Hezbollah heats up the border

Israeli soldiers unload coffins containing the remains of Hezbollah fighters at the Rosh Hanikra border crossing between Israel and Lebanon on Nov. 25. (Brian Hendler)

Israeli soldiers unload coffins containing the remains of Hezbollah fighters at the Rosh Hanikra border crossing between Israel and Lebanon on Nov. 25. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, Nov. 29 (JTA) — Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, the radical Lebanese Shi’ite organization, is one of the most articulate Arab leaders around — yet he consistently confounds Western observers who try to predict his behavior. In recent years, Hezbollah has expanded from a purely guerrilla organization into a political movement with vast social services and 23 seats in Lebanon’s 128-member Parliament. Hezbollah representative Mohammed Fneish is the country’s energy minister, and Fawzi Salukh, a Shi’ite who sympathizes with Hezbollah, is the country’s foreign minister. It would make sense, therefore, that the party would don respectable political garb and stop playing with fire along the border with Israel. Playing it moderate, one would assume, would give Hezbollah more time to establish itself as the dominant power in southern Lebanon, and would silence anti-Hezbollah elements in Lebanon’s complex political system. But Hezbollah’s political logic seems to work in exactly the opposite direction. Last week the organization staged a daring but futile attack in the Arab village of Rajar, which is partly controlled by Israel, along the Israel-Lebanon border. Some 25 Hezbollah fighters penetrated the village, apparently intending to kidnap Israel Defense Forces soldiers stationed there, but were forced to retreat, leaving behind four dead fighters. The group also initiated a heavy artillery duel with the IDF along the border. Israeli military intelligence sources and political analysts believe the latest confrontation was not an isolated incident. Nasrallah confirmed this assessment during the funeral of the fighters, declaring that it was not just Hezbollah’s “natural right” to kidnap Israelis, but “also its duty.” Aware of the explosive situation, Israel’s reaction to the attack was restrained. Moreover, when Lebanon’s government officially asked Israel to hand over the bodies of the Hezbollah fighters, Israel regarded the move as an indication that the Lebanese government — which until now has flouted U.N. Security Council resolutions ordering it to exert control over the southern part of its country — finally was ready to assume responsibility in the south. The bodies were returned without bargaining and haggling. Israel is making an effort not to play into Hezbollah’s hands, but it is maintaining a high state of alert along the border, assuming that Hezbollah will seek continued escalation. Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze’evi, the IDF’s intelligence chief, warned in a weekend television interview that Hezbollah would try to kidnap Israeli businessmen abroad. In 2000, the group staged an overseas kidnapping of businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum, a reserve colonel in the IDF, held him in Lebanon for several years and released him only after Israel struck a deal with Hezbollah for a lopsided exchange of prisoners and bodies. Hezbollah says its planned “kidnapping offensive” is necessary to release Lebanese prisoners held in Israel, primarily Samir Kuntar, a terrorist who broke into the apartment of Danni and Smadar Haran in Nahariya in 1979. Kuntar’s team murdered Danni and his 5-year-old daughter, Anat, on the beach. Smadar and her daughter Yael, 2, hid in a closet in their apartment, but Smadar, trying to smother Yael’s cries, ended up suffocating her. Kuntar, the longest-held Lebanese detainee in Israeli prisons, has served nearly 28 years of a 542-year sentence for the attack. Kuntar’s release is atop Hezbollah’s list of demands from Israel, but Israel refused to release him in earlier prisoner-exchange deals because of a policy of not releasing murderers. Even if Hezbollah’s new offensive is related to the Kuntar case, the question of timing arises. In the past nine months, Hezbollah refrained from staging major attacks against Israel, limiting itself to sending two unmanned reconnaissance planes over the Galilee and staging an abortive attack on Israeli position on Mt. Hermon last June. “Hezbollah feels that its time is running out,” political analyst Thaer Abu-Saleh, a Druse resident of the Golan who teaches at Israeli colleges, told JTA. “It needs to score points in Lebanon’s political arena in the wake of growing demands in Lebanon that all militias — including Hezbollah — lay down their arms. It believes that if it succeeds in kidnapping Israelis, it will bring about the release of Kuntar and other prisoners.” Hezbollah has been weakened since the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14 and the exposure of the involvement of Syria, Hezbollah’s patron, in the murder. Lebanon’s Christian and Druse communities are demanding that Hezbollah disarm in accord with Security Council Resolution 1559, which also called for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, which happened earlier this year under international pressure. “They argue that they do not see why their own militias should be dismantled, whereas Hezbollah continues to operate as an armed organization,” Abu-Saleh said. U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said Hezbollah had not even begun to disarm. “There has not been any noticeable change in the operational status and capabilities of Hezbollah which, according to its own leadership, has more than 12,000 missiles at its disposal,” he said. Some believe Hezbollah is trying to inflame the border to justify maintaining its arms. One other major demand of Hezbollah is that Israel give Lebanon the Shebaa Farms, a strip of land near Mt. Hermon that Israel conquered from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War. The United Nations investigated Lebanon’s claim to the land — raised after Israel withdrew from its southern Lebanese security zone in May 2000 — and found it baseless, though it has served Hezbollah as a pretext for continued belligerence. While some hoped that entering the political arena would force Hezbollah to moderate its behavior — similar predictions are made about Hamas’ participation in Palestinian legislative elections next January — the organization doesn’t seem to believe it has to choose between its political and military options. Israel has argued that Hezbollah wouldn’t take military action without the consent, if not the direct involvement, of its patrons, Iran and Syria. But the connection may not be so simple. Syrian President Bashar Assad is under heavy international pressure following the investigation into Hariri’s murder, and it’s doubtful that he would be interested in a border flare-up while he struggles for international respectability. Thus some see Hezbollah’s aggression as the moves of an organization fearful that Syria will no longer stand by its side, and that the Lebanese government will finally exert control of the south. Following the latest escalation, Israeli papers quoted unnamed sources in the Labor Party “warning” Israel’s government not to escalate the situation “to score electoral points.” In other words, internal politics play a role not only in Lebanon, but also in Israel. For the time being, however, Israel is being especially cautious along the border. It seems determined not to lose the benefits of more than five years of quiet since the withdrawal from Lebanon. For the time being, the escalation is purely Lebanese. “Hezbollah will do its utmost to perpetuate the Shaba and prisoners issues,” Abu-Saleh said. “Without those two issues, it will have no political legitimacy.”

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