Tensions Rise on Israel's North

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Inter Press Service

Tensions Rise on Israel's North

Mel Frykberg

RAMALLAH - The war of words between Israel and the Lebanese resistance movement
Hizbullah has heated up in the last week, raising fears that another war between
Lebanon and Israel is imminent.

On Monday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the Lebanese
government that it would be held responsible for any attacks on Israeli
targets even if the attacks were carried out independently by the guerrilla

"The government of Lebanon cannot just say 'that's Hizbullah', and hide
behind them," Netanyahu was reported in the Israeli daily Haaretz as saying.
"The government of Lebanon is in power and responsible."

The Times of London reported Wednesday last week that the militia has
stockpiled 40,000 rockets near the border with Israel, and is training its
guerrillas to use missiles capable of striking Tel Aviv.

The Times added that it was told by Israeli officials and a senior commander
that Israel's northern border "could explode at any minute."

According to Israeli security sources, the UN and Hizbullah itself, the group is
now significantly stronger both militarily and politically than it was during the
2006 Israel-Lebanon war.

Netanyahu's statements followed comments made on Sunday by a senior
Hizbullah official Hashem Safi a-Din that any future military confrontation
with Israel would make the war of 2006 seem like a joke.

A-Din elaborated that Hizbullah was not interested in another war with Israel
but said his organisation remained on full alert in case of a pending Israeli

The latest war of words came in the wake of belligerent statements made by
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak last Wednesday that Israel was "not ready
to accept a situation in which a neighbouring country has in its government
and parliament a militia that has its own policy and 40,000 rockets aimed at

Israeli deputy foreign minister Daniel Ayalon further warned on Sunday that
"if one hair on the head of an Israeli representative or tourist is harmed, we
will see Hizbullah as responsible and it will bear the most dire consequences."

Israeli intelligence has been warning for some time now that Hizbullah has
sleeper cells lying dormant abroad waiting to attack Israeli government
officials or tourists in response for a car bombing in Damascus last year
which killed senior Hizbullah military commander Imad Mughniyeh.

Israeli spy agency Mossad is suspected of being behind the assassination.
Israel has denied involvement.

Last week Egyptian security officials arrested a group suspected of planning
to assassinate Israel's ambassador to Egypt. A planned bomb attack on Israel's
embassy in Baku was foiled by Azerbaijani security forces in 2008.

Ayalon told Israeli radio that it was not just in Egypt that cells were planning
attacks against Israel but that Hizbullah was also plotting in other countries.

Tensions on Israel's northern borders began to rise in mid-July following an
explosion at a warehouse where guerrillas are suspected to be stockpiling
rockets and missiles.

The tense atmosphere on the border was further exacerbated recently when a
group of unarmed Lebanese civilians waving Lebanese flags deliberately
crossed the border and moved onto the disputed Shaba farms which Israel
occupies. Both Syria and Lebanon say this territory belongs to Lebanon.

Israel's envoy to the UN, Gabriela Shalev, sent a letter to UN Secretary General
Bank Ki-moon protesting the warehouse explosion incident.

The Israelis further claim that UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) troops
were delayed by Hizbullah men from reaching the site, thereby giving them
time to hide the evidence.

UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which brought the 2006 conflict to an
end, obliges the Lebanese government to disarm Hizbullah.

However, any crackdown by opposing factions of the Lebanese government
on Hizbullah would cause a major confrontation as well as being difficult to
implement both politically and militarily.

Hizbullah is a democratically elected part of the Lebanese government.
Previously the guerrilla group was seen as a force outside of Beirut's control.

The movement earned enormous respect politically for withstanding Israel's
devastating military assault during the 2006 war while simultaneously
fighting back against enormous odds.

Hizbullah is also widely credited with forcing Israel's withdrawal from its self-
declared "security zone" in 2000 which was established in southern Lebanon,
south of the Litani river, ostensibly to protect Israel from Hizbullah and other
guerrilla groups.

Last year street battles broke out in Beirut between Hizbullah gunmen and
Lebanese forces and their supporters after the Lebanese government tried to
close down Hizbullah telecommunications. The Lebanese government was
forced to back down, and the telecommunications continued to operate.

The UN has acknowledged that arms smuggling through Syria's porous
borders with Lebanon continues. Israel meanwhile has continued to violate
Lebanese airspace with overflights. It has also managed a spy ring in the
country for a number of years.

Nevertheless, according to Dr Samir Awad from the political science
department of Birzeit University near Ramallah, an imminent Israeli attack on
Lebanon is unlikely.

"It is Israeli rhetoric for domestic consumption particularly by a growing
right-wing element. Israel knows a strengthened Hizbullah could inflict a
serious blow on Israel, and it is not willing to take that risk," said Awad.

"Additionally if the Israeli government returns to peace talks with the
Palestinians, it wants to appear to be coming from a position of strength
while drawing international focus away from controversial issues such as the
settlements and a two-state solution," Awad told IPS.

"There are a lot of big mouths involved," Prof. Moshe Maoz from Jerusalem's
Hebrew University told IPS. "Despite this a future war between Israel and
Hizbullah is not improbable. However, this will depend on Hizbullah's main
benefactor Iran's actions which in turn are dependent on political
developments with the U.S. which would like to weaken Iran's regional

"Furthermore, if America can reach an agreement with Syria, another of
Hizbullah's allies, in regard to the occupied Shaba farms and the Golan
Heights, this too will influence the guerrilla group's future course of action."

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