San Francisco Chronicle
Friday, July 14, 2006
Page A - 1
Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Jerusalem -- For Israel, Wednesday's raid was a kidnapping too far.
The cross-border raid by Hezbollah gunmen on an Israeli army patrol in northern Israel and the abduction of two soldiers whom the captors declared to be bargaining chips for the release of Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners held by Israel prompted a response that threatens the stability of the region.
"The notion that this is a limited operation is wrong -- this is a fundamentally new situation," Gen. Gershon Yitzhak, head of the Israeli Army Home Front Command, said in an interview. "This is not an operation. This is a war for the sake of our home, what it will look like in the future and how we will be able to live in the region. This operation will continue to expand, and it is only just beginning.
"We must remove this threat once and for all," the general added.
In the six years since the Israeli army withdrew from southern Lebanon, ending 18 years of occupation, the government in Jerusalem has responded to similar kidnappings and kidnap attempts with minor displays of force and the occasional limited bombing of targets in Lebanon and Syria.
This time, Israel bombed Lebanese bridges and military bases. Its attacks ignited fuel reserves and destroyed runways at the Beirut airport, sending flames and a pall of black smoke floating over the capital. Early this morning, Israeli bombers damaged the major road leading from Beirut to Damascus, Syria, and launched at least four missiles at the southern suburbs of Beirut where Hezbollah officials live. Three people were killed and dozens wounded, Lebanese police said. Anti-aircraft fire echoed as Israeli jets roared over the capital. It was not immediately clear who was firing at the planes as both the Lebanese army and Hezbollah have anti-aircraft artillery.
The all-out Israeli response could be measured against factors that changed the usual calculation of action and reaction.
First, it came barely two weeks after a similar cross-border raid by Hamas guerrillas from Gaza ended in the deaths of two Israeli soldiers and the abduction of a third. Israel has failed to secure the release of missing Cpl. Gilad Shalit despite reinvading the Gaza Strip for the first time since Jewish settlements were vacated and Israeli army posts closed in September.
Israeli leaders cannot afford such incidents to become commonplace, and the harsh response was intended at least in part to deter similar kidnappings in the future.
"We reached the point where we had to tell the Hezbollah, in a language that the Hezbollah can understand, that there is a limit to everything," Shimon Peres, Israel's deputy prime minister told reporters in Tel Aviv.
"The Israeli government is determined to hit Hamas and Hezbollah and destroy their infrastructure in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, and to reach the point where the Palestinian Authority on the one hand and the Lebanese government on the other hand, probably with the support from the world community, will ... make sure that the use of weapons will be the monopoly of the state," said Ehud Barak, the former prime minister who initiated the Israeli pullout from Lebanon in May 2000.
Second, Israeli intelligence believes that Iran -- Hezbollah's main bankroller -- initiated Wednesday's raid. Israeli leaders believe the time has come to clip Hezbollah's wings before the Iranian influence grows even stronger. Iran is passionately committed to the destruction of the Jewish state and provides funding, training and arms for Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah.
According to Israeli intelligence sources, Iran gave Hezbollah the green light for the raid. These sources said Hezbollah's extensive rocket barrage on northern Israel followed talks in Damascus between Hezbollah officials and Ali Larijani, head of Iran's supreme national security council, who arrived in the Syrian capital on Wednesday morning.
During his stopover in Damascus, Larijani also met with Syrian President Bashar Assad and the leaders of radical Palestinian groups that are given sanctuary in the Syrian capital, including Khaled Mashaal, the supreme leader of Hamas.
Israeli Foreign Ministry Deputy Director General Gideon Meir said the government had "specific information that Hezbollah is planning to transfer the kidnapped soldiers to Iran."
Larijani was returning to Iran after fruitless talks with European leaders in Brussels, which failed to break the deadlock over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Lebanese commentators expressed fears that Hezbollah's raid on the Israeli patrol and the rocket barrage that followed were designed to divert attention away from the increasing international pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear program.
"Was yesterday's operation aimed at easing the considerable pressure being brought to bear by the international community, headed by the U.S., on the Islamic Republic of Iran regarding its nuclear dossier?" asked Sarkis Na'um, a columnist for the Christian Lebanese daily Al-Nahar.
Hezbollah's Al-Manar Television broadcast pictures of the new Iranian-supplied 333mm Raad-1 rocket, which it said was used in Thursday's attack on an Israeli army base near Safed, about 10 miles from the Israel-Lebanon border. The Raad-1 carries 200 pounds of explosives.
Israel targeted Beirut's airport because, Israeli military officials said, it was regularly used to transport Iranian weapons, often flown via Syria, to Hezbollah and to Palestinian militants in Lebanon.
The same Israeli planes, flying over the southern Beirut suburb of Dahiya, showered the area with Arabic-language leaflets warning residents to leave their homes or suffer the consequences of living as neighbors to Hassan Nasrallah, the charismatic leader of Hezbollah, and other members of the radical Shiite group's leadership, most of whom occupy heavily fortified residences in the area.
"The story of Nasrallah and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon is not a local matter," said Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. "It's not connected just to the north of Israel. He wants to influence the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we must not let him assume greater importance than he has."
Hezbollah's gamble to launch a cross-border attack was risky, but Israel is also playing with fire.
"The logic of the current situation is likely to move Israel in the direction of abandoning restraints, broadening objectives and expanding the scope of its operations -- perhaps to include military action against Syria -- in order to end the crisis on terms that it considers acceptable," warned Michael Eisenstadt, a senior fellow and director of security studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.