SHLOMI, Israel, Nov. 22 (JTA) — Not long ago, Jacky Ben-Muha, a popular baker in this northern Israeli border town, pointed to a crack in the bakery window and said, “You see, this is from the previous Katyusha rocket attack. We left it here as a reminder.” Ben-Muha got another unwelcome reminder just last week. On Nov. 15, Katyushas fell near Shlomi for the first time since the deadly attack in August of 2003 that damaged Ben-Muha’s shop and killed a 16-year-old boy. This time the rockets landed in a remote field, injuring no one and causing no damage. “No, we’re not worried,” Ben-Muha said. “What are we to say compared to the residents of Sderot, who were subject to daily Kassam rocket attacks?” The southern Israeli town of Sderot has been subject to frequent rocket salvos from Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip during the 4-year-old intifada. Shlomi, a picturesque town in the foothills of the upper Galilee, hasn’t been as hard-hit as Sderot, but the recent attack was a reminder that Shlomi’s neighbors in Lebanon can escalate the situation along the border whenever they see fit. A previously unknown group calling itself “The Martyr Ghaleb Alawi” took responsibility for launching the rockets. Alawi was a member of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah who was killed in a Beirut car bomb last July. Hezbollah blamed Israel for his death. Hezbollah denied responsibility for the latest rocket attack, but it has initiated a string of recent provocations on Israel’s northern front after a long period of quiet. The rockets came a week after Hezbollah launched an unmanned aerial drone that successfully penetrated Israeli airspace and flew over the Galilee undetected for several minutes. The incursion embarrassed Israel’s defense establishment and alarmed the nation, since the plane could have been used to carry out a terrorist attack. In the past four and a half years, since Israel withdrew from its buffer zone in southern Lebanon, 13 Israeli soldiers and six civilians have been killed in attacks along the border, and 53 soldiers have been wounded. Israel’s initial reaction to the latest rocket salvo sounded tough, though it reflected a dispute between Israel’s military and political echelons. If the Lebanese government “do not put an end to it themselves, they will pay the price,” said Israel’s military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon. “I couldn’t care less if it’s Hezbollah or not. Even if it’s some ephemeral Palestinian organization that does the shooting — Lebanon is responsible.” But the government once again opted for a restrained reaction, clearly uninterested in further escalation. U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman called on the Lebanese government to send army troops to replace Hezbollah guerrillas on the border with Israel. Lebanon has refused to do so. The United Nations also called on Lebanon to do more to keep its territory from serving as a launching pad for attacks on Israel. A Lebanese official reportedly called Katyusha rocket fire into Israel terrorism. Speaking Nov. 17 to the London-based A-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper, Information Minister Eli Firzli said the army had set up roadblocks in southern Lebanon to prevent rockets from being fired across the border, and said that if Israel does respond militarily, Lebanon will blame the terrorist group that fired the rockets. Not everyone took a more conciliatory line, however. Omar Karami, Lebanon’s new prime minister, called Israel the “aggressor” and insisted that not a day passes without an Israeli breach of Lebanon’s regional waters and air space. It’s impossible to send the Lebanese army to the south “to guard Israel’s borders,” he said — though Lebanon is obligated to do just that under the same U.N. Security Council resolution that called on Israel to end its occupation of the former buffer zone. Some Israeli sources link the latest escalation to a fear among Hezbollah and Iran that the Palestinians could reach a deal with Israel and halt terrorism. Both feel threatened by the rise of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is seeking to end the armed intifada after Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s death, a senior intelligence source said. That would undercut the leverage Iran and Hezbollah now possess in the territories, where they fund and organize much of the ongoing terrorist activity, the source said Others in Israel view the attack in the context of growing internal tension in Lebanon over the continued military presence of Syria. Thousands of Lebanese students and activists defied government warnings and demonstrated Nov. 19 against Syria’s domination of their country. Large numbers of security forces watched but did not intervene as about 3,000 students converged on downtown Beirut, shouting, “Syrians out!” Ferzli, the information minister, said Lebanon “was looking forward to the day when Lebanon would be void of all armed men, whether brother or friend, even if Syria.” But some Israeli analysts didn’t put much stock in Ferzli’s statements. “Because of Hezbollah’s denial and the fact that no major organization had taken responsibility for the rocket attack, it was easy for the Lebanese authorities to distance themselves from the attacks,” Kais Firo, a Middle East expert at Haifa University, told JTA. “But this by no means that the new premier Omar Karami is willing to take a real stand against Hezbollah.” “The status quo continues,” Firo said. “And this means that Hezbollah continues to control the south.” He said Karami was too busy with the internal turmoil to take an independent position in the south. He “is running on a thin rope, particularly after the anti-Syrian demonstration over the weekend,” Firo said. For the time being, a tense quiet reigns along the border. Ben-Muha believes Israel reacted to the provocation appropriately. When Shlomi’s mayor, Gabi Na’aman, joined other mayors from “confrontation-line” communities in demanding a strong reaction to the attack, Ben-Muha — who also serves as opposition head in the local municipality — cautioned restraint. “I say that one should not react. Thank God the Galilee prospers as it never has before. So let us restrain ourselves,” he said, pulling another batch of bread from his oven.
Lebanese attacks raise questions