Analysis / Collision course in the north

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 29-Dec-05 | Author: Amos Harel| Source: Ha'aretz

An Israeli army officer and a Rabbi, look at damaged house after it was hit by rockets fired from southern Lebanon in the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona, near the Lebanese border, late Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2005.

Iran's potential to create a nuclear bomb and Palestinian Qassams top the political agenda, and too little time is being spent on another threat.

Under certain circumstances it might have greater impact on the elections in Israel: Katyusha rockets coming from Lebanon. The bombardment of Kiryat Shmona and Shlomi on Tuesday are worrying reminders.

The launchers were assumed to be Palestinian (and the Israel Air Force retaliated by attacking a base of Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) but there is almost no doubt that the real perpetrator was Hezbollah. Since Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, Southern Lebanon is "Hezbollah Land." No military operation goes ahead without a green light from the Shi'ite organization. The PFLP and Hezbollah have a common patron, Syria. In the past, Syria was partner to Hezbollah's attempts to bring weapons into the territories.

Israel's response to Tuesday's attack, the second from Lebanon in a little over a month, was relatively limited. GOC Northern Command Udi Adam did warn of "the long arm of the IDF" but, in the next breath, he said the response must not be hotheaded. As with a more frequent but less lethal threat - the Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip - the election campaign means Israel must exercise restraint. As long as the attacks end with victims suffering anxiety only, it seems Israel will continue to doze.

General Staff officers argue that Israel's response is less restrained than the picture presented in the media; for every one-kilo Qassam warhead that falls in Israel, the army responds with one ton of firepower. But this does little to mollify critics on the right - they forget that Israel's more severe responses have not served as deterrents for long.

What is Hezbollah's motive? The organizations says it is twofold: As with their attempt to kidnap a soldier in November, they want to reopen talks to release Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails. The attacks are also considered an appropriate Lebanese response to continued fly-overs of its territory by the Israel Air Force.

The defense establishment says that in the context of internal developments in Lebanon, Hezbollah wants to be seen as the defender of Lebanese citizens from Israeli attack. At the same time, Hezbollah deters Beirut from the idea of disarming it.

The danger of escalation in the north also reflects events involving Syria. The report of United Nations investigator Detlef Mehlis on the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri left Syria less battered than it feared, and the German investigator left the region rather quickly. Without decisive steps by the international community, Syria is again casting its shadow over its neighbor to the west. And the Lebanese have internalized the lesson of journalist Gibran Tueni's assassination. Damascus will not hesitate to return to its old ways, and its agents are everywhere. Some Western countries feel their diplomatic missions in Beirut might be the next target.

Israel has warned Lebanon through channels that if the attacks continue, the address for a response would be Beirut, not Hezbollah. But the U.S. and France, though they publicly denounced the November kidnapping attempt, have slammed IAF fly-overs as breaches of Lebanon's sovereignty. Israel insists the flights are necessary for collecting intelligence.

The fact that IAF helicopters have recently been seen in Lebanese skies has Hezbollah very worried that its leaders are next on the list of targeted killings, as happened in 1992 when Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah's predecessor, Abbas Musawi, was killed with his wife and son in an IAF attack.

Three months before elections in Israel, the situation on the northern border is more explosive than it has been in a long time. Syrian President Bashar Assad may think after the Mehlis report that violence pays off. But continued attacks, as well as the clear fingerprint of the Damascus-based Islamic Jihad on the Qassam rockets coming from Gaza in the direction of Askhelon may put Israel and Syria on a collision course.