Lebanon violence spurs Israeli fears


JERUSALEM (JTA) – The dust from the 2006 Second Lebanon War has hardly settled, yet Israelis are again watching their northern neighbor with worry.

In a week of fighting that killed dozens, Iran- and Syria-sponsored Hezbollah guerrillas overran entire neighborhoods in Beirut, routing gunmen loyal to Western-backed Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

Though the violence abated Saturday, the scenes of skirmishes in the streets of a once-elegant city still scarred from a civil war in the 1970s sent shockwaves through the Middle East.

For Israel, which suffered surprise setbacks in its offensive against Hezbollah two years ago, it dawned that the radical Shiite movement may be proving resilient enough to eventually seize control of Lebanon.

Essentially that would mean Iran flanks Israel from the north and the south, where it already established a foothold by bankrolling the Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers.

It’s not just future border wars that Jerusalem fears, but also the prospect of Iran trying to fend off efforts to foil its nuclear program by ordering retalitatory attacks by Hezbollah and Hamas against Israel.

“We are assessing all possible scenarios, the most dangerous of which being that Iran will take over, by proxy, both in Lebanon and in Gaza,” Deputy Israeli Defense Minister Matan Vilna’i said Sunday.

But in an Israel Radio interview, Vilna’i voiced hope that the Lebanese would pull back from the brink of civil war “because they have too much experience in what that means.”

For Siniora, the short-term solution appears to be appeasement. Though the embattled prime minister said Saturday that Lebanon “will not fall to the putschists,” he did, in fact, yield to Hezbollah demands.

The recent violence erupted after the Siniora government vowed to dismantle a Hezbollah-run phone network and remove a surveillance camera planted by the militia at Beirut’s airport. Hezbollah backed down only after the Lebanese army said it would refuse to implement Siniora’s edicts, which had been billed as preserving the country’s sovereignty.

Lebanese television showed Siniora telling reporters, “What they [Hezbollah] did in Beirut was worse than what the Israeli enemy did.”

He was referring to Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon to crush the PLO.

Vilna’i said the situation reminded him of the Palestinian Authority’s loss of the Gaza Strip last year to the same Hamas extremists it had long refused to curb by force.

“It just goes to show what happens when there is no government capable of keeping the armed forces subordinate to its rule,” he said.

Jacky Hugi, the Arab affairs analyst for Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper, saw some reason for optimism in Hezbollah’s decision to muscle in on its domestic rivals.

“For years, [Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan] Nasrallah and his followers were careful not to use force against the Lebanese citizenry, contriving to be their protectors,” he wrote, adding that the reversal of this policy had “damaged the group’s strategy” and could cost it votes in the next elections.

But that was little comfort to those in Israel tasked with preparing for military conflict.

Yossi Peled, a retired general who had commanded Israeli troops in southern Lebanon, said Olmert’s “wretched” handling of the 2006 war against Hezbollah had only served to bolster the group.

Israel appears to be responding for now by stepping up its surveillance flights in Lebanon, where witnesses report more warplanes overheads.

A senior Israeli Air Force officer declined to comment in detail but told the JTA, “We’re not flying there for the fun of it.”

Citing reports that Hezbollah has amassed more weapons than before, Peled suggested another Israeli war against the group could be looming.

An Israeli Cabinet minister, speaking to the JTA on condition of anonymity, said the recent fighting in Beirut was a testament to how the Jewish state’s power to deter foes had deteriorated.

“I remember the days when Syria would think twice about intervening in Jordanian affairs for fear we would respond,” the minister said. “There used to be an understanding that Israel would not allow a significant strategic shift in the neighborhood.

“Now in Lebanon they’re not even thinking of how we might react. Things have really changed – for the worst.”

Dan Gillerman, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, voiced hope that the United States and France – Lebanon’s former colonial ruler – might be able to find a diplomatic solution.

Such pressure on Iran and Syria might bring about “some sort of accord, some sort of calm,” he told Israel Radio.

“There aren’t many options. To say that I’m optimistic would be an exaggeration.”

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