As Israeli-Palestinian crossfire continues to make a mockery of a June 13 cease-fire agreement, simmering tensions in nearby southern Lebanon are threatening to run out of control.
Yesterday, Israeli warplanes flew low over southern Lebanese border towns, just days after a weekend that saw the worst tit for tat violence between the Syrian-backed Hizbullah and Israel since the Israeli army withdrew from an occupied border strip in southern Lebanon over a year ago.
On Wednesday, Hizbullah's secretary-general, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, vowed to step up the number of attacks against Israeli forces in a disputed strip of territory known as the Shebaa Farms along Lebanon's southeast border.
"Each time we get the chance, we will seize the occasion to hit the Israeli occupation forces," Sheikh Nasrallah said in an interview with the Lebanese daily As-Safir. "We have ordered an increase in anti-Israeli operations."
Yesterday, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara urged Israel to step back "from the brink of war" during a brief visit to London.
With strong distrust between Syria and Israel, ongoing military brinkmanship, and continuing Israeli-Palestinian violence, some officials warn it will take little to draw this region into a war that no one wants - but that neither side may be able to avoid.
"Both sides have fixed misconceptions of each other," says Timur Goksel, spokesman of the UN peacekeeping force in south Lebanon. "These misconceptions are very dangerous when local dynamics have a habit of spilling the situation out of control."
The 15.6 square mile Shebaa Farms was originally Lebanese but fell under the control of neighboring Syria in the 1950s and was captured by Israel during the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. The UN says the fate of the district is subject to peace talks between Israel and Syria. Hizbullah, with the blessing of Syria, has vowed to liberate the farms from Israeli occupation by force.
Israel blames Syria, the dominant power broker in Lebanon, for the tensions along the frontier. On Monday, the Israelis claimed they had detected the firing of a long-range Scud missile in Syria's eastern desert. The claim was denied by Syria.
Israel this week leveled accusations against another bitter enemy, Iran, charging it with establishing a terrorist network in Lebanon and deploying long-range missiles on Lebanese territory capable of striking targets deep inside the Jewish state.
On Wednesday, Lebanon's parliamentary speaker, Nabih Berri, said the accusations against Syria and Iran indicated Israel was setting the stage for a war. "We have to be extremely cautious about something big Israel is scheming.... The situation is dangerous. There have been plenty of signals by Israel that it is preparing the international community for a new Middle East war."
Hizbullah embarked on its campaign to liberate the Shebaa Farms last October in the belief that Israel was unwilling to open a new front while entangled with the Palestinian uprising in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
But Israeli patience with Hizbullah's sporadic assaults had its limits. In mid-April, after five separate attacks in which three Israeli soldiers were killed and another three kidnapped, Israel fulfilled its threats to retaliate heavily against Hizbullah's Syrian backers by destroying a Syrian radar base in the mountains above Beirut. Hizbullah and Syria, apparently taken by surprise, threatened revenge but did nothing.
Contested vantage point
When Hizbullah mounted another attack last weekend in the Shebaa Farms, wounding two Israeli soldiers, Israel bombed another Syrian radar station.
This time, however, Hizbullah answered back, battering Israeli army outposts in the Shebaa Farms with a mortar barrage. It was Israel's turn to back down before the clashes spun out of control, leaving Hizbullah with the impression that it had won the latest round of brinkmanship. But the tit-for-tat blows may have drawn the Middle East a few notches closer to war.
"We keep coming to the brink, and then one side pulls back," says Goksel. "But if one side miscalculates and there are serious casualties, then it could very easily fall over the brink into war."
It takes less than 10 minutes for the Italian crew of the UN's Augusta Bell helicopter to fly the daily patrol along the 6.8 mile Shebaa Farms frontline. At 11,000 feet the sky viewed through the helicopter window is a deep cobalt blue with piercing sunlight.
Much of south Lebanon, northern Israel, and the Syrian Golan Heights are visible from the Israeli outposts dotting the jagged mountain crest running along the western flank of the Shebaa Farms.
Down below, the weekend shell damage to the Israeli army's listening post is clearly visible. Debris is scattered in front of the compound, and the ground is pockmarked from some of the estimated 35 mortar rounds that struck this and five other Israeli army positions over the weekend.
Shebaa Farms is a supremely strategic spot. But it is also a desolate, treeless moonscape of brittle limestone and dense, thorny scrub riven by precipitous valleys and criss-crossed by tank tracks and military roads. No civilians - Lebanese, Syrian or Israeli - live in the Shebaa Farms.
The only signs of habitation are the circular Israeli army outposts of bulldozed earth ramparts and reinforced concrete bunkers ringed with antimissile chain link fencing.
"It's not much to look at for all the trouble it causes, is it," says Capt. Roberto Guidolin, the helicopter pilot.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor