Hezbollah has opened up a second front against Israel, raising the prospect of a regional war that could draw in Lebanon and Syria. Under cover of a massive artillery barrage against northern Israel on Wednesday morning, Hezbollah militiamen killed eight Israeli soldiers and seized two others. Four residents of the Western Galilee were wounded.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, preoccupied with a military sweep of the Gaza Strip aimed at recovering a soldier abducted by Palestinian gunmen June 25, spoke of the Hezbollah raid as an unprecedented act of aggression.
“The murderous attack this morning was not a terror attack but an act of war,” he told reporters. “The Lebanese government, of which Hezbollah is a part, is trying to shake regional stability. Lebanon is responsible and Lebanon will bear the consequences of its actions.”
Three soldiers were killed and the two were seized while on border patrol. Israeli forces were quick to respond, as artillery units and warplanes shelled bridges in southern Lebanon that could be used to smuggle the captive soldiers northward.
On the ground, armored columns rolled across the border and engaged in running battles with Hezbollah gunmen. At least two Lebanese were killed. An Israeli tank hit a mine, killing four other Israeli soldiers; the eighth died of wounds sustained while trying to rescue his friends from the burning tank.
It was the biggest incursion since Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, dismantling its security zone there.
Analysts predicted a two-pronged Israeli response, including strikes against Hezbollah troops and leaders as well as slowly escalating attacks on Lebanese infrastructure to convince the government to finally implement U.N. Security Council resolutions ordering it to disarm Hezbollah.
Complicating matters, however, are the fact that Hezbollah has some 10,000 rockets trained on northern Israel, and the danger that any escalation could get out of hand and spill over to Syria and even Iran, Hezbollah’s two main sponsors.
With the Israeli military mobilizing thousands of reserve troops, and facing serious security challenges on the Palestinian front, experts predicted a spectacular offensive in Lebanon aimed as much at restoring Israel’s deterrent image as at returning the two soldiers.
“Israel’s nerves are already on edge. This is going to convince a great deal of people that something drastic needs to be done to re-establish some kind of credibility,” said Mark Heller of Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.
Late Wednesday, The Associated Press, quoting Lebanese security officials, reported that Israeli warplanes and gunboats struck a Palestinian terrorist camp 10 miles south of Beirut.
Gerald Steinberg, head of the Program on Conflict Management at Bar-Ilan University, said Israel had a major military response in store.
“This is a major escalation and Israel will respond by escalating. This is not going to be a localized incident,” he said. “The international community is powerless because they have acted weakly and allowed Hezbollah to stay armed.”
“The question is whether this will now escalate into Syria,” Steinberg added.
Damascus did little to quell Israel’s ire. Syria’s foreign minister, Farouk Shara, said the Hezbollah raid, like Palestinian attacks, were “provoked” by Israeli “occupation.”
Hezbollah, for its part, was quick to propose a diplomatic solution of sorts to the crisis it had caused. Lebanon’s energy minister, Mohammed Fneish, the only Hezbollah member of the country’s Cabinet, said his militia aimed to secure the release of Arab security prisoners from Israeli jails.
Israeli officials had no immediate comment on the proposal.
Olmert has ruled out Palestinian demands for the release of hundreds of prisoners before any information is offered on Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was snatched from an army base in Israel close to Gaza.
Analysts say such a deal could put cracks in the U.S.-led diplomatic embargo against the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.
But Israel already has dealt with Hezbollah, albeit through German mediators. In 2004, Israel freed more than 400 Lebanese, Palestinian and other terrorists from its jails in return for a kidnapped Israeli businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers killed in a border clash.
Israeli public pressure for similar negotiations to retrieve Wednesday’s captives is likely to be heavy, given evidence that they were taken alive. One television report said government officials had voiced interest in renewing German mediation.