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Israel troubled that war in Lebanon drove its enemies closer

Lebanese and Palestinian militants are now showing greater coordination.

By Rafael D. FrankelCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 22, 2006


Over the next few days, Israel hopes to bring home its remaining troops from south Lebanon, marking the end of its withdrawal after the 34-day war with Hizbullah guerrillas.

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In Beirut, Hizbullah plans to mark the occasion Friday with a celebration in which supporters will claim "victory" despite the massive devastation in Lebanon.

But even though a calm continues to hold, Israelis say the war that started July 12 with the capture of two of its soldiers has created a much more dangerous enemy as the conflict has deepened ties between Lebanese guerrillas and Palestinian militants each with ties to Syria and Iran.

The result, Israeli analysts and military officials say, may be the further entrenchment of Hizbullah within the Palestinian territories and among militants connected to the ruling Hamas party. That could lead to future coordinated attacks on Israel more sophisticated in nature than the Palestinians have so far demonstrated.

The war will further cement ties that have been developing for more than a decade as Palestinian militants are eager to learn the techniques that allowed Hizbullah to withstand superior Israeli firepower while inflicting damage on Israel, say analysts and Israeli intelligence officers.

"The connection is all the global jihad," says an Israeli political official who works closely with Israel's intelligence branch and therefore could not be named. "It doesn't matter if we call them bin Laden or [Hamas leader Khalid] Mashaal or [Hizbullah leader Hassan] Nasrallah. They are all working toward the same ends."

The extent of the connection between the Iranian and Syrian-supported Hizbullah and Hamas, as well as between Hizbullah and Fatah-linked militias and the radical group Islamic Jihad, has been revealed through interrogations of Palestinians over the years, documents seized in raids on Palestinian offices, and other intelligence that Israeli sources refused to discuss specifically.

Experts trace the connection between Hizbullah and Palestinian militants to 1992, when Israel expelled more than 400 Palestinian extremists to Marj-el-Zhour, the Valley of the Flowers, in southern Lebanon. After their expulsion, the Palestinian militants, mainly from Hamas, set up a camp in Lebanon that was supported for months by Hizbullah. Some of Hamas's expelled Sunni leaders were eventually brought to Beirut, and introduced to Hizbullah's Shiite leaders there, experts say.

While that direct coordination between the Iranian-Hizbullah alliance and Hamas began in 1992, the die was first cast at the end of the Iraq-Iran war, when Iran reevaluated its strategic security, says Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian expert who is currently writing a book on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran's nuclear-weapons program.

"After that war, Iran realized that offense was the best defense," says Mr. Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli who still retains extensive contacts in the Islamic Republic. "The Palestinian groups became a way of creating a strategic belt in the region."

Estimates given by three top generals in the Israeli military's intelligence unit and by the Israeli political official state that anywhere from dozens to hundreds of Palestinian militants have been brought to Lebanon and Iran, and sometimes Syria, over recent years.

There, they received advanced guerrilla and terrorist warfare training by Hizbullah militiamen and Iranian Revolutionary Guard soldiers, says Brig. Gen. (Reserve) Shalom Harari, a 32-year veteran of Israeli military intelligence, and a special adviser on Palestinian affairs to Israel's Ministry of Defense.

Though he disputes the numbers, saying the number of militants trained abroad amounts only to "handfuls," Magnus Ranstorp, author of the 1997 book "Hizb'allah in Lebanon: The Politics of the Western Hostage Crisis," says Palestinian militants have admitted to receiving such training in those locations.