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by Peter Hirschberg

Israel's Euphoria Over Lebanon Wearing Off (2005)

(IPS) JERUSALEM -- The diplomatic initiatives have begun. The first -- and certainly not the last -- came Monday in the form of a proposal by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for deployment of an international force in southern Lebanon to end the spiralling violence between Israel and Hezbollah.

Speaking at the G8 summit in St. Petersburg, Blair said the only way to end the crisis was by way of international intervention. "The blunt reality is that this violence is not going to stop unless we create the conditions for the cessation of violence," Blair said. "The only way is if we have a deployment of international forces that can stop bombardment coming into Israel."

While the European Union threw its weight behind the proposal, the United States, which has strongly supported Israel's offensive in Lebanon, displayed little enthusiasm. Israel quickly rejected the initiative, with officials first saying it was too early to contemplate an international force, and later adding that the only force Israel would agree to in Hezbollah-controlled south Lebanon was the Lebanese army.

Israeli officials believe that with a sufficiently weakened Hezbollah, the Lebanese army will be able assert control in south Lebanon. They also worry that the deployment of a strong international force in south Lebanon will put Israel in a compromising position, with western countries having to put their soldiers' lives on the line to protect Israel.

In his first major public address since the fighting began, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday outlined Israel's conditions for a ceasefire: disarming of Hezbollah and deployment of the Lebanese army in the south as stipulated by UN resolution 1559, and the release of two Israeli soldiers snatched by Hezbollah in an attack on an Israeli border patrol last week that left eight soldiers dead and triggered the current round of fighting.

"Our enemies have challenged the state of Israel's sovereignty and the peace of its citizens, first in the south and then on the northern border and deeper into the country," Olmert told lawmakers in parliament in what amounted to an address to the nation.

"Our enemies erred in thinking our readiness for restraint was a sign of weakness," he said.

By trying to bomb Hezbollah into submission, however, Israel could create a situation in Lebanon that will undercut its stated goals.

The rising civilian deaths -- well over 200 Lebanese have been killed in Israeli bombardment -- could persuade Lebanese citizens to rally around Hezbollah, increasing the influence of the Shia organization and in turn weakening the new government, which came to power in the wake of the end of Syria's occupation of Lebanon.

Israeli leaders, however, insist they will not accept the situation that existed on the country's northern border on the eve of the fighting, when Hezbollah fighters took up positions along the border and Iran and Syria freely supplied the organization with thousands of missiles, some of them long-range, that were then deployed in south Lebanon, facing Israel.

As a condition for a ceasefire, the Haaretz daily reported Tuesday, Israel will demand disarmament arrangements that will prevent Hezbollah from renewing its military capability once the fighting subsides.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Monday that the Israeli army was levelling a one kilometre-wide strip on the Lebanese side of the border to ensure that militants could not approach the border.

But Israeli leaders, who also fear that the Shia organization will use a ceasefire to rearm, don't believe such a narrow strip will suffice. It will not prevent Hezbollah, they point out, from deploying long-range missiles and Katyusha rockets deeper inside Lebanon. "Israel will not agree," Olmert said in his address, "to live in the shadow of the missile threat to its citizens."

Twelve Israeli civilians have been killed and over 100 injured so far in Hezbollah rocket attacks on northern Israel, with the deadliest hit Sunday in the northern port city of Haifa -- Israel's third-largest city with 270,000 residents -- when the Shia organization for the first time used its long-range missiles with devastating effect. Eight workers at an Israel Railways depot were killed when a Syrian-produced rocket ploughed through the roof of the depot and slammed into them.

Hezbollah has fired over 1,000 rockets since the fighting started, some of which have hit Israeli towns south of Haifa, about 50 km inside Israel. Military officials say the organization has Iranian-made rockets that can reach Tel Aviv and beyond, and that several of these -- known as the "Zilzal" -- were destroyed Monday in an Israeli air strike on Beirut.

But Israel's military officials believe that Hezbollah still possesses thousands of rockets. They estimate that about half of the organization's rocket stockpiles have been destroyed in air strikes, and their aim is to destroy as many of these as possible before the military offensive winds up.

With the diplomatic push gaining momentum, government officials believe that pressure will mount on Jerusalem to end its bombing campaign in Lebanon soon. While the United States has given Israel strong backing -- the Americans are anxious to weaken Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran -- Israeli officials believe that Bush won't be able to ignore diplomatic pressure from Europe and that the offensive will likely end by the weekend.

At home, Olmert is enjoying broad public support, as well as rare backing from Israel's usually fractious parliament. The only dissenting voices are those of Arab lawmakers, who have strongly criticized Israel's military response.

Yossi Beilin, the architect of the Oslo accords with the Palestinians and a veteran peace campaigner, has also backed the military offensive. "We withdrew to the last centimetre and they (Hezbollah) armed themselves," he said, referring to Israel's May 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon to the UN-delineated border.

But Beilin has also been arguing that Israel cannot achieve its goals in Lebanon by military means alone. "We have to negotiate over a ceasefire via a third party," he said. "That doesn't mean the operation has to be stopped, but we have to reach a package deal that will see us achieve the aims (of the military operation) -- the release of the captured soldiers and the distancing of Hezbollah from southern Lebanon."

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Albion Monitor   July 18, 2006   (

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