POLITICS FEBRUARY 24, 2002
The bearded Hezbollah man, arms folded and half-smiling, stood alone at the border fence on his daily vigil, just across from the Israeli army outpost called Tziporen. Beside him was a large metal sign imprinted with photographs of dead Israeli and South Lebanese Army soldiers--including a severed head--and the taunt in Hebrew, "Sharon, don't forget your soldiers are still in Lebanon," a reference to three Israeli soldiers kidnapped in the fall of 2000, whom the army believes didn't survive.
I moved toward the fence to get a closer view but was stopped by an Israeli officer. "They're trying to provoke us all the time," he said. "Our policy is to avoid any contact with them."
That's why here at Tziporen, in the hills above the border town of Kiryat Shemona, the army has removed soldiers from the fence and confined them to a concrete fortress that resembles an aboveground bunker. Israel has taken a similar approach all along the 60-mile northern border, where the army has responded to Hezbollah provocations by contracting into bases and fortified outposts, trying to avoid a second front in the North as it deals with Palestinian violence. At the Fatma Gate, not far from Tziporen, the routine stoning of soldiers by Lebanese "tourists" brought to the border by Hezbollah stopped abruptly several months ago after the army replaced its troops with electronic monitors. And when Hezbollah men began appearing at the security fence of Kibbutz Misgav Am, the army asked the United Nations, which is based on the opposite hill, to intervene, and Hezbollah retreated.
Yet Israel's efforts to avoid confrontation with Hezbollah are becoming increasingly difficult. The Christian Science Monitor reported last week on "indication[s] ... that Hizbullah is preparing for war." Hundreds of fighters, the paper reported, are "marshaled along the border with Israel. A massive arsenal, including rockets and missiles, has been stashed away in the border district." In addition, in recent weeks, Hezbollah has fired a half-dozen times at Israeli planes, including one civilian aircraft near the border. The fundamentalist group claims the planes violated Lebanese airspace. Israel, though, insists that's not true, and shrapnel from anti-aircraft fire has fallen over three northern Israeli towns; so far no one has been hurt.
The incidents have scarcely been noticed by an Israeli public riveted to more immediate threats, like the Palestinian rocket attack into southern Israel this week. By contrast, the Galilee would seem to be the most peaceful region in Israel: White almond blossoms fill the rocky hills, snow covers Mount Hermon, and the roads are empty of the security roadblocks that segment the center of the country. But, however horrifying, Palestinian-Israeli violence is unlikely to escalate into regional conflict, simply because no Arab country has ever gone to war for the Palestinians and, even now, the Arab world offers them little more than lip service. On the northern border, though, an escalating confrontation with Hezbollah would almost certainly expand to include its Syrian protector and possibly its Iranian arms supplier as well.
Israel will respond to a Hezbollah attack that kills Israeli civilians even more severely than to Palestinian terrorist attacks. After all, Hezbollah, unlike the Palestinians, would be shooting over an internationally recognized border; and, with Hezbollah, there is a sovereign address--Syria--to hold responsible. Warns a high-level Israeli military source: "The next war, if it happens, will only happen from here."
Ironically, it was Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon nearly two years ago that may have created the conditions for the next regional war. Intended to extricate the country from a no-win conflict, the withdrawal actually convinced much of the Arab world that terror attacks can defeat Israel. Many Israelis believe that the current intifada was inspired by Hezbollah's success; indeed, in the months before the intifada began in September 2000, Palestinian activists intensively debated whether the "Hezbollah option" should be applied to the territories. And the intifada, in turn, has become the pretext for Hezbollah's continued role as a "resistance" movement. Its website, for example, has replaced the Lebanese flag with a Palestinian one--a sign, says one military expert, that the organization has redefined itself from a protector of Lebanese rights to the vanguard of the war for Palestine.
Hezbollah's ability to inflict damage on Israel far exceeds its numeric strength, estimated at 800 fighters and perhaps several thousand reservists. According to Israeli reports, Hezbollah has deployed some 10,000 Iranian short- and long-range missiles along the border, which is marked only by a fence. The withdrawal of Israeli troops from the security zone, and Hezbollah's redeployment along the border, means that those missiles are now able to hit as far away as Haifa--placing most of the Galilee within Hezbollah's range.
So far Hezbollah has kept away from Israel's red line: civilian casualties. Instead, the group has concentrated its fire on Israeli military installations in the contested northern border area the Israelis call Mount Dov--and the Lebanese and Syrians call Shebaa Farms--at a safe remove from population centers. According to the unwritten rules of the conflict, attacks on Israeli soldiers evoke less severe retaliation than attacks on civilians. After two Israeli soldiers were killed, and another two wounded, at Mount Dov last year, the Israeli air force destroyed two Syrian radar installations. Because civilians were not involved, both sides endured the mutual attacks without escalation. But the latest attacks on aircraft--which Israel claims took place in airspace above population centers--may signal a new Hezbollah willingness to risk accidental civilian casualties. Indeed, Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah publicly reveled in the proximity of Israeli civilians to the shooting. "The booms are heard by the ... chosen people, the Jews who were brought from all over the world to the northern settlements," he recently told a group of Hezbollah-affiliated students.
That recklessness is precisely what worries the Israeli military. "What would have happened if a civilian had been killed from falling shrapnel in Kiryat Shemona?" demands the military source. "A small mistake is enough to start a snowball. If a civilian is killed, it doesn't mean we're going to war. But there will be a strong response. And then if Katyushas fall here, I don't want to think of what may happen next."
While Israeli security experts assume that Iran wants to escalate the border conflict, Syria, they say, is more ambivalent. "Syria doesn't want war," says Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. "But it does want Hezbollah to continue a certain level of attack" to induce an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. "I see preparation for an explosion, but also great caution."
Still, he adds, the situation increasingly resembles the atmosphere before the 1967 Six Day War, when Fatah was attacking Israel from Syrian territory. Indeed, it was the threat of Israeli retaliation against Syria that led Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser to send troops into the Sinai demilitarized zone and block Israeli shipping in the Straits of Tiran, provoking Israel's strike against Egypt. "Then, too, no one wanted war," says Zisser. "But there was a feeling in the Arab world, as there is now, that Israel could be defeated by guerrilla war. When you play with fire, it's enough for someone to make a mistake. And then we have a problem."
Nowhere is a "mistake" more likely than at Rajar, an Alawite village on the northern border, just below Mount Dov. After the Israeli withdrawal in May 2000, the United Nations determined that the border runs through Rajar, and so half the village is now technically in Lebanon, the other half in Israel. No fence separates the two entities; many residents continue to work in Israel. At the entrance to the village--where an arch welcomes visitors in Arabic and in Hebrew--members of an elite Israeli anti-guerrilla unit check every car that enters and leaves. "Hezbollah visits us regularly," says a soldier who introduces himself by his army nickname, Yo-Yo. "Sometimes we wave at each other; sometimes we curse each other. Mostly it's routine. Boring, even. Until your outpost gets hit by a missile."