Hizbullah aims to shift power balance

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

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

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.

The effect of the resolution was to polarize the Lebanese into pro- and anti-Syrian camps, a divide aggravated by the murder in 2005 of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister, which was blamed by most Lebanese on the Syrian regime.

With Syria's disengagement from Lebanon two months after Hariri's death, Hizbullah lost its political cover and was forced to defend its interests more directly.

It struck an alliance with its Shiite rival, the Amal movement, which effectively turned the attempt to disarm Hizbullah into one perceived as disarming the Shiites. The alliance strengthened Hizbullah politically but at the expense of exacerbating sectarian tensions between Shiites and Lebanon's other communities, the Christians, Sunnis, and Druze.

"The country is split one-third, two-thirds very simply," says Chibli Mallat, a presidential aspirant. "Unfortunately, the Shiites are on their own."

By the end of 2005, an anti-Western alliance was crystallizing in the Middle East, linking Iran, under the newly elected president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with Syria, Hizbullah, and the Damascus-branch of the Hamas movement. By closing ranks, the alliance felt emboldened to challenge the US in the Middle East.

Hizbullah had made it known for months that it was interested in kidnapping Israeli soldiers to exchange for prisoners. It even launched a well-planned assault on an Israeli position last November with the intention of snatching soldiers. The bid failed, however.

Although a fresh kidnapping was bound to incur a massive response from Israel and the wrath of non-Shiite Lebanese, analysts believe that Hizbullah and its Iranian patron calculated that the Shiite group would prevail.

"Quite frankly, they don't care" about the views of non-Shiite Lebanese, says Saad-Ghorayeb, as long as they have the support of their own constituency.

In June, the Israeli government became embroiled in the Gaza kidnap crisis, and for Hizbullah and its allies it appeared an opportune moment to strike again, opening a new front and placing additional pressure on Mr. Olmert.

Israel's response has knocked out roads, bridges, and power stations, and left more than 100 people dead in the airstrikes. With Israel telling residents of south Lebanon to leave their homes, a senior UN officer in the south says that much of the district had become "a free-fire zone."

"This is a pure intimidation campaign," says Timur Goksel, professor and former UN officer in south Lebanon. "If these hardships continue, people will begin to support Hizbullah against Israel again."

Hizbullah leader Nasrallah

• Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is secretary-general of Hizbullah, a Lebanese political party and military group that is classified as a terrorist organization by the US and Europe.

• He became Hizbullah's leader in 1992 after Israel assassinated his predecessor.

• Under Nasrallah, Hizbullah is widely credited in the Arab world with causing Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.

• He is believed to have passed intelligence to Palestinian groups and has praised Palestinian suicide bombers.

• After last year's assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, Nasrallah led Hizbullah to win 14 parliament seats and to join the government for the first time.

Sources: AP, BBC.

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