Thursday, July 13, 2006

Cat and Mouse Games on Border that is 'our Front Line with Iran'

Con Coughlin, The Telegraph:
High in the mountains that delineate Israel's northern border with Lebanon, Israeli troops have spent the past year engaged in a deadly game of cat and mouse with Iranian-backed fighters from the radical Islamic Hizbollah militia.

On a visit to the hotly-contested border area earlier this year, it was clear that at key sectors along the 60-mile border the Israeli defensive positions were less than 50 yards from their Hizbollah foes.

The Israeli soldiers serving on the front line were under no illusions about Hizbollah's deadly intent.

"There's nothing they'd like more than to kidnap an Israeli soldier," said the senior Israeli army officer with me. "It's just the kind of publicity stunt they crave. Every time we go out on patrol we know we might run into a Hizbollah ambush."

Yesterday the officer's predictions proved correct when Hizbollah said it had taken not one but two Israeli soldiers hostage during a raid into northern Israel codenamed "truthful promise". READ MORE

Israeli military commanders have become increasingly concerned about Hizbollah's activities in southern Lebanon since Syria was forced to withdraw its forces last year. In recent months, Hizbollah has built a network of sophisticated control towers and monitoring stations along the length of the border with Israel.

The new equipment, which has cost tens of millions of pounds, was paid for by Iran. Israeli officers have reported frequent sightings of Iranian military officials inspecting the new facilities and advising local Hizbollah commanders.

Although Hizbollah claims to be a Lebanese political party, it continues to function as an independent, armed militia in southern Lebanon where it was originally established in the 1980s by Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

Hizbollah continues to enjoy close links with Iran to the extent that Israeli commanders regard the northern border as their "front line" with Iran.

In the past few months, Hizbollah militiamen have made several abortive attempts to kidnap Israeli soldiers. In one incident earlier this year 20 Hizbollah militiamen stormed a farm house close to the border in the mistaken belief that a group of Israeli soldiers had taken shelter inside. They were victims of an elaborate trap set by the Israeli army and most of the Hizbollah attackers were killed in the ensuing shoot-out.

Until yesterday's abductions, Hizbollah has been able to act with relative impunity in southern Lebanon because Israel has been keen to establish good relations with the new Lebanese government. This has inhibited the Israelis from taking pre-emptive action to diminish the threat posed by Hizbollah.

Israel is unlikely to be inhibited in its response to yesterday's abductions, even though the two Israeli soldiers will by now most likely be hidden away in a basement in the Hizbollah-controlled southern suburbs of Beirut.