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Israel's Tripwire Is Up North

April 16, 2002|YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI | Yossi Klein Halevi is the Israeli correspondent for the New Republic and a senior writer for the Jerusalem Report.

JERUSALEM — Secretary of State Colin Powell's mission to the Middle East has already accomplished one essential thing: It has focused world attention on the fundamentalist Hezbollah's provocations along the Israel-Lebanon border.

Israel's conflict with the Palestinians creates misery and disaster for both sides. But the conflict with Hezbollah, which is armed and controlled by Iran and Syria, could escalate into the next Middle East war. The real danger to regional stability won't come from Ramallah but southern Lebanon, which borders Israel's Galilee.

For months, Hezbollah terrorists have fired not only at Israeli soldiers stationed on Mount Dov or the Shabaa Farms--a forlorn hilltop without farms that is claimed by both Lebanon and Israel--but have shot at Israeli aircraft in Israeli airspace, causing shrapnel to fall over Galilee towns.

When Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon two years ago, the United Nations marked the border and declared that Israel had fulfilled its obligations under international law. Yet the U.N. has almost completely ignored Hezbollah's violation of the border it established.

Last month, Hezbollah's attacks dangerously escalated. Two terrorists crossed the border and ambushed Israeli cars on a lonely northern road, killing seven people. The event was reported abroad as one more terror attack against Israel, lost in the blur of Palestinian atrocities. Still, this attack was different: For the first time since Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, terrorists had violated the international border to murder civilians.

Israel repeatedly has warned that it will hold Syria responsible for attacks coming from Lebanon. Syria, after all, unofficially occupies the country and determines its foreign policy.

So far, though, Israel has refrained from striking Syrian installations, wary of opening a second front while its army fights an anti-terrorist offensive in the West Bank.

But Israel won't be able to continue absorbing attacks indefinitely. Every attack that goes unanswered only reinforces the disastrous perception in the Arab world of Israeli weakness, created by Israel's hasty retreat from Lebanon in May 2000.

That retreat, under Hezbollah fire, inspired the Palestinians to adopt what they called the "Hezbollah option"--the notion that the best way to secure territory from Israel isn't through negotiation but violence.

Hezbollah plays a key role in the emerging terrorist axis that includes Iran, Iraq and the Palestinian Authority. It was Hezbollah operatives, for example, who helped organize the Iranian-supplied arms ship, Karine A, which Israel intercepted on its way to Gaza. The Karine A cargo included several tons of powerful C4 explosives, enough to equip hundreds of car bombs and suicide bombers.

If Powell fails to pressure Damascus to rein in Hezbollah, an Israeli-Syrian confrontation is almost certain.

Many Lebanese, desperate to free their country from the Syrian occupation, are probably hoping that will happen. And with the international community apathetic to Lebanon's transformation into a colony of Damascus, an Israeli strike at Syria could be a free Lebanon's last hope.

As I write this Monday night, the siren for Memorial Day, commemorating the 21,000 soldiers who fell in the nation's wars, has just sounded across Israel. The songs on the radio have turned elegiac; television programming on this day is devoted exclusively to the stories of fallen soldiers.

This is a nation that craves peace. Yet the disastrous Oslo process--which created Yasser Arafat's government and armed his terrorist militias--taught us that generosity is often perceived in the Middle East as weakness and rewarded with aggression and terrorism. And so, as much as Israelis despise war, we're ready to fight those who want to destroy us.

Two years ago, the Palestinians learned a lesson from Hezbollah and then launched the intifada. Now it's time for Hezbollah to learn a lesson from the Palestinians: When you push Israel too hard, you're likely to suffer the consequences.

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