Lebanon border nears crisis point

Hizbullah may be responsible for rocket and mortar attacks Tuesday on Israel-Lebanon border.

The prospect of a "second front" in the Middle East conflict, pitting Lebanese Hizbullah fighters against the Israeli army, appears to be drawing closer. Three attacks against Israeli targets since Saturday, including the first rocket assault into northern Galilee in almost two years, has prompted UN officials in Lebanon to warn that a deterioration along the volatile border with Israel could plunge the region into war.

Staffan de Mistura, the top UN official in Lebanon, says that he is "extremely concerned" at the upsurge in violence along the border. "This is a time in which such activities are particularly dangerous in view of the potential of an explosive regional environment," he said.

Timur Goksel, veteran spokesman of the UN Interim Force In Lebanon (UNIFIL) says that the border district "could boil over at any minute."

"It's all going in a very wrong, very scary, direction," he said.

Hizbullah's popularity with the war-weary Lebanese population would suffer if it were considered responsible for provoking a renewed conflict with Israel. Lebanon is saddled with a public debt of $28 billion and is desperately trying to attract overseas investors to help rebuild the country, a task which becomes increasingly difficult as Hizbullah steps up militant action. But as the situation further deteriorates between the Israelis and the Palestinians and as popular calls for action grow in the Arab world, Hizbullah may consider itself less obliged to defer to its domestic constraints, analysts say.

Hizbullah Secretary General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah hinted two weeks ago – before the latest Israeli offensive – that his group would open up a second front if the situation worsened in the Palestinian territories.

"What is happening in occupied Palestine nowadays, touches on [our] red lines. If things worsen all eventualities will be open," he said.

Hizbullah's fighters in south Lebanon are clearly motivated for renewed clashes with Israel. Fighters in border observation posts candidly speak of "when" not "if" in reference to opening up the front.

Recent incidents on the border have given substance to Sheikh Nasrallah's statements. A short-range Katyusha rocket was fired early yesterday morning from Lebanon into northern Galilee, exploding harmlessly in a field near the town of Kiryat Shemona. There was no claim of responsibility and UNIFIL was unable to confirm from where the rocket was launched.

Hours later, Hizbullah fighters shelled Israeli outposts in a remote strip of mountainside, known as the Shebaa Farms, running along Lebanon's southeast border with Syria. It was the second assault by Hizbullah in the Shebaa Farms in three days. Israel responded by sending fighter-bombers to carry out airstrikes on suspected Hizbullah positions near the Shebaa Farms.

On Monday, four unidentified gunmen fired machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades at an Israeli army border outpost opposite the Lebanese village of Ramieh.

The unclaimed attack was the first against a target on Israeli soil since May 2000, when Israel withdrew its troops from south Lebanon, ending a 22-year occupation.

Security sources in south Lebanon believe that the attacks were probably staged by Palestinians, under the auspices of Hizbullah. "Nothing happens along the border without Hizbullah's knowledge," an experienced security source in south Lebanon said.

Until recently, Hizbullah has confined its activities to staging periodic bombardments of Israeli outposts in the Shebaa Farms, running along Lebanon's southeast border with Syria.

As the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians developed into a full-scale guerrilla war, Hizbullah began focusing its attention away from the Shebaa Farms to Lebanon's border with Israel itself.

In January, Hizbullah gunners began firing antiaircraft rounds across the border in response to Israel's almost daily reconnaissance flights in Lebanese airspace. The heavy caliber rounds were set to explode thousands of feet above Israeli towns, peppering residents with light shrapnel and startling them with loud bangs.

On March 12, seven Israelis were killed and six others wounded when two unidentified gunmen ambushed vehicles travelling along a road beside Kibbutz Matsuva, two miles south of the border with Lebanon. Israel said the attackers came from Lebanon and used a specially designed ladder – subsequently uncovered by Israeli troops – to cross the electrified border fence undetected.

UN peacekeepers found "inconclusive" signs of a possible border breach but could confirm nothing.

But a well-placed source in south Lebanon said there is "little doubt" that Hizbullah organized the operation. Hizbullah remained ambiguous about the attack, neither confirming or denying involvement.

"Hizbullah has learned the game of plausible deniability," the source said.

Mr. Goksel said that the Israeli army was "extremely angry" at the latest cross-border attacks but as long as there are no casualties, "they will probably sleep on it."

"But I don't know how long that will last," he added.

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