Thursday, July 13, 2006

Hizbollah’s bold attack raises stakes in Middle East crisis

Hizbollah’s bold attack raises stakes in Middle East crisis
By Roula Khalaf
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: July 12 2006 23:04 | Last updated: July 12 2006 23:04

When Palestinian militants seized an Israeli soldier outside the Gaza Strip on June 25, many Arab analysts noted that the Palestinians were finally learning the tactics of Lebanon’s Hizbollah, the Shia Islamist group.

During 18 years of Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, Hizbollah, an organisation also backed by Syria and Iran, tormented Israeli troops with military attacks and captures that helped end the Israeli presence in May 2000 and forced the Jewish state to agree to prisoner swaps, most recently in 2004.

Hizbollah, however, was apparently not satisfied with acting only as a role model.

As Israel stepped up its offensive in Gaza on Wednesday, the Lebanese guerrillas opened a new front in the Middle East crisis by launching one of their boldest attacks, killing up to seven Israeli soldiers and capturing another two in a raid and ensuing clashes.

Israel immediately held Beirut responsible for Hizbollah’s actions and vowed harsh punishment. World leaders demanded the release of the soldiers and warned the Lebanese group had provoked a dangerous escalation.

But in Lebanon and other parts of the Arab world, many people reacted with jubilation. Frustrated with Arab governments’ impotence to help the besieged Palestinians, politicians and people cheered Hizbollah for stepping in to redress the balance of power.

Hizbollah’s official line on Wednesday was that the capture was aimed at winning the release of the few remaining Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails. But the timing and scale of its attack suggest it was partly intended to reduce the pressure on the Palestinians by forcing Israel to fight on two fronts simultaneously.

Importantly, Hizbollah also exploited Arab popular anger at Israel in order to reassert itself within Lebanon. Since Syria, Hizbollah’s ally, withdrew its troops from Lebanon last year, the Islamist group has been under pressure from anti-Syrian Sunni and Christian parties to dissolve its military wing, as demanded by a United Nations resolution.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah chief, yesterday warned his domestic rivals, who dominate the government, not to succumb to international pressures for the release of the captured soldiers – and not to oppose his group’s actions, claiming it would amount to supporting the Israeli enemy.

Hizbollah, the largest of two Shia political groups, is a powerful party that is represented in the Lebanese parliament and has two members in the government. But it is also the only group that retained its weapons after the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1991.

Since Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Hizbollah has argued its military wing is needed to liberate Shebaa farms, a strip of occupied land that Lebanon claims sovereignty over but that the UN says belongs to Syria.

Hizbollah’s calculation is that it can force Israel’s hand and bring about the release of both Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners, particularly as the options before Ehud Olmert, Israel’s prime minister, are limited.

Mr Nasrallah yesterday openly offered Israel a joint deal for the soldier captured by the Palestinians and the two others seized by his own organisation.

For Israel, confronting Hizbollah has always been more difficult than dealing with the occupied Palestinian territories.

The parties leading the government in Beirut enjoy international support and they have, in any case, little influence over Hizbollah’s actions. Massive military retaliation against Beirut would provoke world outrage and could backfire, strengthening Hizbollah’s argument that Israel remains a threat.

Hizbollah, however, has also dramatically raised the stakes in a Middle East conflict that risks spiralling out of control. Mr Olmert, a new prime minister who has to prove he can defend the Jewish state, is unlikely to opt for compromise, at least in the short term. Israel could decide to retaliate against Hizbollah leaders or widen the conflict further by striking at Syria, backer of Arab radical groups.

Israeli officials last month blamed Damascus-based leaders of Hamas, the Palestinian group, for the raid that led to the capture of the Israeli soldier. Aircraft flew over the Syrian capital in a warning to President Bashar al-Assad.

Inside Lebanon, Hizbollah’s political gains could also be short-lived. Partly swept up by sympathy for the Palestinians, many Lebanese politicians yesterday were careful not to criticise Hizbollah.

However, prime minister Fuad Siniora declared after an emergency cabinet meeting last night that the government did not “endorse” Hizbollah’s actions. But as the cost of dragging Lebanon deep into the Middle East conflict becomes clear, accusations that Hizbollah puts the interests of Syria, Iran – and now the Palestinians – above those of Lebanon are likely to intensify.


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