Hezbollah has moved its short-range Katyusha rockets into built-up areas in southern Lebanon, mostly in Shi'ite villages, to hide them from the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), military sources say.
Since its reinforced deployment after the cease-fire last August, UNIFIL has carried out extensive searches in southern Lebanon's open brush areas, where Hezbollah built up extensive underground fortifications and set up launch pads for its rocket attacks against Israel.
In recent months, more than 90 percent of these areas have been searched, and UNIFIL patrols have found and destroyed Hezbollah arms, including Katyusha launchers, Katyusha rockets and explosives.
Details of the United Nations operations in southern Lebanon are in reports sent from UNIFIL to the organization's headquarters in New York.
During searches after the war, 33 such areas - which the Israel Defense Forces euphemistically terms "nature reserves" - were located. These included bunkers and underground tunnels, some of which are sufficiently complex to include sub-systems, all built by Hezbollah south of the Litani River during the six years following the IDF withdrawal from southern Lebanon. Most of the rockets fired against Israel during the war last year were launched from the "nature reserves."
Military Intelligence had information on the location of most of these areas, but not about the extent of the fortifications built by Hezbollah there. Throughout the war the General Staff - and particularly Northern Command - restricted the offensive operations into these areas following the initial encounter July 19, 2006, during which two soldiers were killed in a confrontation with Hezbollah in the "nature reserve" code-named Shaked near the town of Maroun al-Ras.
The UNIFIL searches have revealed that the condition of the bunkers and fortifications in the "nature reserves" has deteriorated - suggesting that Hezbollah fighters have not tried to return to these permanently. However, it is also clear that some Hezbollah fighters do occasionally return to the area to maintain some of the fortifications.
As an alternative to the "nature reserves," Hezbollah is trying to transfer significant numbers of its rockets into built-up areas, mostly in the dozens of Shi'ite villages south of the Litani.
Most of the organization's long-range rockets are kept north of the river, but there is a continuous effort to smuggle missiles into southern Lebanon, controlled by UNIFIL.
Israel has recently issued a number of warnings to Lebanon that if in the future there is an outbreak of hostilities and Hezbollah launches rockets from built-up areas, the IDF will not hesitate to bomb - and even totally destroy - urban areas after it gives Lebanese civilians the chance to flee.
UNIFIL's efforts have touched a raw nerve with Hezbollah, and Israeli analysts have interpreted the recent attack against a UN armored vehicle, in which six soldiers of the Spanish battalion were killed, as being directly linked to the pressure the peacekeepers have put on the extremist Shi'ite organization.
Meanwhile, the visit of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah to Damascus Thursday, where he met with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was something Israeli intelligence did not know about before the fact.