Middle East

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Arab Press Critical of Attacks on ‘Northern Front’

Israeli missile explodes near Shebaa Farms
A missile explodes during an Israeli air raid on the hills surrounding the southern Lebanese village of Kfar Shuba, April 12, 2002. Two days earlier, Hezbollah guerrillas attacked nearby Israeli army outposts at Shebaa Farms, a disputed territory on the northern border of the Golan Heights (Photo: AFP).

As Israel continues its military offensive in the West Bank, fears of a wider regional conflagration have increased following a spate of military operations by anti-Israel militants in southern Lebanon. In recent weeks, Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerillas launched rocket, mortar, and machine attacks on Israeli troops in the disputed Shebaa Farms area near the Golan Heights while Israel fired back with shellfire and air raids in southern Lebanon. Suspicions that recent rocket attacks on northern Israel may have been the work of Lebanon-based Palestinian militants added another potentially explosive element to the mix. The press has begun to talk of the possibility of a "second front" in the Middle East conflict that could draw in other countries, namely Lebanon and Syria.

On March 30, Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said that Hezbollah attacks that day occurred with Syrian consent and without provocation. He called the Israeli army’s raids on Hezbollah targets "a warning signal to the Syrian government," Israel’s Channel 2 reported.

For his part, prime minister Ariel Sharon warned that Israel would be ready to respond should the attacks continue. "We are ready to act and have completed our preparations," he was quoted in Beirut’s independent, English-language Daily Star (April 5), adding that any Israeli military response would be "very hard."

While Israel, with its military already deployed and engaged in the West Bank, would like to avoid a second military front, both Lebanon and Syria also appear anything but anxious to engage Israel militarily. Still, seeing the threat of a new front in the war, the Israeli army called up fresh reservists and sent them to the northern border. And Syria took observers by surprise when it recently announced the redeployment of its troops in Lebanon to the Bekaa valley, saying that they were implementing the 1990 Taif Accord---late.

Michael Young, writing in the Daily Star (April 6), observed that despite official claims, "you knew the redeployment was linked to an Israeli attack because Lebanese officials so strenuously denied it." He added, however, that "the speed of the departure suggested something more ominous: Fear of a strike against Syria itself"(April 6).

According to Young, an Israel attack would have "American backing" if one takes into consideration the tough talk of U.S. President George W. Bush, who recently chastised Syria for not doing more to fight terrorism.

"The Syrians are making themselves scarce to avoid paying the price for an Israeli assault against [Hezbollah], especially if Hezbollah fires rockets into Israel," he continued. "Judging from the Lebanese reaction after the Katyusha attack against Kiryat Shemona on Monday, neither Beirut nor Damascus is impatient for war."

Other Lebanese commentators expressed fears of Israeli military confrontation with Lebanon and Syria if the government fails to rein in Hezbollah and other armed groups.

On April 4, Gebran Tueni, publisher of Beirut’s independent, mass-circulation Al-Nahar, worried that Ariel Sharon may wish to trigger a wider conflict to scuttle any chance for a regional peace settlement. Therefore, he demanded that "the state straighten out the situation in the south and prevent Hezbollah from carrying out military operations without the coordination of the state. It is not possible to open up a southern front outside a full Arab strategic framework that would open up all Arab military fronts against Israel." He concludes that deploying the Lebanese army in the south would be done "not to protect the border of the Israeli enemy but to protect Lebanon."

Similarly, Emile Khoury, also writing in Al-Nahar (April 9) complained that bombing the Shebaa Farms was counterproductive. The farms are not "more valuable than, for example, Lebanon or the Golan Heights. Moreover, there is no clear interest in opening up a second front for any of the parties involved. Palestinians groups cannot be allowed to drag the country into conflict and Hezbollah should know that the time is not now ripe to liberate the Shebaa Farms, either militarily or by diplomacy," he wrote.

But others argued that years of fighting Israel in south Lebanon have given Hezbollah the experience and the savvy to avoid triggering a conflict for which it is not prepared. Ibrahim al-Amin, writing in the April 9 edition of Beirut’s daily Al-Safir (left-wing, pro-Syria), argued that while Hezbollah has jumped into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it will weigh its decisions carefully and not act rashly. "The group does not want to engage Israel in a classic military confrontation or endanger its own standing," al-Amin posited. But he also cautioned that "before serious talk of a second front is discussed, serious questions should be asked: ‘Is this what the Palestinians need? Will this be enough to lift the siege imposed on them and their president in Ramallah?’ Other questions include the possibility of an unwanted and devastating military blow to Syria. A clearer strategy is needed," al-Amin argued.

Regardless of Hezbollah’s involvement, Palestinian participation in cross-border attacks could add a new, more explosive dimension, cautioned Ahmed al-Rabie’ writing in the April 10 edition of Saudi-owned, London-based Al-Sharq al-Awsat. "It would be wrong for any Palestinian group to open a new military front against Israel on the Lebanese border by firing rockets at northern Israel," al-Rabie’ argued. "While many Arabs may hope for a larger Arab military front against Israel, the northern front is… not worth the risks. It would detract from the Palestinian resistance in the West Bank and Gaza."