Escalation ripples through Middle East

Israel dramatically escalated its confrontation with Lebanon over the fate of two captured soldiers in a series of targeted airstrikes Thursday, killing more than 50 civilians.

At the same time, Israeli airstrikes kept the pressure on Gaza, seeking to release another soldier captured by Hamas-linked militants on June 25.

The seizing of the soldiers and Israel's response have sparked the most troubling crisis between Israel and its neighbors in more than a decade. Israel's sharp escalation, coupled with uncompromising rhetoric from all three sides, leaves little room for violence to subside – and those tensions could spill over into everything from US efforts to curb Iran's nuclear program, its desire for democratic change in Syria, and even stability in Iraq.

"The escalation has been so quick and immediate that they have nowhere to go now but basically to some kind of war,'' says Nadia Hijab, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies in Washington.

"This is definitely a war. It's more than a border skirmish. It's a full-blown attack," says Yoram Peri, head of the Chaim Herzog Institute for Media, Politics, and Society at Tel Aviv University and an expert on the Israeli military.

Professor Peri says the severity of Israel's reaction to the taking of two soldiers by Hizbullah is an attempt to regain what it views as lost initiative. "Now Israel wants to show Hizbullah that we are not going to play the game according to their rules. We will dictate the rules. Israel is now changing the balance of power in the area," he says.

But to whose ultimate advantage is unclear. With Israel's declaration of war not just on Hizbullah but on the entire Lebanese government, which came to power in democratic elections following the so-called Cedar Revolution in 2004 that saw Syria end its occupation of Lebanon, some Western leaders worry that peace and democracy in Lebanon could end up on shaky ground.

Hizbullah's rise to prominence followed Israel's 1982 invasion of the country, in what started out as an attempt to dismantle the Palestinian militants based there but widened into a war with Syria, and, ultimately, the Lebanese civil war. Outright conflict, with Hizbullah taking up the mantle of resistance to Israel and champion of Arab causes, could strengthen their hand.

Speaking to reporters in Germany, President Bush offered support for Israel's action, saying the country "has the right to defend herself," but he fretted about the future of a government that he views as a beacon for the democracy that he hoped would spread in the region in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. "Whatever Israel does should not weaken the ... government in Lebanon," he said.

Pat Lang, a retired US Army colonel and the former head of the Middle East and terrorism desk at the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, says Israel has long been committed to bringing down the Lebanese and Hamas government, seeing both as representing enemies that can't be negotiated with.

"This is basically tribal warfare. If you have someone who's hostile to you and you're unwilling to accept a temporary truce, as Hamas offered, then you have to destroy them,'' he says. "The Israeli response is so disproportionate to the abduction of the three men it appears it's a rather clever excuse designed to appeal both to their public and to the US."

Mr. Lang and other analysts say the Lebanese government can't long withstand the Israeli airstrikes and naval blockade of the Beirut port. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Thursday "the Lebanese government will pay the price" for the kidnappings. If they're right, the gains made when Syria left the country could be lost.

Yoram Meital, Chairman of the Herzog Center for Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev and an expert on Arab-Israeli relations, says he's disturbed by the parallels to Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, prompted by anger at the government's failure to dismantle the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) infrastructure in the south. In his view, Hizbullah is the new PLO.

"The goal is to force the Lebanese government to act against the Hizbullah, to pressure the population to make Hizbullah disarm and dismantle its militia,'' he says. "It reminds me of the voices and objectives that were mentioned at the beginning of the Lebanon war... [Israel] pointed to the Lebanese government as responsible for the security in southern Lebanon."

To be sure, he doesn't expect Israel will reoccupy parts of Lebanon. "I have great doubt that Israel can achieve its very ambitious goal because Hizbullah is a very strong Lebanese player with a strong foothold in the south of Lebanon and in the capital.... I believe many players in the region and in the international community will oppose a full-fledged Israeli war in Lebanon that could totally destabilize the whole of the region."

However, there are some indicators of tolerance among the US and other Western powers for an extended Israeli assault, with two diplomats saying Israel won goodwill for its withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and that its need to protect its borders is reasonable.

"We recognize that Israel has made a lot of progress in the north and secondly the international community understands the problems caused by militias for Lebanese internal stability and the stability of the region," says a European Union diplomat, who asked that his name not be used.

Also speaking on background, one EU official said Israel's unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon six years ago, and UN Resolution 1559 that called for the disarming of Lebanon's militias and for the country's military to control its southern region, made it impossible to justify Hizbullah's attacks.

While Western powers may have more sympathy for Israel this time around, the lopsided human toll on Palestinian and Lebanese civilians is getting heavy play on Arab satellite channels, with growing complaints of collective punishment tactics.

On Thursday, Israeli strikes in southern Lebanon killed at least 55 civilians. On the Israeli side, more than 100 rockets slammed into northern towns, killing at least one woman and injuring dozens more. Late Thursday a rocket from Lebanon hit the port city Haifa. An Israeli army spokesman said it was fired by Hizbullah militants.

Hizbullah is backed by both Syria and Iran, as is Hamas. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is already locked in a confrontation with the US over his country's nuclear program, and has repeatedly spoken of his desire to see the Israeli state destroyed. Iran has frequently used its support of both Hamas and Hizbullah to bolster its own prestige and influence.

In Iraq, militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has growing ties to Iran and has a powerful militia that has fought US forces here and been accused of carrying out sectarian killings, is a possible concern.

He has ties to Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who was a student of Mr. Sadr's deceased uncle.

In 2004, he told Hizbullah's Al Manar TV of his "solidarity" with both Mr. Nasrallah and Hamas, and asked both groups to "consider me their striking hand in Iraq whenever the need arises ... Iraq and Palestine have the same destiny."

To be sure, in recent months Sadr has toned down his militant rhetoric as members of his political movement have joined the government, and he has yet to make a statement on the recent fighting.

Hizbullah and Hamas

Who is Hizbullah?

• Hizbullah is a militant Shiite Muslim group formed in the 1980s during Lebanon's civil war. It gained popularity by fighting Israeli forces and offering broad social services. Today it is a powerful militia controlling much of southern Lebanon, and it holds seats in the Lebanese parliament.

• The group follows a strict brand of Shiite Islam and opposes Western influence.

• At its founding the group's main focus was to drive Israeli forces from Lebanon.

• It is widely believed to receive financial and military support from both Iran and Syria.

Who is Hamas?

• Hamas is a militant Sunni Muslim group and leader of violent Palestinian opposition to Israel. Growing out of the fundamentalist movement in the Palestinian territories, it gathered strength through the 1990s.

• In an election upset this year, Hamas became the ruling Palestinian power.

• Hamas is dedicated to the elimination of Israel.

• Hamas is supported by many in the majority-Sunni Middle East.

Source: Political Handbook of the World

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