Q&A: Behind the Israel-Hizbullah crisis
The current crisis in the Middle East involves a constellation of players. Hizbullah is tied to Iran and Syria; the Lebanese militant group shares common cause with the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Israel is committed to protecting itself and wants to see its soldiers returned. The US wants Hizbullah disarmed and supports the Lebanese government, which is now facing a destabilizing barrage of Israeli bombs. The Monitor's Dan Murphy looks at all sides of the escalating conflict.
Before dawn on June 25, an eight-man team of Palestinian militants tied to Hamas, the Islamist party that now controls the Palestinian Authority after a January electoral victory, entered Israel through a half-mile long tunnel under the border and attacked an Israeli Army post, killing two soldiers and capturing 19-year-old Cpl. Gilad Shalit.
The next day Hamas demanded the release of Palestinians from Israeli prisons in exchange for Corporal Shalit.
A second Israeli, 18-year-old Eliahu Asheri, was captured on June 27 (his body was found two days later near Ramallah). The next day, Israeli responded with strikes on power stations, bridges, and basic infrastructure in Gaza.
Over the following week, Israel continued to strike Gaza and arrested a third of the Palestinian cabinet. Palestinian militants fired rockets deep into Israel's territory. About 50 Palestinians, most civilians, were killed in this round of war.
On July 10, Khaled Mashal, the hard-line Hamas leader in Damascus, believed to have ordered the cross-border attack, vowed that Shalit won't be released unless 1,000 Palestinians are freed by Israel.
Two days later, Lebanese Hizbullah militants crossed the Israeli border and captured two Israeli soldiers. Hassan Nasrallah, the Shiite cleric who runs the militant organization that is part of the Lebanese government, has promised for years to capture Israeli soldiers to trade for Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails.
Eight Israeli soldiers were killed in this attack and subsequent fighting. Israel called the attack an "act of war."
Because Hizbullah is part of the Lebanese government and the government has either been unwilling or unable to disarm the Shiite militia, Israel holds Beirut accountable for the cross-border attack and capture of the soldiers.
Tuesday, Israel said the offensive could last several more weeks and could involve large numbers of ground forces. Already at least 200 Lebanese have been killed, along with 25 Israelis.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government has vowed it won't back down until its prisoners are released and Hizbullah's military abilities are destroyed.
In 2004, Israel agreed to a prisoner swap with Hizbullah, releasing about 200 militants in exchange for the remains of two Israeli soldiers and an Israeli businessman kidnapped outside of Israel.
But now Mr. Olmert argues that deals like that one have only encouraged more kidnappings and says the fact that Hizbullah struck inside Israel to take its two captives was a red line that precludes bowing to Hizbullah's demands.
Members of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government have argued that a strong move against the Shiite Hizbullah, which essentially runs the southern part of the country, could reignite the sectarian tensions that fed its ruinous 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.
Mr. Olmert said Tuesday the offensive might be called off if Israeli prisoners are released and Hizbullah withdraws from the border area, taking its rockets out of range of Israeli population centers.
"If one of the ways to bring home the soldiers will be negotiations on the possibility of releasing Lebanese prisoners, I think the day will come when we will also have to consider this," Israeli Public Security Minister Avi Dichter told the country's Army Radio Tuesday.
From the Hizbullah side, there has been no evidence of softening, though analysts say it is possible the group would agree to a withdrawal from the border in exchange for a hostage deal, betting it will be able to eventually move back into the area.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called Tuesday for a bigger, better-armed and more robust international force to stabilize southern Lebanon and buy time for the Lebanese government to disarm Hizbullah.
Shrugging off US and Israeli reluctance, Mr. Annan said he expected European nations to contribute troops to the proposed force in a bid to end fighting between Israel and Hizbullah and prevent a wider Middle East conflagration.
"It is urgent that the international community acts to make a difference on the ground," Annan said.
Hizbullah has strong ties to both regimes, particularly to Iran, which has traditionally armed and financed the group. Syria's role for arms and other aid to Hizbullah has been as a transit point. And both countries see Hizbullah as a useful proxy in their confrontations with Israel, and a likely ally if war ever breaks out. Claims that Syria and Iran had a hand in Hizbullah's decision to capture the Israeli soldiers are unproven.
Though President Bush appears to think Syria is pulling the strings – caught in a candid moment saying that Syria is capable of forcing Hizbullah to release the hostages and ending its rocket attacks on northern Israel – others say Hizbullah's independent hatred of Israel can't be discounted, and that it probably acted out of sympathy with Hamas.
Hizbullah leader Mr. Nasrallah has often called for the demise of Israel and he needs no prodding to strike. But in developing Hizbullah's ability to attack, Iran and Syria's role are unquestioned.
US and Israeli intelligence say the group has been equipped with 10,000 short-range rockets from Iran and has received training from Iran and Syria.
The connections between Hizbullah and the countries the US views as terror supporters makes this conflict an American priority in the region. The US has strongly supported the Lebanese government since Syria's withdrawal last year, and would view a collapse of Prime Minister Siniora's government a calamity.
But America's ability to exert influence is limited, since it does not talk directly to either Hizbullah, Syria, or Iran. The US has considerable sway with its close ally Israel, though so far it has called only for restraint in the Israeli offensive and has said that calls for a cease-fire are "premature."
Another big US concern remains Iran's nuclear program, which it claims will inevitably lead to a nuclear bomb if it isn't controlled. To be sure, the fighting in Lebanon is not only distracting the world from efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear program, but is even making Iran more popular among Arab populations. who widely approve of its support of Hizbullah militants against Israel.
• Wire services were used in this article.