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Hezbollah Plays Up Efforts To Oppose Israel

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

For the past four years, a Lebanese militant group, Hezbollah, has fought in Syria. The support it has provided the Syrian government has been controversial. Now it seems the group wants to remind people of its original purpose, so it just held a media tour on the Israeli border. NPR's Alison Meuse was there.

ALISON MEUSE, BYLINE: There are dozens of reporters in this town hall in south Lebanon. The powerful military group Hezbollah wants to get its message across. A Hezbollah commander in fatigues leads us away in a convoy.

We've just left the municipality where we were welcomed. And there's dozens of journalists, and we're all in a line of cars. And there just so happened to be all of these Hezbollah guys posing on the side of the road in face paint for war and camouflage and holding some guns and looking very serious and certainly not making eye contact.

We pass a Lebanese army checkpoint. They're supposed to be in control of this area. But clearly, the Hezbollah fighters were meant to be seen. People in Lebanon and the region have been divided over Hezbollah's role in Syria. Now it seems Hezbollah wants to reclaim its original source of popularity, as a force against Israel.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORS CLOSING)

MEUSE: When we arrive at the border, the Hezbollah commander, introduced to us only Ehab, describes what his men have seen over the past year.

EHAB: (Speaking Arabic).

MEUSE: He says Israeli troops have been digging into the hillside so that it drops away like a cliff, giving them visibility. We can see two earthmovers at work, carving out a long trench in the distance beyond the cliff.

EHAB: (Speaking Arabic).

MEUSE: Ehab says Israel has been putting up new surveillance cameras and radar. He sees these border fortifications as a sign that Israel is on the defensive.

EHAB: (Speaking Arabic).

MEUSE: In his words, the enemy is scared. Israeli officials don't say they're on the defensive, but they recently told reporters they're concerned about Hezbollah's ability to fire rockets anywhere in the country, further than short-range rockets they've used in the past. But they also said they don't think Hezbollah is seeking a new conflict now.

Someone who's been watching this border for a long time is Timur Goksel. He's currently with Al-Monitor news site. But for years, he served as spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping force that monitors the frontline to this day.

TIMUR GOKSEL: It's all very quiet. I don't nobody has any intentions of starting anything apart from talking about it. I don't think so.

MEUSE: Goksel says a miscalculation could still lead to conflict, but he believes neither side wants to provoke a war right now. We saw the U.N. peacekeepers trying to prevent confrontation even during our visit. Toward the end of the tour, Hezbollah had led us just below an Israeli surveillance installation. A U.N. commander shouted at one of the Hezbollah officials to move us away.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's not possible.

MEUSE: A Hezbollah official put his arm around the U.N. commander's shoulder and led him away from the group and told him this is Lebanese land. Alison Meuse, NPR News, south Lebanon.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This story incorrectly states that the man who led away a U.N. official was a Hezbollah party official. According to the group, the man was an official with the Lebanese military who accompanied Hezbollah on the media tour.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 4, 2017 at 11:00 PM CDT
This story incorrectly states that the man who led away a U.N. official was a Hezbollah party official. According to the group, the man was an official with the Lebanese military who accompanied Hezbollah on the media tour.