The radical Islamic militia Hizb'Allah gained the upper hand in the security zone in recent weeks, dealing Israel and its SLA allies a series of painful setbacks that forced Prime Minister Ehud Barak into a difficult balancing act. After teetering between stern retaliation or restraint for the sake of salvaging Syrian talks, Barak's security cabinet finally ordered precision Israeli air raids that knocked out power supplies in Lebanon, sending a message to Damascus to rein in Hizb'Allah. As the escalation abated, Israelis were left agonizing over a unilateral withdrawal and facing a "foul wave" of official and popular Arab outrage and venom.
The Syria peace track went motionless in January, as both Barak and Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad refused to be the first to send mini-delegations to Washington for follow-up discussions with US officials over the "Sheperdstown document." The two sides remain at odds over what to discuss first - the depth of Israeli withdrawal from the Golan or the type of relations and security arrangements Syria is willing to offer.
Barak again praised Assad as a "strong, serious and trustworthy leader who keeps his word," in an bid to coax him back into the process. But Assad was not interested in returning the favor, as Syria's official media attacked Barak's "negotiating mentality based on maneuvering, blackmail, and stubbornness."
An optimistic Israeli intelligence assessment claimed Assad wants to see the process through, propelled forward by US President Bill Clinton's short tenure, a desire to leave a legacy for his son Bashar, the belief this is the last chance to get back the entire Golan, and a fear Israel will unilaterally withdraw from Lebanon. Nonetheless, Assad will continue to be a tough negotiator, meaning he will forestall all progress until the territorial issue is resolved.
Attention then swung to the Israeli security zone in south Lebanon, where the Iranian-backed Hizb'Allah intensified its attacks against the IDF and SLA in hopes of provoking a total derailment of the peace process. Hizb'Allah killed several SLA troops and kidnapped five zone residents to intimidate the local population.
Then, on January 25, a member of the elite Givati Brigade became the first Israeli casualty in Lebanon since last August, the victim of a direct hit by an anti-tank missile on an IDF outpost overlooking Tyre. Less than a week later, tensions flared after Hizb'Allah made a seamless hit on SLA deputy commander Col. Akel Hashem and three IDF soldiers were killed the next morning in an ambush on a patrol near Beaufort castle.
Hashem, the SLA's most popular and longest-serving soldier, was killed outside his home by a well-concealed bomb, suggesting local collaboration. The incident was filmed and shown on Hizb'Allah TV in Beirut, sparking street celebrations at the death of the "criminal," as Hizb'Allah handed out candy to children. As Hashem was buried, the mood in the security zone turned very somber, as anxiety was already kindled by Barak's pledge to withdraw from Lebanon by July. Israeli aircraft responded with heavy bombing raids, but Barak pressed the SLA not to retaliate on their own, which could have triggered Katyusha rocket attacks on the Galilee.
The 3 IDF soldiers were killed and four others wounded in another carefully orchestrated missile attack near an IDF outpost, again indicating Hizb'Allah had advance information. Israeli leaders expressed concern with the rising number of instances of locals aiding Hizb'Allah, but sources in the security zone suggested the increase came only after Barak pledged to vacate Lebanon by this coming summer. Some local residents apparently took him at his word and wagered it was safer to switch loyalties now if an Israeli pullout is only months away, rather than risk reprisals from Hizb'Allah and Lebanese forces.
Under mounting pressure to strike back hard at Hizb'Allah for the pair of serious blows, Barak played tough soldier at first by vowing revenge, but quickly reverted to the pliant politician - refusing to let the fighting in Lebanon shatter fragile efforts to restart peace talks with Syria. Walking a tightrope between restraint and retaliation, Barak's made a noticeable retreat from his initially strong rhetoric, saying "we will not lose eye contact with the larger goal, which is a deal with Syria and an agreement with Lebanon that will allow a redeployment of the IDF to international borders." This delicate balancing act was to confront Barak repeatedly over the next couple weeks, as Hizb'Allah dealt Israel several more punches in the security zone.
The flare-up sent American and European diplomats scrambling to Beirut and Damascus with messages urging a quick end to the Hizb'Allah assaults. But another week of violence ensued, claiming an SLA militiaman and straining Barak's efforts not to torpedo the Syria track.
Hizb'Allah then staged another stunning hit, as a roadside bomb detonated beside an IDF foot patrol just north of the Israeli border. When other units entered the area to evacuate four wounded, Hizb'Allah rained down rockets, killing an IDF paramedic, and wounding three others. The slow pace of the evacuation near the border gave Israeli TV film crews time to arrive at the scene and later air disturbing footage of the wounded receiving treatment in the field. The painful close-ups prompted Israelis to push for strong retaliation - and to leave Lebanon immediately.
With the death toll mounting, Barak's security cabinet released weeks of pent up frustrations by approving strikes at a selective list of targets, including Hizb'Allah hideouts and three power transformer stations deep in Lebanon - cutting power to major parts of Beirut, Tripoli and Baalbek. The decision to unleash the IAF at civilian infrastructure came after the US signaled it was not longer expecting Israel to let the string of losses pass quietly.
But the radical Shi'ite faction killed yet another IDF soldier, sending tensions spiraling. Fearing Katyusha attacks in response to continued IAF sorties over Lebanon, most Israelis along the northern border fled south, while others hid in bomb shelters.
US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright backed Israel for sending a "strong signal," blaming the escalation on the Muslim militants for violating the April 1996 Grapes of Wrath understandings by firing from civilian areas. Syrian and Lebanese leaders blasted the "bloodthirsty" Israeli actions, but clambered for diplomatic cover by urging a meeting of the five-nation committee monitoring the April understandings. Both Syria and Hizb'Allah were determined to preserve the current rules of the game in south Lebanon, since they work to their advantage.
It took several days for the US to talk Israel into attending the monitoring committee meeting, but Barak okayed the move after sensing the US was firmly on his side. Israel wanted to use the meeting to push for changing the ground rules set forth in the 1996 truce, a development which Syria and Lebanon fiercely oppose. But the Israelis walked out when news came that Hizb'Allah had fired from a village and killed a seventh IDF soldier that very morning.
Israeli commanders were alarmed at Hizb'Allah's mounting successes - 7 IDF killed and 16 wounded in two weeks, plus Col. Hashem and 5 other SLA casualties since the start of the year. It was bitter news, as the IDF had just released figures showing casualties in 1999 had substantially dropped to almost half the figure from 1998.
Military reports indicated all the IDF losses came from the Islamic militia firing repeatedly from the cover of populated areas - in violation of the rules of engagement. Six of the IDF deaths were caused by highly accurate US-made TOW anti-tank missiles, fired at IDF outposts from villages up to 3.5 kilometers away. While many focused on the Syrian link,- as the arms route between Iran and Hizb'Allah runs through Damascus airport - Israeli security identified the TOW missiles as being part of the "Irangate" consignment delivered to Tehran, via Israel, in the mid-1980s as part of an American arms-for-hostages deal.
With the scorecard heavily tilted in its favor, Hizb'Allah decided not to fire its aimed-and-ready Katyushas into the Galilee, knowing Israeli radar can spot their firing points and strike back swiftly. They also feared massive IDF reprisals would undermine popular Lebanese support for them just as they are primed to take credit for the IDF's looming retreat.
Syria also appears to have urged Hizb'Allah not to launch Katyushas in revenge for the IAF strikes, since it was able to depict Israel as the aggressor and main impediment to peace in the region. More importantly, Assad tends to get nervous whenever Israeli war planes operate with impunity over Lebanon, exposing his inability to defend the country and undermining his interests there. Israeli strategic analysts agree that Assad considers his stranglehold in Lebanon a much more valuable strategic and economic asset than the Golan.
The rising death toll frustrated the Israeli public and aroused support for an immediate unilateral pullout - even among soldiers serving in Lebanon. One poll showed 57% of Israelis favoring a withdrawal "as soon as possible," without waiting for a peace deal with Syria.
Barak urged his coalition partners to resist the mounting public pressure, maintaining his pledge to "pull the boys out" by the July deadline was a clear message to Hizb'Allah that Israel is not leaving "with our tail between our legs." He estimated it would take until April or May to fully explore his chances of negotiating peace with Syria, and thereby an orderly withdrawal from Lebanon. Otherwise, he called on Israelis to maintain a "stiff upper lip," knowing more deaths are likely. Openly struggling with the dilemma, Barak claimed Israel should have pulled out years ago, but didn't have "the strength... to end this tragedy." Completing his bleak prognosis, he noted a unilateral pullback could mean the Lebanese conflict could last "five or 10 years," spurring a senior IDF commander to berate Barak for wanting to put "civilians on the front lines of combat."
Syrian and Lebanese leaders and media charged Israel had "adopted the methods of Hitler." In a hostile speech, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara accused "the Zionist movement" of repeatedly "stabbing the Arab national struggle in the back." He added: "If we don't receive our lands through the peace process, we will win the support of international and Arab public opinion... we must expose them... A failure in the referendum would be disastrous for Israel."
Shara's comments confirmed what a number of leading Israeli commentators have deduced of late - that Assad's strategy in the peace process is to cast blame on Israel for the failure of peace efforts. The escalation in Lebanon and the cold shoulder during peace talks actually were meant to ensure defeat of a Golan referendum in Israel.
Nervous over dwindling prospects for passage of a Golan referendum, US embassy officials reportedly met with Israeli Arab leaders to ensure high Arab voter turnout, promising to help with campaign costs. The "intolerable intervention" drew a heated reaction from the Israeli right, after US officials recently acknowledged Israel's disadvantage as a democracy in talks with Syria and promised not to interfere in the Golan vote.
In addition US officials opened talks with Israel over a mutual defense treaty - a key selling point in a Syrian deal. Israelis are divided over the merits of such a defense pact, as many feel it would further hamper Israel's freedom of action and reduce chances of receiving superior American weapons systems.
After American diplomats sounded supportive of the "message" delivered by the IAF raids, a fiery speech by Hizb'Allah's top cleric Sheik Hassan Nasrallah inspired two days of angry demonstrations outside the new, fortified US Embassy in Beirut. The violent protests summoned up memories of the violence suffered by Americans in the Lebanese civil war in the 1980's, including a rash of Hizb'Allah suicide bombings that claimed more than 260 Americans lives. With the past carnage undoubtedly in mind, the US warned Israel - for the first time since the escalation in fighting - not to attack Lebanese civilian infrastructure.
Arab popular outrage grew after Israel threatened more attacks if its soldiers continue to be hit. Foreign Minister David Levy's threat to make Lebanon "burn" aroused the most ire. Barak was forced to dispatch two top aides to Cairo to defuse a burgeoning crisis that erupted after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak made a landmark visit to Beirut to join other Arab voices in harshly criticizing Israel's retaliatory raids on civilian infrastructure in Lebanon. In a caustic statement, Mubarak strongly condemned the IAF incursions and voiced support for the right of Hizb'Allah to "fight the Israeli occupation."
Mubarak's surprise visit to Beirut - hailed throughout the Arab world - came in response to Lebanese media criticism that Egypt was slow to denounce the Israeli air strikes. But Levy called his comments about Hizb'Allah "worrisome," and expressed concern over the "foul wave... of hatred and venom [that] drip toward Israel and the Jews" - a reference to the marked increase in anti-Semitic articles and equations of Israel to "Nazis." Barak addressed the issue too, saying, "I condemn the kind of comments from Beirut, from Cairo or from Damascus." The official Syrian media responded "[t]he world is not unfair or prejudiced" when it draws this comparison.
Arab fury was fueled when Levy repeated his warning that "Lebanon will burn" in a speech to the Knesset. Taunted by Israeli Arab MKs, Levy added a new twist that the IDF would repay "blood for blood, soul for soul, child for child." Red-faced and wagging his finger, Levy blared, "It is time for a warning." The tough talk appears to signal that, with the Syrian track frozen, Barak has adopted the "Sharon plan" (advocated by Likud leader Ariel Sharon) that calls for unilaterally exiting Lebanon in stages while making it abundantly clear any accompanying or subsequent cross-border attacks would be met with heavy reprisals.
Visiting French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin drew Arab anger as well, after describing Hizb'Allah attacks on the IDF as "terrorism." Jospin also expressed amazement at the "paradox" of Arab criticism of Israel's readiness to unilaterally withdraw. For years, Lebanon has demanded Israel unconditionally withdraw its forces pursuant to UNSC resolution 425, but Syria is twisting its arm to link such a retreat to an evacuation of the Golan as well. Thus, Jospin noted, Lebanese officials are looking absurd when denouncing Barak's promise to exit their country by mid-summer. Jospin's candid remarks drew a sharp retort from Beirut.
Other French officials cautioned Jospin's surprising straight talk did not denote any shifts in policy, but they take on added importance, as France has close ties with several Arab states and was the mandatory power in pre-state Lebanon and Syria. France is also a member of the five-nation Grapes of Wrath committee which monitors the conflict in south Lebanon and Jospin pushed Israel to rejoin that forum during his official visit. Israel has said it will not attend those meetings until Hizb'Allah stops operating from within populated villages.
Jospins' condemnation of Hizb'Allah came as the terrorist faction made its strongest hints yet that it would not attack Israel after a peace agreement, instead focusing on political activity in Lebanon and providing the Palestinian people with "all the help we can." Nonetheless, the IDF believes Hizb'Allah is likely to continue to try to attack Israeli targets after a withdrawal.
The US continues to try to make progress on the Israel-Syria track, but sounded doubtful that the parties would hold any further direct talks soon, rather meeting again only to finalize an agreement. In the meantime, they will "deposit" their positions, demands and concessions with US diplomats.