Israel rethinks policy toward Hezbollah

Israeli troops mobilize near a northern border town in August 2003 after a Hezbollah fired shell killed a 16-year-old Israeli. (Brian Hendler)

Israeli troops mobilize near a northern border town in August 2003 after a Hezbollah fired shell killed a 16-year-old Israeli. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, May 11 (JTA) — How much longer President Bush remains in office may have an impact on what Israel does to counter the threat from the Hezbollah. After an early May flare-up with Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border, some Israeli generals are pressing for a major military operation in southern Lebanon. In calculated leaks to the press, Israel Defense Forces sources suggested that sooner or later Israel would launch a massive offensive against the terrorist group, and that such an operation has been in the cards ever since the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon four years ago this month. The sources said contingency plans had been drawn up and the best timing would be while Bush, who regards Hezbollah as one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations in the world, is still in office. The thinking is that Bush would give Israel a green light to crush Hezbollah, while his successor might not. Israeli military sources say they’re no longer prepared to tolerate a situation in which a hostile and capricious organization with no sovereign responsibility, with the backing of Syria and Iran, has 1,000 artillery pieces trained on towns and cities in Israel’s north. The recent media leaks may have been intended merely to deter Hezbollah from repeating an abortive, early May attack on an Israeli military position in the Shebaa Farms area of the Golan Heights, in which Hezbollah militiamen apparently intended to abduct Israeli soldiers as bargaining chips to use in future prisoner exchange negotiations with Israel. The bodies of three Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah in October 2000 were part of a prisoner exchange this winter. Israel released hundreds of Arab prisoners in exchange for the soldiers’ remains and an Israeli businessman kidnapped by Hezbollah in October 2000. Even so, the possibility that the IDF intends to strike a major blow soon against Hezbollah can’t be ruled out. Ever since the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003 as part of its war against global terrorism, Israel has been considering the possibility of large-scale action to nullify Hezbollah’s threat. In the four years since the Lebanon withdrawal, Hezbollah has received a steady stream of weapons from Iran through the Damascus airport, and its new long-range Katyusha rockets can reach the northern port of Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city. This has created an uneasy balance of fear, with Israel threatening major action against Hezbollah — and Lebanese and Syrian targets — if the militiamen shell Israeli civilians in the north, and Hezbollah threatening to do just that if Israel tries to cripple its operational capacity. Some Israeli strategists say this has created an intolerable tinderbox situation in which Hezbollah provocation could suck Israel into a war with Syria or even Iran. It’s a threat that should be removed on Israel’s terms, they say. Moreover, over the past several months Hezbollah has become a major instigator of Palestinian terrorism. Israeli intelligence officers contend that Hezbollah money and agents in the field are the fuel keeping Palestinian terrorism going. Without Hezbollah, the officers say, the intifada would have quieted down long ago. Why did Hezbollah choose to reopen hostilities now on the long-dormant northern front? One theory is that after Israel foiled Hezbollah efforts to spark Palestinian terrorist attacks, it decided to reactivate the northern border. According to this view, Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, wanted to provide a semblance of continued action against Israel to enhance his organization’s standing in Lebanon and the wider Arab world. Israeli analysts note that Hezbollah is running in May 16 local elections in southern Lebanon. The attack also may be connected to the second phase of last January’s prisoner exchange deal, in which Hezbollah is supposed to provide information on Ron Arad, an Israel Air Force navigator who went missing in Lebanon 18 years ago, in return for more Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners held by Israel. During a May 8 tour of the northern border’s outposts involved in the recent exchanges, the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, intimated that Israel was re-evaluating its policy toward Hezbollah. “We respond firmly to Hezbollah provocations to prevent them from escalating in the north,” he said. “We need to consider what has to be done so that there will be order in the north.” There are likely to be two main schools of thought in the IDF re-evaluation. Cautionary voices argue that the northern border has been relatively quiet precisely because of the high stakes involved, and the status quo shouldn’t be upset. Some military officials, meanwhile, maintain that the situation in the north is an explosion waiting to happen, and the only question is what Israel should do to defuse it. One possibility is direct action against the militiamen, which easily could escalate into wider confrontation with Lebanon, Syria and even Iran. Another would be to use diplomatic channels to persuade Lebanon and Syria to pull Hezbollah back from its border positions. The knowledge that an Israeli offensive against Hezbollah could spill over into action against Lebanon and Syria might induce them to rein in the group. Commenting on the anticipated strategic review, the military analyst for Israel’s daily Ma’ariv, Amir Rappaport, came down on the side of action. “True, an operation against Hezbollah may exact a high price for a while in the north. But a bombing blitz like America’s in Iraq (with exactly the same weapons) could remind Nasrallah of the real military balance of power in the Middle East, and cut his organization down to size,” he wrote. What’s clear is that, even if quiet now, the northern border could erupt suddenly if Hezbollah launches new attacks and Israel decides that the time has come to alter the strategic balance. And that could entail a major cross-border confrontation until a more lasting quiet is restored. Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.

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