Escalation by Israel, Hezbollah Marks Worst Violence in 3 Years

The latest eruption of violence along Israel’s northern border has spawned varying assessments of what exactly sparked the escalation — and whether it will affect fledgling peace overtures between Israel and Syria.

In a spiraling cycle of violence, nine Lebanese were killed when Israel bombed power stations and bridges near Beirut in an operation that began June 25. The Israeli air assault came in response to Hezbollah rocket attacks that day, which killed two residents in northern Israel and wounded at least 12, one seriously.

The attacks marked the heaviest cross-border violence since a cease-fire in 1996 ended Operation Grapes of Wrath, Israel’s 16-day campaign in Lebanon against Hezbollah.

The fighting was halted last Friday morning after U.S. officials conveyed a message from Israel to Syria that hostilities would escalate if Damascus did not rein in Hezbollah, Israeli security officials said.

The violence came against the backdrop of tentative overtures between Israel and Syria prompted by the May victory of Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak, who pledged during the election campaign to pull Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon and pursue a peace agreement with Damascus.

Far from being left out of the loop, Barak gave his tacit approval to the raids, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported Sunday.

Some Israeli defense officials are maintaining that Hezbollah used the assault to signal to both Syria and Israel that any future arrangement regarding Lebanon would have to take into account another interest — that of Hezbollah.

Israeli army officials have noted that the pro-Shi’ite organization has become increasingly daring in its efforts to oust Israeli troops from the 9-mile-wide security zone Israel maintains in southern Lebanon to defend its northern border.

According to another assessment, the attacks that Hezbollah launched last week on northern Israel were intended as a “collective” response to previous blows it sustained in clashes with Israel and its ally in the region, the South Lebanon Army.

Defense sources also said that given the previously restrained responses of the Israel Defense Force to Katyusha attacks, Hezbollah may not have expected last week’s forceful retaliation by the Israeli military.

Israeli officials said the response was intended to send a message that Israel would not tolerate such attacks.

“We did not go to this with enthusiasm or happiness to damage the Lebanese infrastructure. We conveyed messages before we acted, and when we saw they were not received, and our patience ran out, we acted,” Defense Minister Moshe Arens said.

Echoing the often repeated accusation of Israeli officials, Arens said Syria is using Hezbollah to pressure Israel.

“There is no doubt that nothing happens in Lebanon unless the Syrians want it,” Arens told reporters.

Meanwhile, residents of northern Israel are demanding financial compensation after Hezbollah launched a series of Katyusha rocket attacks on their communities.

A delegation of local leaders from communities along the northern border met Sunday with outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss whether promised aid would be forthcoming.

They also met with Barak, who promised to make the economic needs of the northern communities a top priority in his new government.

In Kiryat Shmona and other communities, residents blocked roads and called a strike to protest what they viewed as government neglect.

Some 500 structures and 100 vehicles were damaged in last week’s attacks.

Property damage was estimated at millions of dollars — excluding related economic losses, such as the negative impact on local tourism.

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