I think we all understand that ... he (Nasrallah) is not able to do the things that he could do before," Ashkenazi told reporters. "We see here and there smuggling and other things to bring weapons. We are following this and we apparently have to deal with this."

Ashkenazi made the comments while observing a military exercise on the Golan Heights.

Attending Wednesday's military exercise, Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Israel was trying to avoid a further confrontation with Hezbollah.

"There's no doubt that this exercise ... doesn't demonstrate any intention to get involved in any confrontation or friction," Peretz said.

The Lebanese Army spokesman said that the IAF drones had violated Lebanese sovereignty, and posed a challenge to United Nations Resolution 1701, a reference to the UN Security Council resolution that ended the second Lebanon war in August.

The drones were not hit by the fire.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity as is customary for the Lebanese military in the absence of a formal statement.

Also Wednesday, IDF troops located and destroyed a cave used by Hezbollah beyond Israel's border fence, but still inside Israeli territory. The cave was situated northeast of a community in the Western Galilee.

No arms or explosives were discovered in the cave.

The Lebanese army and Lebanese news agencies reported that since Tuesday evening, IAF planes have increased their number of sorties over the country.

The planes flew over the western and central sectors of the country, they said, and made sonic booms.

After the summer's war, IAF warplanes continued flying over Lebanese territory in violation of the Security Council resolution.

The IDF defended the overflights by pointing out that Hezbollah too was violating the resolution by continuing to smuggle arms, and that the flights were necessary for intelligence gathering.

IAF planes have flown reconnaissance missions over Lebanon for years, despite protests from the Beirut government.

In November, the Lebanese army opened anti-aircraft fire on the planes, but did not hit their targets.

In recent weeks, the IAF greatly reduced the number of overflights, a development widely covered in the Lebanese media.

In Jerusalem, the Israel Defense Forces declined to comment on the Lebanese statement.

On February 7, Lebanese troops fired at an IDF bulldozer after it allegedly crossed into south Lebanon. IDF troops fired back, but later said the bulldozer was still on the Israeli side of the UN-demarcated border.

After the war, the Lebanese army deployed some 16,000 troops in southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah militants had previously been in control. The UN has sent more than 12,000 peacekeepers to the area to monitor the cease-fire.