A second front opens for Israel
Hizbullah militants captured two Israeli soldiers Wednesday in an attack Israel called an 'act of war.'
JERUSALEM AND MARJAYOUN, LEBANON — Even as Israel dealt with an escalating crisis in Gaza over a captured soldier, Lebanon's Hizbullah militants captured two more soldiers Wednesday, opening a second Israeli front and raising the specter of a broader regional confrontation.
The engagement with the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hizbullah began Wednesday, when militants fired dozens of Katyusha rockets into northern Israel, drawing the Israeli army into the most violent cross-border battle with the Shiite militia since 2000.
"Hizbullah has had several failed attempts to kidnap Israeli soldiers in the recent past, but the connection for this attack is clearly what's happening in Gaza," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, professor of politics at the Lebanese American University and author of "Hizbullah: Politics and Religion." "Many people will support this attack especially around the region."
Israel says it is holding the Lebanese government responsible for the safe return of the two soldiers. The attack puts the Lebanese government in a difficult position as it includes a member of Hizbullah, even though many Lebanese legislators support the disarming of the party.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called the Hizbullah attack an "act of war" Wednesday and said that he holds the Lebanese government responsible for the safe return of the two soldiers. Mr. Olmert promised a "very painful and far-reaching" response to the incursion.
But analysts say that Israel must look past the Lebanese government in this instance.
"Israel's problem is that there is no identifiable body that it can hold responsible," says Avi Segal, an international-relations and war-strategy expert lecturing at Ben-Gurion and Hebrew Universities. "It's easy to talk about a state, but go find Hizbullah, go find Hamas."
"It's not clear that Lebanon is the answer," says Gen. (ret.) Giora Inbar, the former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) commander for southern Lebanon. "We need to first see what is the address, and it appears to be in Syria, with its connections to Hizbullah and Iran. I don't suggest conquering those countries, but we need to make connections, to negotiate."
The Hizbullah raid that captured the soldiers came early Wednesday morning. Fighters first fired a volley of rockets, then attacked Israeli soldiers on patrol and abducted two, causing other casualties, said Capt. Jacob Dallal, an Israel army spokesman. Israeli jets struck deep into southern Lebanon, blasting bridges and Hizbullah positions and killing two civilians, Lebanese security officials said. At least six Israeli soldiers were killed.
Hizbullah's military arm said in a statement that its fighters captured the two Israeli soldiers "on the border with occupied Palestine, fulfilling the promise to liberate its prisoners" held by Israel. It said the prisoners were moved to "a safe area."
A top Hamas leader said his movement did not coordinate with Hizbullah over the capture of the soldiers, but said it was "natural" for the two groups to work together in their demands for prisoner swaps with Israel.
Negotiating is complicated for Israel. Until now, it has held its hard-line stance, refusing to negotiate with the Palestinians over the soldier in Gaza, Cpl. Gilad Shalit.
Even if it chooses to negotiate with Hizbullah over a prisoner exchange, "The problem is that Israel now has to deal with many bodies, and one cannot necessarily force the other to act," says Yoram Peri, the head of the Chaim Herzog Institute for Media, Politics, and Society in Tel Aviv.
Professor Peri suggests that until Israel decides to negotiate with Hizbullah, the conflict that has now spread from Gaza to southern Lebanon will probably be protracted and intense. "This is not a story which will be solved in one or two days," he says. "The military confrontation will be much more intensive."
In south Lebanon's dusty hilltop villages, which are populated by Shiite Muslim supporters of Hizbullah, convoys of cars sporting yellow Hizbullah flags drove through the streets honking horns in celebration at the news of the capture of two Israeli soldiers. "The resistance has shown today that it can defeat the Israelis every time," says a beaming Mohammed Deed in the village of Habboush.
Other Hizbullah supporters stood in the center of main roads handing out fistfuls of sweets to motorists, a traditional symbol of celebration.
Israeli aircraft had destroyed three key bridges crossing the Litani River, cutting off much of southeast Lebanon from the capital, Beirut. One Lebanese soldier and two civilians were killed when the Qasmiya Bridge on the main coastal road north of Tyre was blown up. Lebanese soldiers blocked the roads leading to the bridges instructing motorists to return north out of the area.
From the Christian town of Marjayoun, just north of the border, the deep boom of Israeli shellfire was heard as round after round exploded in a valley at the foot of the Shebaa Farms.
The residents of south Lebanon are accustomed to the sounds of warfare, but many had been hoping for calm during the summer months when the Lebanese tourist season is at its peak and thousands of expatriot Lebanese return to their former villages.
"Why is Hizbullah doing this? Why do we have to suffer for the sake of the Palestinians?" asks Mr. Haddad.
The roar of a low- flying Israeli aircraft signals an airstrike in progress. A loud blast echoes across the valley, followed quickly by a tower of dust and smoke climbing into the deep blue sky east of the Shiite town of Khiam.
Smoke billows from a Hizbullah position perched on a strategic hill overlooking the border, evidence of an earlier Israeli raid.
While analysts agree that Hizbullah's kidnapping operation was a deliberately timed gesture of support for the Palestinians in Gaza, it will probably sharpen the intense debate in Lebanon over the fate of Hizbullah's military wing.
The attack comes at a time when Hizbullah faces intense domestic and international pressure to disband its military wing. Hizbullah refuses to disarm, saying that the resistance is a vital component of Lebanon's national defense strategy.
Although Hizbullah occasionally attacks Israeli military positions in the Shebaa Farms, it rarely admits to operations elsewhere along the 70-mile frontier.
The attack is certain to aggravate an already fraught political climate in Lebanon, with the group's critics arguing that anti-Israel attacks threaten Lebanese stability.
But some analysts maintain that Hizbullah is looking beyond Lebanon in seeking to bolster its image as an exemplar of pan-Islamic anti-Israeli resistance, particularly with the Palestinians in Gaza under attack.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has trod a fine line in appeasing the powerful Hizbullah, officially describing its military wing as resistance rather than as a militia, and thus exempt from UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for its dismantling. But Mr. Siniora recognizes that Hizbullah's determination to retain its weapons is inimical to his attempts to restore Lebanon's flagging economy and reverse the staggering national debt of more than $40 billion.
"Look at the position of the government now," says Timur Goksel, university lecturer in Beirut and former senior UN officer in south Lebanon. "Hizbullah is part of the government and they have now put the government in a very awkward position."
He adds: "This will make the Palestinians happy and some other Arabs who will be glad to see someone doing something against Israel, but I don't think you will find that feeling in Lebanon."
Meanwhile in Gaza, Israel dropped a quarter-ton bomb on a home Wednesday in an attempt to assassinate top Hamas fugitives. Nine members of a family, including seven children, were killed.
The airstrike, which targeted the No. 1 militant on Israel's wanted list, came hours before the Hizbullah kidnapping.
Elsewhere in Gaza, at least nine Palestinians were killed in four separate incidents that included Israeli tank fire and a gunfight. Israel has been conducting a large-scale military offensive in Gaza since Hamas militants captured the soldier on June 25. The campaign's declared aim is to force Hamas militants to turn over the soldier and to halt ongoing rocket fire on southern Israel.
More than 60 Palestinians have been killed. Most of the dead have been gunmen, but more than a dozen civilians have died. One Israeli soldier has been killed.
Wednesday's aerial attack in Gaza City seemed likely to intensify international criticism of Israel. The United Nations has already complained about what it said was disproportionate use of Israeli force in the Gaza operation.
In Rome, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for the release of all captured Israeli soldiers, but also condemned the incursion in Lebanon. "We would not want to see an expansion, an escalation of conflict in the region," Annan said.
• Material from the Associated Press contributed to this report.