The sickening downward spiral of violence in the Middle East continues. Last week, Hezbollah, the militant Shiite Muslim group, opened a second front against Israel by launching a border attack from southern Lebanon. The action appeared to copy an earlier raid by Palestinians from the Gaza Strip.
The kidnapping of an Israeli soldier in the earlier raid had triggered an Israeli offensive that raised tensions to new levels. The Hezbollah attack could provoke a wider war. Steps must be taken to return prisoners, ease tensions and provide some footing, however tenuous, for talks.
On Wednesday, in what Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called “an act of war,” Hezbollah fighters launched a series of rockets at Israeli villages near the Lebanese border. They then sneaked across the border, attacked Israeli soldiers, killing three, and took two hostages. Olmert sent troops across the border to rescue the captives, the first such incursion into Lebanon since Israel withdrew its forces from there six years ago. Four more Israeli soldiers were killed when their armored vehicle hit a mine; another was killed in a firefight.
Israel sent aircraft to attack dozens of military and infrastructure targets deep in southern Lebanon. Additional air raids later struck targets in Beirut, including the airport and the headquarters of the Hezbollah chief. On Friday, Hezbollah promised to unleash “open war” and crippled an Israeli warship off the Lebanese coast with a remote-controlled drone.
The Hezbollah attack exacerbated a crisis that had begun June 25, when Palestinian militants tunneled from the Gaza Strip into Israel, attacked an army outpost and kidnapped Cpl. Gilad Shalit. They have since demanded the release of 1,500 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel in exchange for Mr. Shalit. Mr. Olmert ruled out any such swap, and instead launched a massive offensive against Palestinians to free the captive.
Leaders of the military wing of Hamas and senior Palestinian government officials have been targeted for both capture and killing. Even after the Hezbollah raid, Israeli warplanes bombed a building in Gaza, killing 23 people, and destroyed the Palestinian Foreign Ministry. At least 60 Lebanese have been killed.
Hezbollah has long engaged in cross-border exchanges of fire with Israeli forces; such actions remind Israel that the militia is a force to be reckoned with. Hezbollah claims that its harassment is what forced Israel to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in 2000. Hezbollah often attempts to open a second front against Israel when Israeli troops are battling Palestinians, both to exploit a distracted government in Tel Aviv and to ensure that Hezbollah is not overlooked as a regional actor.
The attack against Israel has won Hezbollah support among Lebanese accustomed to being victimized. While some headed for shelter in the face of the Israeli counterattacks, other Lebanese celebrated the hostage-taking as a victory. And although various Israeli governments have insisted that they will not negotiate with terrorists, two years ago Israel did strike a deal with Hezbollah that led to the exchange of more than 400 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners for an Israeli businessman being held in Lebanon and for the corpses of three Israeli soldiers.
Given Iran’s support for Hezbollah, it is possible that the group has acted to distract international attention from Tehran, which is under intense pressure to renounce nuclear development, and to give Iran leverage in tough negotiations. Iran could offer itself as a mediator in the current conflict and thus deflect criticism of it from the rest of the world.
Israel has refused to negotiate with Hamas or Hezbollah. One senior military official has warned that if the soldiers are not returned, Israel would “turn back the clock in Lebanon by 20 years.” It’s not only Lebanon, though, that faces that ugly scenario. The continuing deterioration in relations between Israel and Palestinians also threatens a return for both sides to the grim days before the Oslo peace process.
The Hamas government in Palestine still refuses to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. Worse, the Israeli response to the recent election of that government — isolating it and cutting off its funding sources — is killing the hope of ordinary Palestinians that peace offers a possible alternative to their current lives of despair. The solution to this crisis is easy to envision. All hostages must be released. The offensives must stop. Hamas must be pressured to accept Israel’s existence and to disavow attacks by its military wing against Israel.
Israelis and Palestinians should resume discussions on fixing their borders and dealing with the emergence of a Palestinian state. Failure to stop the cycle of violence will ensure that it intensifies. Whatever fragile peace exists in the Middle East is in danger of going up in flames.
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