Will Ramallah Withdrawal Invite Hezbollah Aggression in North?

Israeli officials are wondering how the rushed withdrawal from Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah will affect Israel’s deterrent capability on a different front — the border with Lebanon.

The Ramallah fiasco raised difficult questions for Israeli policy-makers, who fear a similar scenario on Israel’s northern border: If Hezbollah steps up attacks against Israeli targets, should Israel retaliate? What if the Bush administration orders Israel to stop, as it did in Ramallah, so as not to endanger an American push against Iraq?

The question takes on added relevance amid warnings that Iran and Syria have helped Hezbollah stockpile thousands of missiles that can hit Haifa and other Israeli population centers from southern Lebanon.

Israeli leaders see the disarming or overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as a major priority. With the United States trying to build international support for a strike at Saddam, Israeli officials are determined to avoid disputes with U.S. leaders — as evidenced by Israeli acquiescence to American pressure to end the Ramallah siege without the handover of terrorist suspects inside.

But that precedent may put Israel at the mercy of Hezbollah, which Israeli officials fear may try to provoke Israel in order to disrupt U.S. plans against Iraq.

According to Israeli intelligence, Hezbollah’s arsenal now contains close to 10,000 Katyusha rockets with a range of about 12 miles, enough to terrorize Israeli communities in the Upper Galilee. Hezbollah also has received several hundred longer-range systems from Iran that can hit targets 25 miles to 45 miles away.

In coming weeks, Hezbollah could try to provoke Israel into a counterattack — disrupting U.S. moves against Iraq or fragmenting an anti-Iraq coalition — or at least to harm Israel when the Jewish state does not feel free to respond, Israeli officials fear.

The wild card in the equation is Damascus, which is the main power broker in Lebanon and is believed to pull Hezbollah’s strings.

In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Syria was part of the anti-Saddam coalition; this time Syria, like most of the Arab world, is part of the anti-war coalition. Will Syria give Hezbollah the green light to open another Middle East front?

Hezbollah tried to goad Israel into war last April, hoping to make Israel fight on another front at the same time as it faced the Palestinian intifada in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Hezbollah began lobbing mortars and rockets at Israeli military positions in the foothills of Mount Hermon, which Hezbollah claims as Lebanese territory. With Israel threatening retaliation, the Bush administration urged Syria to restrain Hezbollah, and it worked.

That warning has outlived its effectiveness, officials now believe.

Despite the fears, some experts, like Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center, believe Syria and Hezbollah are unlikely to take advantage of the Iraq crisis to push for a confrontation with Israel.

“It will not necessarily happen for two reasons: They do not have an interest in helping the Iraqis and they fear that they will be next on the American list,” Zisser told JTA.

Therefore, he said, Syria and Hezbollah are likely to keep a low profile.

In Zisser’s view, Hezbollah’s calculations are based more on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Hezbollah will hit Israel whenever they do not risk reaction,” he said. “Despite American calls for restraint” from Israel, Hezbollah “still fears a reaction.”

Hezbollah also will need to take into account internal Lebanese politics.

Relations are delicate between Hezbollah, which effectively controls southern Lebanon, and the central government in Beirut. The government publicly supports Hezbollah’s militancy, but it has urged Hezbollah to refrain from escalating the situation to a point that would trigger massive Israeli retaliation.

The Shi’ite militia retains its aura of heroism for its role in forcing Israel to withdraw from southern Lebanon in May 2000, but many Lebanese are not willing to see the country’s hard-won stability threatened by the group’s continuing belligerency.

Lebanese leaders remember Israeli threats in the past to attack Lebanese infrastructure if Hezbollah hits Israeli towns. While Hezbollah continues to stir up tension along the border every now and then, it refrains from major attacks such as the outright shelling of Israeli population centers that it favored in the past.

During the recent Sukkot holiday, hotels and recreation centers in northern Israeli were packed with Israeli tourists. That showed a confidence in the stability of the situation that had not been seen since the Palestinian intifada began two years ago.

But signs for a possible escalation do exist. According to Israeli intelligence reports, Syria, which in the past served as a transit point for Iranian rockets bound for Hezbollah, recently began supplying Hezbollah with rockets as well.

Another indication that Hezbollah and the Syrians are willing to raise the stakes is Lebanon’s determination to go ahead with a project to pump water from the Wazzani River. The Wazzani is a tributary of the Hatzbani River, which is one of three key sources of the Jordan River. That flows into the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s main water reservoir.

Israel at first responded angrily, saying the water diversion was a potential cause for war. It soon toned down its rhetoric, and Zisser believes all the parties involved are trying to de-escalate the situation.

But today’s calculations can change if the United States goes to war with Iraq. Iraq may lash out at Israel, and if Israel retaliates against Iraq — or if things heat up on the Palestinian front — Syria and Hezbollah may decide to jump in.

Also in the equation are the long-range missiles held by Syria and Iran, allowing both countries to hit almost any point in Israel from within their own territory.

Experts agree that, in the present political configuration, Syria and Iran are unlikely to use the missiles, but their very existence poses a much graver threat to Israel than the Hezbollah arsenal.

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