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Israel keeps a wary eye on Hezbollah


JERUSALEM, July 2 (JTA) — Israeli security sources are warily considering the possibility that Hezbollah militants in Lebanon will expand their operations into Israel.

Analysts believe the group is only awaiting a green light from Damascus to launch a new offensive against the Jewish state.

Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, warned Sunday that Israel was “playing with fire” when it struck Syrian positions in Lebanon that day.

“This aggression will not be dealt with like in the past, but in a different form,” he said.

The Israeli daily Ma’ariv this week quoted security sources saying that Hezbollah may try to hit an Israeli passenger plane, an embassy or perhaps kidnap Israeli citizens abroad.

The threats come against the backdrop of continuing Israeli-Palestinian violence, despite U.S. efforts to broker a workable cease-fire.

These threats are likely to enhance the fears of an already jittery Israeli public.

The renewed violence in the north began last Friday when Hezbollah gunmen launched a rocket attack that wounded two Israeli soldiers, one of them seriously.

The attack took place in the Shabaa Farms region that Lebanon regards as its territory, a claim both Israel and the United Nations reject.

The attack set off a familiar set of series of strikes and counterstrikes. Israeli jets struck Syrian positions in Lebanon on Sunday, when Israel’s Security Cabinet blamed Damascus for giving Hezbollah the go ahead for the rocket attack.

Hezbollah gunmen then answered the Israeli action by firing mortars and rockets at Israeli army positions along the border with Lebanon.

The cycle of violence resembled similar events in April, when Israel attacked Syrian radar installations in Lebanon after Hezbollah fired on Israeli forces.

The Security Cabinet did not pull any punches Sunday when it came to Syria.

“Israel has determined that these criminal activities of Hezbollah’s are being carried out with the full knowledge and sponsorship of Syria, whose army is present in Lebanon,” the statement said.

Ze’ev Schiff, analyst for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, suggested that the Israeli attack was not just a response to last Friday’s shelling, but to Syria’s allowing Hezbollah to arm itself with new anti-aircraft missiles.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer downplayed the prospects of war with Syria, saying Sunday, “Thank God, we are surrounded by countries that if they have anything in common, it is not to lead the Middle East into war.”

But there are more limited steps that Syrian President Bashar Assad could take against Israel.

“Assad may react by opening a new front,” said Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University. “He may try to ignite the Golan by allowing terrorist activities there.”

Assad could also continue having Hezbollah act as its proxy.

Israeli security officials have in recent months warned of efforts by Hezbollah to build up a terrorist infrastructure within the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

There is hard evidence of growing ties between Hezbollah and its “sister” organizations in areas under Palestinian control, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

Now there are indications Hezbollah may be trying to widen its network by recruiting Israeli Arabs.

As part of this effort, Hezbollah operatives may seek the help of the Islamic Movement in Israel.

The movement is a legal entity — and as such it would carefully steer away from any direct involvement with subversive activities.

However, it has never disguised its sympathy for Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups, and it has openly provided “humanitarian” aid to the needy families of deceased terrorists.

Leading members of the Islamic Movement — like Suleiman Aghbariya, the deputy mayor of Umm el-Fahm — have often been the target for police questioning regarding financial links between Hamas and the Islamic Movement.

After Israeli troops withdrew from southern Lebanon in May 2000 — which Hezbollah trumpeted as an unequivocal victory of its forces over the Jewish state — the fundamentalist movement needs a new banner to wave as it tries to recruit followers.

What better way is there, say Israeli analysts, than to revive the old slogan that the struggle will continue all the way to Jerusalem?

And what more efficient way to achieve this goal, they add, than by recruiting militant members of the Israeli Arab population, who can move freely throughout the Jewish state?

According to Israeli security officials, Hezbollah has already been recruiting Israeli Arabs with the goal of creating an infrastructure for terror attacks and kidnappings.

Cabinet minister Saleh Tarif — a Druse who is in charge of Arab affairs in the present government — warned in the Knesset last week not to blame the entire Arab population for the activities of a few.

His comments came after security officials revealed that more than 30 Israeli Arabs have been arrested since the beginning of the year on suspicion of belonging to terrorist organizations. Ten of them are suspected of having been recruited by Hezbollah, and the remaining 20 by Hamas.

In the past few weeks, anonymous statements were issued by “Hezbollah-Palestine.”

No one knows for sure whether there is such an organization — yet — or whether it was merely an attempt to scare.

Either way, Israeli officials are taking the issue very seriously.

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