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Still Fighting in West Bank, Israel Faces Tension on Its Other Borders

April 12, 2002
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As Israel finds itself knee-deep in its conflict with the Palestinians, the Jewish state also has the broader Islamic world to contend with.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrations have been taking place around the world — from New York to Morocco to Bangladesh to Indonesia — on a near-daily basis.

But perhaps most worrisome is the sentiment emanating from Israel’s closest neighbors, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan.

With its teeming Palestinian refugee camps, Lebanon has thousands of people declaring their readiness to fight Israel.

Most threatening are the forces of Hezbollah, which draw military and moral support from Iran and Syria, which is the leading power-broker in Lebanon.

Hezbollah has spent the past week shelling Israeli military positions and communities along the fragile Israel- Lebanon border.

On Saturday, five people were wounded, one seriously, in the village of Ghajar, which straddles the Lebanese border, during a heavy missile and mortar bombardment by Hezbollah forces in Lebanon.

A day later, Israel ordered civilians into bomb shelters after Hezbollah launched several cross-border attacks that injured six Israeli soldiers.

After six straight days of Hezbollah attacks, Israel called up additional reserve units on Monday to serve near the Lebanese border.

Many of the Hezbollah attacks focused on Israeli military positions in a disputed border area known as Shabaa Farms.

Hezbollah and the Lebanese government claim the area belongs to Lebanon. The United Nations has rejected the claim, saying it was Syrian territory that Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, and its fate must be decided between Israel and Syria.

Apart from territorial aspirations, Hezbollah has another goal — to drag the Israel Defense Force into another battlefront and drain Israel’s resources, just as Israel has called up thousands of reservists to deal with the Palestinian conflict.

Israel has responded by firing artillery and rockets at Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon, but otherwise is adopting a policy of restraint.

Instead, through U.S. intermediaries and other diplomatic channels, Israel has warned Hezbollah, Lebanon and Syria that it will retaliate if its back gets pressed to the wall.

To date, Israel has not launched a large-scale retaliation — even after six Israelis were killed and seven wounded by terrorists on March 12 while driving inside Israel close to the Lebanese border, an attack that Israel subsequently said was carried out by Hezbollah infiltrators.

It’s unclear how much longer Israel can absorb Hezbollah’s blows — particularly if the Shi’ite gunmen decide to use their batteries of Katyusha rockets, which can reach as far south as Haifa.

Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, head of IDF operations, warned last week that “the Palestinian arena, despite all its importance, may soon become secondary to the northern arena.”

The Hezbollah provocations create the possibility that, just as American and European pressure could force the IDF to end its anti-terror incursions into the West Bank, the northern front could light up.

Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to drive out Palestinian terrorists, and occupied a “security zone” where it fought a guerilla war against Hezbollah until withdrawing in May 2000.

If Israel does respond, it would be unlikely to send troops back into Lebanon, but it could hit strategic Syrian and Lebanese targets.

The Lebanese government is nervous about the renewed escalation — Prime Minister Rafik Hariri reportedly met several times with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to plead for restraint, and leading Lebanese columnists have urged Hezbollah to stop its folly — but the Lebanese government would be reluctant to take steps without Syrian support.

Syria, for its part, pulled forces out of the Lebanese coastal region and placed them in the eastern Beka’a Valley, under the umbrella of its dense anti-aircraft missile batteries.

In addition, Egypt and Jordan, two neighbors that have signed peace treaties with Israel, are showing growing impatience with Israel as the conflict with the Palestinians drags on.

Both countries stopped short of severing diplomatic ties, but Egypt has already declared it will stop all regular diplomatic contact with Israel.

The three fronts are not identical. To the east, the Jordanian government is in total control of its border with Israel, but with 3 million Palestinians — out of a total population of 4.2 million — it has been shaken by the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation.

In the south, despite massive anti-Israel demonstrations in Cairo, Egypt is the country least affected by the escalating situation. Yet it joined the rest of the Arab world in its strong condemnation of the Israeli offensive in the West Bank.

The common denominator to all three fronts is the division between the leadership and the masses regarding Israel.

The Palestinian masses in Jordan, as well as radical elements in Egypt, have demanded strong measures against Israel, and student demonstrators have demanded an Arab army to fight Israel.

Abdul Bari Atuan, editor of the prestigious Al-Kuds al-Arabi paper in London, has launched a media crusade urging Arab leaders “to do something” against Israel.

“How can the Arab leaders sleep peacefully at night when a 16-year-old Palestinian girl sacrifices herself in defense of her country?” Atuan asked in a recent television interview, referring to the Palestinian suicide bomber who killed two Israelis at a Jerusalem supermarket recently.

Though Atuan may indeed represent the mood of the Arab street, he does not reflect the position of the leaders in all three countries.

The last thing Hariri’s government in Lebanon wants is renewed escalation along the border with Israel, which could threaten Lebanon’s efforts to rebuild after its decades-long civil war.

King Abdullah of Jordan is more afraid of Palestinian insurgence than Israeli aggression, and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt is concerned that protests against Israel could turn into anti-government riots.

“Those demonstrations are more anti-establishment than solidarity demonstrations with Arafat,” said Mohammad Horani of East Jerusalem, a history teacher at the David Yellin teachers seminary in Jerusalem.

Another common denominator in all three countries is their governments’ support for the Saudi initiative for peace with Israel, approved by the Arab summit in Beirut in late March.

In a weekend interview with the Arabic TV channel MBC, Marwan Mu’ashar, the foreign minister of Jordan, stressed that the approval had made this not just a “Saudi initiative” but an overall Arab peace plan.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who came to the region this week as anti-Israel protests took a strongly anti- American slant, had hoped to progress on the “Arab peace initiative.”

The idea was to create a channel for peace talks between Israel and the greater Arab world as an alternative to the destroyed Israeli-Palestinian dialogue under Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Such support, Powell hoped, would not only restore relative quiet to the Middle East, but would give American policymakers the necessary breathing room to launch an offensive against a person they consider much more dangerous than Arafat — Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

If Powell had hoped to sway the Arab street, however, he was sorely disappointed. On Thursday, as he arrived in Amman, some 500 demonstrators burned the American flag, chanting “Death to America” and “Death to Bush.”

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