(AP) March 04, 2003
TZIPOREN BORDER POST, Israel, March 4 – Cold hatred has replaced warfare along the Israel-Lebanon border – but it’s possible that a U.S. offensive against Iraq might turn this tense frontier into a war zone again.
Along the border, the animosity is palpable. At an Israeli post on a bleak, wind-swept hill, Israeli troops stared at Hezbollah guerrillas standing just yards away in Lebanon. A Hezbollah fighter held aloft a poster displaying the severed head of an Israeli soldier killed in Lebanon. The gruesome photo was accompanied by a message to Ariel Sharon, Israel’s prime minister: “Sharon, don’t forget – your soldiers are still in Lebanon,” a reference to three soldiers Hezbollah captured in a cross-border raid in October 2000.
Israel and Hezbollah fought a bloody guerrilla war for 18 years in south Lebanon, and Hezbollah often rained rockets down on Israel’s northern villages, before Israel withdrew in May 2000. Since then, most of the frontier has been quiet, except for a small section of border land still disputed by Hezbollah. Israeli military officials say Hezbollah, aided by its patrons Syria and Iran, has about 10,000 rockets along its border with Israel, some with a range of 45 miles, capable of penetrating deep into Israel. Each side says the other may be preparing an offensive under the cover of a U.S.-led operation in Iraq. Hezbollah’s south Lebanon commander, Sheik Nabil Kaouk, said Monday that Israeli provocations and air violations of Lebanese sovereignty during a possible U.S.-Iraq war will be met by Hezbollah with a “very different” response. He said Hezbollah will not allow Israel “to achieve any gains from American wars on the region.”
An unarmed Hezbollah fighter at the border, who would only identify himself by a nom de guerre, Mujahid, said: “We are waiting for the beginning of the war to show these enemies what they’re worth.” Still, as long as Israel is not directly involved in a war against Iraq, a Hezbollah offensive is unlikely, said Danny Shoham, of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Israel’s Bar Ilan University. But the “meaningful coordination between Syria and Hezbollah” should not be overlooked, Shoham said. Many believe Syria could be the next U.S. target following an attack on Iraq. Israel argues that Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon, is directly responsible for Hezbollah’s attacks and has twice targeted Syrian radar posts in retaliation.
Israeli military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, estimate that Hezbollah has a few thousand fighters, backed by a reserve force of another few thousand, trained to fight and available for duty within a few hours notice. The Israeli military officials say the group now has more in common with a full-fledged military force. Unable to compete with Israel’s well-equipped military on conventional footing, the group has adopted an asymmetrical, guerrilla warfare approach, said one Israeli senior commander in the area.
Israel warns that Syria and Lebanon must take responsibility for actions in their region if they want a quiet border. If a Hezbollah attack were to target civilians, Israel would be forced to respond, the senior commander said. Hezbollah, a radical Shiite Muslim group, rejects a Jewish state in the Middle East. Israel’s long occupation of southern Lebanon, aimed at keeping guerrillas away from the border, galvanized Lebanese support for Hezbollah, seen as fighting for liberation from the Israeli occupiers. The poster showing the severed head is a sign of just how tense the situation still is. Israel has declared the three soldiers dead.
Hezbollah is also holding an Israeli businessman, abducted around the same time. The Israeli base commander said his troops are trained to ignore the provocations, noting that a quiet border is in Israel’s interest. “It’s very disturbing,” said the captain, who gave his name only as Shai. But, “the soldiers know they must act with restraint,” even when Lebanese schoolchildren are brought to the border on field trips, where they are encouraged to throw objects at the Israeli soldiers.
After its 2000 withdrawal, Israel pulled behind a border line drawn by the United Nations, but Hezbollah and its backers dispute the accuracy of the line. Since Israel’s pullout, 13 Israelis have been killed and dozens wounded, most of them soldiers, in cross-border attacks from Lebanon, concentrated in an area called the Chebaa Farms, captured by Israel from neighboring Syria during the 1967 Mideast War but claimed by Hezbollah as Lebanese. Lebanese security officials say one Lebanese civilian has been killed in Israel’s retaliatory actions in the Chebaa Farms.