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Hizbullah aims to shift power balance

Israel, Hizbullah both hope to gain edge in changing war.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 17, 2006



BEIRUT, LEBANON

The operation to kidnap Israeli soldiers took months of planning with Hizbullah's battle-hardened fighters staking out the Lebanese border looking for weaknesses.

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Evidently they found one. Five days after they blasted through a border fence and seized two soldiers, Hizbullah is in a rapidly escalating conflict with Israel. It's a climactic struggle between two bitter foes which has become a "defining moment" for the Middle East, says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, author of "Hizbullah: Politics and Religion."

"This is a showdown for both sides in which Israel is attempting to neutralize Hizbullah, and Hizbullah is attempting to impose its will on Israel and [say to] the international community that it's here to stay," she says.

By striking Haifa with a barrage of rockets that killed at least eight Israelis yesterday, Hizbullah has transferred the Arab-Israeli conflict to Israeli territory for the first time in more than 50 years, overturning Israel's long-standing military doctrine of defeating its enemies on foreign soil.

"If the Israeli public begins clamoring for a cease-fire, then the Israeli army will have been neutralized," says Ms. Saad-Ghorayeb, who is also a professor of politics at the Lebanese American University. "It will shatter the myth of Israeli invincibility, proving Hizbullah's point that military force is not the same as power. This will change the shape of the region."

In response to the Haifa attacks, Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday there would be "far reaching consequences." Much of Beirut's southern suburbs lay in ruins after multiple Israeli air strikes had destroyed Hizbullah's headquarters and television station.

The roots of the current conflict go back to 2000, when Hizbullah fighters advanced as Israel withdrew from an occupied strip of Lebanese territory along the Israeli border. Over the following months, Hizbullah established a military infrastructure along the frontier, and its fighters occasionally attacked Israeli positions in the Shebaa Farms, a strip of mountainside running along Lebanon's southeast border.

The clashes followed certain unwritten rules. If Israel was to react disproportionately to Hizbullah's needling attacks, it ran the risk of incurring a massive rocket bombardment by Hizbullah. On the other hand, if Hizbullah overstepped its boundaries in attacking Israel, the resulting heavy retaliation against Lebanon could backlash on the group's domestic popularity. The rules ensured a tense, but stable, calm along the border.

Yet Hizbullah's preparations along the border were in anticipation of an eventual showdown with Israel, which Hizbullah officials believed was inevitable. "This will happen and we are constantly preparing for it," a Hizbullah official told The Monitor as long ago as February 2002.

Similarly, the Israeli military drew up its own contingency plans.

The status quo began to change in 2004 when Syria, which dominated Lebanon politically, began facing pressure to disengage from its neighbor. The US and France co-sponsored UN Security Council resolution 1559, which demanded a free and fair Lebanese election and the withdrawal of Syrian troops. But the US pressed for additional clauses calling for the "dismantling of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias," a reference to Hizbullah and armed Palestinian groups, and the deployment of Lebanese army troops to replace the Shiite group's fighters.

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