Israel’s nightmare has become reality, with cease-fires collapsing on its southern and northern borders. But the seizure of three of its soldiers and the army’s fierce response is allowing Israel to pursue a wider strategic goal: neutralizing Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The bloody Israeli incursions into both places following brazen cross-border raids by Islamic militants are raising stakes and creating new uncertainties in a Middle East already inflamed by war in Iraq and anxieties surrounding Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Those uncertainties took on an urgent dimension on Thursday with word that a Hezbollah rocket had hit the northern city of Haifa in what the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, called “a major, major escalation” in the conflict with Lebanese guerrillas.
But the violence — the heaviest Israeli air campaign against Lebanon in two dozen years and the relentless 2-week-old pounding of the Gaza Strip that has already killed more than 60 people — has taken on a life of its own.
Hamas and Hezbollah hope to exchange the captured Israeli soldiers for three Lebanese and at least some of the 9,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel. And Israel sees its incursions as an opportunity to stop Gaza militants’ incessant rocket fire at southern Israel and to push Hezbollah guerrillas away from its northern border.
‘Nothing is safe’
Statements coming from Israeli leaders Thursday were broiling.
“Nothing is safe” in Lebanon, Israel’s army chief Brig. Gen. Dan Halutz warned, as his forces hit hundreds of targets and warplanes punched holes in the runways of Beirut’s international airport. In all, four dozen civilians in Lebanon have been killed in the violence following Hezbollah’s raid early Wednesday.
Israel’s desire to exact a price for militant violence and militants’ insistence on a prisoner swap likely means that the captured soldiers — Gilad Shalit, 19, Ehud Goldwasser, 31, and Eldad Regev, 26 — won’t be coming home any time soon.
Ehud Yaari, the chief Middle East commentator for Israel TV, predicted a prisoner swap with Hezbollah may eventually take place, as it has in the past, but “it can come only after there is a revision of the Hezbollah military status in Lebanon.”
Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000 after an 18-year occupation. Hezbollah quickly moved in to fill a power vacuum there as Israel focused its attentions on combating a new Palestinian uprising, or intefadeh, that broke out that same year.
For the next six years Israel avoided having to fight on two fronts, allowing an uneasy strategic balance to take shape on its northern border, with only occasional outbreaks of fighting with Hezbollah.
Kidnappings changed everything
All that changed Wednesday, when Hezbollah guerrillas crossed into Israel, seizing Goldwasser and Regev and killing eight other Israeli soldiers in the ensuing fighting.
Israeli leaders said Thursday that they want Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon. But Israel is reluctant to carry out the prolonged ground offensive that would likely be needed to drive them out, and its long history of ill-fated occupations of Arab lands makes a lengthy military campaign in either Gaza or Lebanon less likely.
What’s off Israel’s agenda is as significant as what’s on it. The dual crises in Gaza and Lebanon have all but killed what was until recently Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s top policy initiative: to withdraw from most of the West Bank in order to ensure a long-term Jewish majority for Israel.
“Katyushas and Qassam rockets, not demographics, now look like Israel’s most pressing threat,” wrote Aluf Benn, political correspondent for Israel’s Haaretz daily. Thursday’s attack on Haifa meant that in an instant, tens of thousands more Israelis would have to get used to living under the threat of rocket fire.
‘Extreme foursome’ looming
Israel appears to be using the current crisis to strike a decisive blow against what Haaretz military correspondent Zeev Schiff called an “extreme foursome” — Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Thursday that Israel’s incursion into Lebanon “is raising our fears of a new regional war.”
Israeli analysts warned that Syria, which supports Hezbollah and plays host to Hamas’ political leader Khaled Mashaal, could be Israel’s next target. But that seemed unlikely in the absence of a provocation.
The fact that Israel is responding to militant attacks, as well as international concerns about Hezbollah’s activities in southern Lebanon, have muted world criticism of Israel’s actions. However, the mounting civilian toll “can very easily become a major stumbling block to this whole operation,” said Israeli political analyst Yossi Alpher.