Hezbollah seen as possible provocateur in clash between Israeli and Lebanese armies, but larger conflict seen unlikely as peace talks near.
Hezbollah may have instigated the most serious border clash between Israeli and Lebanese troops in four years Tuesday, a skirmish that killed one Israeli soldier and four Lebanese. But one Middle East expert believes the conflict is not likely to escalate.
“There is a general climate and environment that many analysts believe may lead to war or a major confrontation that would be beyond what we saw in the summer of 2006,” said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator and now a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “But I don’t believe you are going to get from what happened to an all-out war.”
Tuesday’s mid-day confrontation occurred when Lebanese Armed Forces fired at Israeli troops the Israeli military said were carrying out routine maintenance on the Israeli side of the border in pre-coordination with United Nations peacekeeping troops there. Israeli troops returned fire, killing three soldiers and a Lebanese journalist. One Israeli soldier was killed and another critically wounded.
Confrontations between Israeli and Lebanese troops have reportedly occurred along the length of the Lebanese border in recent months. Hezbollah may have encouraged the gunfire, according to this thinking, to divert attention from the arrest warrants expected to be served by the United Nations on some Hezbollah leaders for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.
If such warrants are issued, forces opposed to Iran-backed Hezbollah could use it as leverage to begin disarming Hezbollah, some believe.
“It’s certainly plausible that in an effort to attract some attention from the indictments" Hezbollah instigated the clash,” said Miller.
But he argued that for war to erupt, other elements are needed that are missing today.
“I’m not sure the Iranians were that overjoyed in 2006 when Hezbollah played the rocket option,” Miller said. “I believe it would be a little early for them to want to encourage Hezbollah to step into a major confrontation with Israel now.”
Israel would also be reluctant to mount an all-out war with Hezbollah on the eve of the start of direct talks with the Palestinian Authority, Miller pointed out.
“Israel knows that if there is another crisis, the Americans are going to have to pressure both sides to stop,” he said.
The border clash came one day after six rockets were fired apparently from Egypt’s Sinai peninsula at southern Israel. Five reportedly fell either into the Red Sea or in open spaces outside the Israeli resort city of Eilat. The sixth hit a main street in the Jordanian port city of Aqaba, killing a taxi driver and wounding four others.
It was the second such attack this year; the other was in April. Egyptian authorities immediately insisted that the rockets did not come from the Sinai, but Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University said, “Egypt is embarrassed that it can’t control its territory.”
“This is a country that does not have the capability to control the Sinai,” he said, adding that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is “quite ill and may be dying, so they have enough problems elsewhere than to try to patrol the huge open area of the Sinai.”
Steinberg said Egyptian leaders are “afraid of political unrest when the political transition takes place — when Mubarak’s son or someone else becomes president and the Moslem Brotherhood might want to take over the government.”
Mordechai Kedar, a Syrian expert at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said he believes the rockets fired at Eilat and Aqaba—as well as one fired last week from the Gaza Strip into the Israeli city of Ashkelon – were messages from Hamas to Israel as it prepares for direct peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.
“It was a hint to [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas and [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu that they can talk but don’t forget what we have,” he said.
Kedar cited reports that Abbas only agreed to direct talks after the White House sent him a letter warning that Washington would abandon the Palestinian issue unless talks began quickly. The U.S. denied the claim.
Kedar said he is convinced that the talks will collapse because Abbas could never agree to tell his people that their dream of returning to Israel will never be realized and that “their exile is forever.”
Kedar said Hezbollah has a reported 40,000 missiles in Lebanon aimed at Israel and that the UN arrest warrant action might convince Lebanese leaders that “Hezbollah is acting against Lebanon — using its explosives to blow up Lebanese leaders. And this was the result of an investigation not by Israelis but by the United Nations.”
Fearful of such a situation, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah “might start targeting Lebanese who would say the mask fell from the real face of Hezbollah,” Kedar said, adding that that could spark a civil war.
In a move to calm tensions, Syrian President Bashar Assad and Saudi leader King Abdullah flew to Beirut last week to meet with Nasrallah.
“It was a show of solidarity, they don’t want Lebanon destabilized,” said Steinberg.
“It was a strange combination to see them both [in Beirut] because on the one hand Syria is Hezbollah’s patron and the Saudis are supposed to be supporting the Lebanese government,” he said. “Hariri was their man in Lebanon. And so the only common thing they had was trying to preserve the stability of Lebanon.”
Steinberg said it also might have been seen as a warning to the UN not to release its findings about the car bombing assassination of Hariri, along with the arrest warrants for Hezbollah leaders.
Hezbollah has castigated the international tribunal that has been investigating the killing, calling it nothing more than an Israeli puppet. It has reportedly been widely known in Lebanon that Hezbollah, acting at the behest of Syria, planted and exploded the bomb.
“People have been waiting for this report for months,” Steinberg said. “If it is released, we can expect riots and that Hezbollah would pull hundreds of thousands of people into the streets. What’s happening now is an effort at intimidation and it could well succeed; the UN may get cold feet and not want to be blamed for creating instability in Lebanon.”
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