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Tensions Rise on Israel's North

by 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 group.

"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 attack.

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 Israel."

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 influence.

"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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