Dangerous brinksmanship heats up the Levant

US-Syria tensions, aggressive Israeli jets, and Hizbullah artillery are challenging diplomats.

Diplomatic efforts are under way to cap the worst violence along the Lebanese-Israeli border in more than a year.

A recent escalation between Lebanon's Hizbullah organization and Israel left one Israeli civilian dead and a Hizbullah antiaircraft gun destroyed in an air strike.

Diplomats and United Nations peacekeepers in south Lebanon fear fighting might soon resume unless a diplomatic solution is reached that will end the dangerous brinkmanship between Hizbullah and the Israeli military.

But Israel's staging of mass overflights by military jets in Lebanese airspace Wednesday has dampened hopes of an imminent breakthrough. The overflights are fueling suspicion that Israel is seeking to goad the Islamic party into an open conflict. Many Lebanese also suspect Israeli involvement in the recent assassination of a senior Hizbullah military commander in Beirut.

"I think the Israelis are setting up Hizbullah and Syria. They are trying to provoke a reaction by Hizbullah against Israel which can then be used to mobilize American support to pressure Syria to disarm Hizbullah," says Michael Young, a Lebanese political commentator.

The escalation began last Friday with an assault by Hizbullah fighters against Israeli Army outposts in the Shebaa Farms, a 15-square mile mountainous area running along Lebanon's southeast border with the Golan Heights. The attack shattered a seven-month lull. A day later, two Israeli residents of Kiryat Shemona in northern Galilee were treated for shock when anti- aircraft rounds fired by Hizbullah damaged buildings in the town.

Cross-border shelling

Hizbullah routinely fires antiaircraft shells across the border in a tit-for-tat retaliation to the almost daily violations of Lebanese airspace by Israeli jets. The rounds from Hizbullah's vintage 57mm cannons explode thousands of feet above Israeli border towns, spattering whatever lies below with light shrapnel.

Several Israeli civilians have been wounded by falling shrapnel and the UN had warned that it was only a matter of time before someone was killed. Sunday, the UN's worst fears were confirmed when a 16-year-old Israeli died and three other civilians were wounded after three antiaircraft rounds exploded in the western Galilee border town of Shelomi. Israel retaliated four hours later by bombing the antiaircraft battery that carried out the fatal shooting. In the early hours of Monday morning, an Israeli jet flew a low-level supersonic run over Beirut. The thunderclap of the sonic boom rattled windows, set off car alarms, and brought sleepy Beirutis out onto balconies to scan the inky night sky for the invisible planes, which continued to rumble over the city for another hour.

"If the Israelis are afraid of these antiaircraft shells, their leaders should stop their planes from crossing Lebanese skies," says Hassan Ezzieddine, a member of Hizbullah's politburo.

But Israel insists that the overflights are necessary for reconnaissance purposes, and that Hizbullah's antiaircraft fire is an unprovoked aggression. Neither side so far has shown willingness to be the first to step down.

"If we allow the cycle to become a spiral, we could end up potentially with a creeping conflict along the Blue Line [the UN-monitored border between Israel and Lebanon] and nobody should want to see that," says Staffan de Mistura, the Beirut-based UN official for southern Lebanon.

Other than routine anti- aircraft fire and overflights, the Lebanon-Israel border has been calm for seven months, in part due to regional uncertainties generated by the war in Iraq.

Frayed US-Syria ties

The latest flare-up appears to have been spurred partly by Syrian irritation with the United States. Stability along the Lebanon-Israel border is linked to the interests of Syria, the dominant power broker in Lebanon. Syria views Hizbullah as a useful tool to maintain pressure on Israel for the return of the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau captured by the Jewish state in 1967. So long as the Golan remains in Israeli hands, Syria will not allow Israel the luxury of guaranteed security along its northern border with Lebanon.

The US has placed intense pressure on Syria to cease its support for Hizbullah. But Syria has refused to yield to what it sees as Israeli-inspired dictates from Washington. At the end of July, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa slammed the administration of President Bush, saying it was unmatched in "foolishness and tendency towards violence."

That same day, Hizbullah Secretary-General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah threatened to kidnap more Israeli soldiers.

On Aug. 2, Ali Saleh, a senior commander in the Islamic Resistance, Hizbullah's armed wing, was killed in a car bomb blast in the southern suburbs of Beirut, the group's stronghold. There was no claim of responsibility, but Hizbullah blamed Israel and vowed revenge.

Some analysts believe that Saleh was killed to provoke a response from Hizbullah.

"The Israelis realize that after seven months without attacks along the border, it becomes hard to keep claiming that Hizbullah is a threat. They had to heat up the border," Mr Young claims.

Although a tense calm has returned to the area, UN peacekeepers are privately worried that the Aug. 10 air strike against the Hizbullah position will be repeated if the group continues to fire antiaircraft rounds across the border in retaliation for Israeli overflights.

The Americans are seeking to persuade Israel to abandon its overflights for a month to prove one way or the other if they are connected to Hizbullah's cross-border antiaircraft fire. If the antiaircraft fire halts as expected, then Israel will have difficulty arguing for a resumption of overflights, a diplomat says.

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