Saturday, July 15, 2006

Israel Aims to End Beirut's Tolerance of Hezbollah

Bill Spindle and Karby Leggett, The Wall Street Journal:
Israel continued to bomb buildings, highways and other infrastructure and tighten a naval blockade of Lebanon, but its real target wasn't so much Beirut as Hezbollah's state-within-a-state, which has created a thorny security problem for Lebanon and now the rest of the region.

Hezbollah, which means Party of God, got its start in the early 1980s as a guerrilla force resisting the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon. Since then, the Shiite Muslim group has turned the Israel-Lebanon border into one of the hottest in the Middle East -- and drastically complicated life for the national government in Beirut. Though the two have managed to coexist, Israel is attempting to heighten and exploit their tensions to its advantage. While that has upped the pressure on Hezbollah, the tactic risks widening the rift to the point that civil war could erupt anew within a country long fractured by religious and ethnic divides.

On Friday, three days after two Israeli soldiers were captured by Hezbollah and taken into Lebanese territory, Israel bombed Beirut's main airport for a second time, hitting fuel containers. It also carried out airstrikes against bridges on the main road connecting the Lebanese capital to Syria. Meanwhile, Hezbollah fired some 50 Katyusha rockets into northern Israeli towns. Residents of Haifa, a major Israeli city that Hezbollah shelled earlier in the week, were ordered back into bomb shelters.

The death toll from three days of fighting rose to 73 people in Lebanon -- almost all civilians, including five who died in strikes in Beirut and the south Friday -- and 10 in Israel, the Associated Press reported.

For its part, the Bush administration did little on Friday to suggest either that it would significantly step up its diplomacy to try to quell the fighting or put pressure on Israel to restrain its actions in Lebanon.

President Bush, on his way to a Group of Eight summit in Russia, spoke by phone with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuao Saniora but rejected his request to press Israel for a cease-fire. Mr. Bush, the White House indicated, said only that he would urge Israel to limit civilian casualties. "The president is not going to make military decisions for Israel," said White House Press Secretary Tony Snow.

And for now, the U.S. appears to have concluded that the most suitable diplomatic effort is the dispatch of a three-person team by Kofi Annan to the region to try to mediate between Israel and Hezbollah and Hamas. The Bush administration didn't appear to be bending to calls -- some from within its own Republican party -- to send a high-level emissary to mediate.

The conflict provoked sharp exchanges Friday within the United Nations Security Council but no firm action. In an emergency session of the council, Israel's ambassador, Dan Gillerman, gave a spirited defense of his country's actions and said it is time for Lebanon to move against Hezbollah and disarm the militia, a call echoed by U.S. Ambassador John Bolton. Others were sharply critical of Israel, with the French saying that Israel's actions threaten "to annihilate" Lebanese government attempts to establish control of the country.

Mr. Bush's strong support for Israel in the crisis is emerging as a point of contention as the summit of leading nations opens in Russia. America's European allies have strongly condemned Israel and appear to hope the U.S. will do the same, or at least pressure Israel to pull back. The differences might come to a head today, when Mr. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet and when the G-8 leaders begin their discussions.

Some unexpected regional players have come close to directly criticizing Hezbollah as the fighting has escalated. Saudi Arabian officials, for example, have used their official news services to try to differentiate between what they consider legitimate acts of resistance and reckless adventurism that puts regional security at risk. Meanwhile, within Lebanon's Christian, Sunni Muslim and Druze communities, criticism of Hezbollah has also grown. Yet with Lebanon's army dominated by Shiites sympathetic to Hezbollah, it remains highly unlikely the government will mount a serious effort to disarm the group.

Attacks and counterattacks by Hezbollah and Israel along the border have been common since the Israeli withdrawal in 2000. Although nearly all have been isolated and contained, Hezbollah's militia, which includes a highly trained permanent fighting force of several hundred along with thousands of reservists, has regularly launched bold and complicated missions into Israel in recent years.

In 2002, a Hezbollah team infiltrated an Israeli kibbutz, or communal farm, wearing imitation Israeli military uniforms and stayed at least two days. They then opened fire on a school bus, killing six Israeli civilians. Last year, another three-person Hezbollah team was discovered camping out in an Israeli nature reserve, apparently planning an attack. One was killed by Israeli soldiers who discovered the team during a patrol, and two others fled into Israel. Hezbollah stations its best-trained fighters along the border, taunting and harassing Israeli patrols from as little as just a few feet away on the Lebanese side of the border.

The most potent weapon Hezbollah has, however, are the increasingly powerful and accurate rockets launched from southern Lebanon. The group has thousands of these -- many of them supplied by Iran -- hidden in homes and buildings of supporters. That makes it extremely difficult for the Israelis to destroy them without causing extensive civilian casualties and damage.

Yet if Hezbollah's virtual state -- which includes social support and health and education services parallel to the Lebanese government's -- threatens Israel, it also confounds the politics of Lebanon and the broader region. That's because its military is in some ways stronger than Lebanon's national forces, while the group works closely with foreign backers Syria and Iran. Israel's campaign against Lebanon has already reinvigorated debate among Hezbollah's Lebanese foes about disarming the group. READ MORE

A peace agreement that ended Lebanon's civil war in 1989 and two United Nation's Security Council resolutions in the past several years have called for disarming all the country's militias. Yet intense debate on the subject early last year led to no significant efforts to try to disarm Hezbollah. The group has largely succeeded in carving a de facto exception for itself, since its main focus is fighting Israel -- an immensely popular cause in Lebanon and across the Arab world.

---- Yochi J. Dreazen contributed to this article.

Write to Bill Spindle at and Karby Leggett at