JERUSALEM, Nov. 26 (JTA) — Hezbollah is apparently acting with unfettered hands as it escalates tensions with Israel.
For several months now, Hezbollah gunmen have been filling the power vacuum that was created in southern Lebanon after Israeli troops withdrew from the region in May.
Calls from both Israel and the United Nations that the Lebanese government deploy its troops along the border have gone unheeded, leaving it up to Hezbollah to determine the degree of tension — and violence — that exists there.
“Hezbollah acts in place of a Lebanese government, as if it is the government,” said Israeli Cabinet minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a former Israel Defense Force chief of staff.
“Therefore, the present escalation may continue.”
He spoke after the latest flare-up along the border on Sunday, when Hezbollah gunmen set off a roadside explosion in a disputed area near the border that killed one Israeli soldier and wounded at least two others.
Israeli planes and artillery retaliated Sunday by attacking Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon. Israel also said it would file a complaint with the U.N. Security Council.
Shahak’s warnings about possible escalation are given added weight by Hezbollah’s deployment in southern Lebanon of Katyusha rockets— which it may soon launch against Israeli civilian targets.
If the rockets are fired, the situation along the border would revert to what it was prior to the Israeli withdrawal, when communities in northern Israel suffered repeated Hezbollah rocket attacks over the years.
The latest act of aggression by Hezbollah took place Sunday in a patch of land known as Shabaa Farms, which lies near the confluence of the Israeli, Lebanese and Syrian borders.
Hezbollah made the area a bone of contention within days after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, vowing it would continue its attacks on the Jewish state until the area is returned to Lebanese sovereignty.
The United Nations, which verified that the Israeli withdrawal was complete, has said Shabaa Farms is Syrian territory that Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War and is not part of Lebanon.
“When we get to the negotiating table with Syria and reach a territorial settlement, the area of Shabaa will be subject to negotiations,” Reuven Merhav, a former director general of the Foreign Ministry and one of Israel’s top experts on Lebanon, told JTA.
“In the meantime, there is no reason for Hezbollah to heat up the region because of Shabaa,” he said.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak said after Sunday’s roadside bombing that the situation along the border is “very sensitive.”
Without spelling out any details, he said the IDF would respond “with force and wisdom” to such attacks.
Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami charged that Lebanon is violating U.N. Security Council Resolution 425, which he said calls on Lebanon to assume responsibility for the areas from which Israel withdrew.
“We expect the support of the international community and indeed of the Security Council,” Ben-Ami said Sunday.
Sunday’s incident was but the latest attempt by Hezbollah to inflame tensions in the area.
On Nov. 16, two Israeli soldiers were slightly wounded when Hezbollah gunmen detonated six roadside bombs against an Israeli patrol in the Shabaa Farms area.
And on Oct. 7, Hezbollah abducted three Israeli soldiers who were making a routine check of the northern border with Lebanon. They have not been heard from since. Also in October, Hezbollah kidnapped an Israeli businessman while he was traveling abroad.
Since those abductions, Israel has resumed helicopter flights over Lebanon, occasionally attacking targets near the border.
Sunday’s attack took place as the IDF was busy dealing with the ongoing “Al-Aksa intifada,” the Palestinian uprising that began in late September in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The violence threatens to escalate with the start Monday of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, traditionally a time for Islamic militancy.
In a show of solidarity with the Palestinians, Abdullah Halak, a senior Hezbollah official, proudly declared Sunday that the roadside bombing had been carried out by a group of “Al-Aksa fighters” who wanted to “cheer up” Palestinian spirits on the eve of Ramadan.
Although Hezbollah has repeatedly linked its struggle against Israel with that of the Palestinians, its actions have also been tied to Syrian interests and internal politics in Lebanon.
In recent weeks, there have been massive student demonstrations in Lebanon, with protesters demanding that Syria follow the Israeli example and withdraw its forces from Lebanon.
Some 35,000 Syrian troops, along with some 500,000 Syrian civilian workers, have been stationed in Lebanon for the past 26 years.
But Bashar Assad, the young and inexperienced president of Syria, has shown no intention of ordering his troops back home.
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said over the weekend such a withdrawal would only take place with the “mutual agreement of Syria and Lebanon.”
Syria claims that its army was “invited” to Lebanon by the Lebanese Parliament.
Therefore, said Sharaa, “no other third party, whether internal or external, has the right to demand the withdrawal of the army.”
He also said that the presence of the Syrian army in Lebanon was essential because “Israel has not completed its withdrawal in the Shabaa region.”
The Syrian position was endorsed this week by Rafik Hariri, the newly elected premier of Lebanon.
“There is no justification for any demand that our Syrian brethren should withdraw at this time, while we feel that we still need their help,” he said.
Such statements are creating a comfortable situation for Hezbollah. With Syrian support and the failure of the central government to control its actions, there is no force within Lebanon to stop the Shi’ite group’s activities.
Whether there will be an escalation in the region will depend much on how far Syria is willing to go in risking a military confrontation with Israel.
Israeli military sources are concerned that Assad is too weak to face down militant elements in his army.
But Knesset Member Azmi Beshara, who met last week in Damascus with Assad for three hours, claims that Israeli intelligence was misreading Assad.
The Israeli Arab legislator said Assad is in total control of the situation in Damascus and has no desire whatsoever to take the military option.
“With a national debt of $22 million, with the government investing millions in tourism and infrastructure, one does not head toward a military confrontation,” Beshara said.
Beshara met with Assad to arrange a visit to Damascus by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat next month, with the goal of creating a joint Palestinian-Syrian front against Israel.
The long-term target, according to Beshara, will be to force Israel into a simultaneous peace deal with both Syria and the Palestinians, contrary to the traditional Israeli policy of alternately pursuing the Palestinian and Syrian negotiating tracks.
Such a peace deal, Beshara maintained, “would meet not only Palestinian and Syrian interests, but also Israel’s.”