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WARFARE IN LEBANON

Opening of 2nd Front Leaves Israelis Both Fearful and Defiant

July 13, 2006|Ken Ellingwood and Tami Zer | Special to The Times

TEL AVIV — Israelis reacted with a mix of dread and defiance Wednesday to news that their nation's troops were fighting on a second front, this one on Lebanese soil that most people were glad to see Israel quit six years ago.

An air of crisis grew as television stations broadcast nonstop reports about the latest hostilities along the Lebanon frontier -- the capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah guerrillas and a subsequent cross-border incursion by Israeli forces that left many Israelis anxiously wondering whether their nation was heading for war there again.

"A bloody mess is dangerously imminent," said 45-year-old Shaul Cohen, finishing a coffee at a kiosk in downtown Tel Aviv. "I was in Lebanon, and I don't want to go back."

The violence on Israel's northern border added to the sense of turmoil in the region, already roiled by a 2-week-old Israeli military incursion into the Gaza Strip after the capture of a soldier by Palestinian militants. Taken together, the two operations represent for many Israelis a test of their nation's resolve in the face of a threat by Islamist militants.

"These are the first three cases where Israelis are kidnapped inside Israel and taken to outside Israel. This is a new step. This is why Israel can't tolerate it," said Mordechai Kedar, a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000 after a costly 18-year presence that by its end faced increasing opposition in Israel. For many Israelis, the latest border flare-up revived unhappy memories of that period, but it also stoked anger over the brazenness of the Hezbollah attack on their nation's soil.

Many Israelis, already pained by the June 25 cross-border capture of Cpl. Gilad Shalit by Palestinian militants from Gaza, found themselves Wednesday in reluctant support of new military action in Lebanon.

Among those wrestling with competing sentiments was Zahara Anteby, a founding member of the so-called Four Mothers movement that led the campaign for withdrawing Israeli troops from Lebanon.

"I am very sad that we are entering there," Anteby said in a telephone interview from her home in Kakhal, in the northern Galilee region. "But there are times when you don't have any other possibility -- just to protect your son."

She added, "I hope that it will finish very quickly."

Uri Dromi, a former government spokesman who is editor of publications at the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank in Jerusalem, said few Israelis favor a return to Lebanon. But he said there probably would be wide public support for tough military reprisals, including airstrikes against Lebanon, as long as they did not lead to a return of the long-term involvement that began with Israel's 1982 invasion.

"Israelis are prepared to hit back fiercely but without repeating the mistake of '82," Dromi said. The error then, he said, was a "megalomaniac fantasy of engineering the Middle East." Now, Dromi said, Israelis "want to be left alone."

"It's like a bad neighborhood. You're in a bad neighborhood, but you're not moving."

Most Israelis had been watching the Gaza incursion with concern, hoping for Shalit's release and, according to polls, favoring negotiations aimed at freeing him.

While many Israelis say they back harsh military actions against Hamas, including killing top leaders, they also express little desire for Israel to reoccupy Gaza after last summer's withdrawal.

Even in Israel, where crises flare and give way to new ones with dizzying speed, the spectacle Wednesday of military operations along two fronts increased consternation. In some northern Israeli communities, residents were ordered into bomb shelters and reinforced safe rooms out of concern over possible Katyusha rocket attacks by Hezbollah militants.

Broadcasters broke into daytime programming to air images of Israeli tanks launching artillery shells over the border. Strangers stopped one another on the streets with updates. The families of veterans fretted that loved ones might soon be called to reserve duty.

Shimon Biton, 49, who owns a falafel stand in the northern city of Safat, said Israel's pullout from Lebanon in 2000 had emboldened the Iran-linked Islamic movement. "I think we're a fearful nation and we're paying the price for that in blood," he said.

Others, though, expressed hope that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would take the opportunity to negotiate a prisoner release with Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.

"If the matter is discussed, more complications can be avoided," Rafi Aharon, 36, said at the Tel Aviv kiosk.

"But it seems to me that they're not going to meet and talk," Aharon said. "What's going to happen is that there's going to be more bloodshed and more soldiers are going to be abducted.

"It's a catastrophe."

*

Times staff writer Ellingwood reported from Jerusalem and special correspondent Zer from Tel Aviv. Special correspondent Vita Bekker in Safat contributed to this report.

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