WEST ASIA CRISIS: HEADING FOR A POINT OF NO RETURN
The ongoing war between Israel and the Lebanon-based Shia militia Hizbollah assumed unprecedented intensity with no immediate prospect of ceasefire in the offing as the Israeli Cabinet decided on August 9, 2006 to launch a more broad-based ground offensive in Lebanon. In a statement issued after the cabinet meeting, Israel’s Industry and Trade Minister Mr. Eli Yishai said that the Israeli Government had decided to embark on fresh operation, which was likely to last around a month. According to a report released on its website by the Israeli English daily Haaretz, Prime Minister Mr. Ehud Olmert had asked the military to draw up alternative plans, apprehending that a large number of Israeli troops could be killed in case a heavy ground offensive was undertaken. The Israeli military proposed mat the Lebanese territory, a little beyond the Litani river should be targeted first so as to eliminate the Hizbollah’s capacity to launch short-range rockets. Eventually, the Israeli authorities came to the conclusion that additional 30,000 troops might be required for the daunting task.
Earlier, on August8,2006 several thousand terrified residents of the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona fled to the city for fear of being attacked by Hizbollah, in the first evacuation of an entire town since the creation of Israel in 1948. With the crisis deepening beyond remedy Israel appointed Major-General Mosha Kaplinsky as the new commander for the war in Lebanon. Major-General Kaplinsky’s 30-year career has been mostly focused on fighting Hizbollah guerrillas.
Meanwhile, in a statement issued on August 6, 2006, in the thick of the violent clashes between the Israeli Army and Hizbollah militia, Major General Alain Pellegrini, the head of UMFIL, the UN’s monitoring mission in Lebanon, said any attempt to deploy international troops to disarm the Hizbollah by force would turn Lebanon into another Iraq. As he put it, “It is always the same when you have to fight against guerillas. You will have a kind of Iraq situation”.
The French General, who has commanded the contingent of 2,000 armed monitors from eight countries for two years, said Israel’s air campaign had failed to destroy all of Hizbollah’s installations, Israel had not expected the amount of resistance Hizbollah has put up, he said. He was sceptical of the optimism coming from the UN that Israel would accept a ceasefire soon. “It is not yet evident that they will accept a cessation of hostilities rapidly,” he said. “They want to reach their goals and this is not yet done.”
The UNIFIL was set up in 1978 to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli troops who had invaded Lebanon to try to destroy Palestinian guerillas. At that time Hizbollah did not exist. The Bush administration and Israel claim UNIFIL has railed because it has done nothing to prevent Hizbollah from building a network of tunnels and caves in the Lebanese hills and inserting huge caches of rockets, mines and other weapons.
The UNIFIL occupies dozens of posts on hilltops around south Lebanon. They are helped by 50 military observers from the UN Truce Supervision Organization, (UNTSO). Since the end of its last invasion in May 2000, Israel has violated the agreement more often than Hizbollah.
Earlier, within days of killing scores of civilians in Qana, Israel was accused by Lebanese authorities of carrying out its second atrocity in Lebanon in the border village of Houla. Addressing Arab Foreign Ministers in Beirut on August 7, 2006, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Mr. Fuad Saniora said on Israeli attack had killed as many as 40 persons in Houla. Mr. Saniora accused Israel of indulging in “State terrorism”. “If these horrific actions are not State terrorism then what in State terrorism?” On the other hand, the Israel army said it was investigating the allegation, but added that it had warned residents in Lebanon’s southern villages to leave.
Houla has been the scene of heavy ground fighting recently. Hizbollah fighters have claimed to have killed four Israeli soldiers in the vicinity of the hamlet.
Israeli soldiers and the Hizbollah have been fighting ferocious battles at many locations close to the border since July 2006. Mr. Milow Strugar, spokesman for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon that is deployed in south Lebanon, has said, “There has been no change in terms of territory. But there has been an intensification of exchanges of fire on the ground in different areas all along the border.” He added that fighting had been intense around the badly hit village of Bint Jbeil and Taibe in the east. On August 6,2006, Hizbollah fighters fired a barrage of rockets that killed 15 Israelis, including 12 soldiers, the largest numbers to be killed in Israel during a single day in the nearly month long conflict. Israel has been focusing on an area around the southern cities of Tyre and Sidon.
On the diplomatic front sharp differences persisted on the draft UN resolution proposed by France and the United States to bring fighting to a halt. Lebanon has already rejected the draft that calls for a “full cessation” of fighting but not for an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from the country. Syria and Iran have dismissed the text.