Behind the Israel-Hizbullah crisis

The Christian Science Monitor’s Dan Murphy has compiled a relatively comprehensive set of questions and answers as to what’s going on with the Israel-Hizbullah confrontation. A few short extracts:

Before dawn on June 25, an eight-man team of Palestinian militants tied to Hamas, the Islamist party that now controls the Palestinian Authority after a January electoral victory, entered Israel through a half-mile long tunnel under the border and attacked an Israeli Army post, killing two soldiers and capturing 19-year-old Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

The next day Hamas demanded the release of Palestinians from Israeli prisons in exchange for Corporal Shalit.

A second Israeli, 18-year-old Eliahu Asheri, was captured on June 27 (his body was found two days later near Ramallah). The next day, Israeli responded with strikes on power stations, bridges, and basic infrastructure in Gaza.

Over the following week, Israel continued to strike Gaza and arrested a third of the Palestinian cabinet. Palestinian militants fired rockets deep into Israel’s territory. About 50 Palestinians, most civilians, were killed in this round of war.

On July 10, Khaled Mashal, the hard-line Hamas leader in Damascus, believed to have ordered the cross-border attack, vowed that Shalit won’t be released unless 1,000 Palestinians are freed by Israel.

Two days later, Lebanese Hizbullah militants crossed the Israeli border and captured two Israeli soldiers. Hassan Nasrallah, the Shiite cleric who runs the militant organization that is part of the Lebanese government, has promised for years to capture Israeli soldiers to trade for Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails.

Eight Israeli soldiers were killed in this attack and subsequent fighting. Israel called the attack an “act of war.”

Because Hizbullah is part of the Lebanese government and the government has either been unwilling or unable to disarm the Shiite militia, Israel holds Beirut accountable for the cross-border attack and capture of the soldiers.

Tuesday, Israel said the offensive could last several more weeks and could involve large numbers of ground forces. Already at least 200 Lebanese have been killed, along with 25 Israelis.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government has vowed it won’t back down until its prisoners are released and Hizbullah’s military abilities are destroyed.

Mr. Olmert said Tuesday the offensive might be called off if Israeli prisoners are released and Hizbullah withdraws from the border area, taking its rockets out of range of Israeli population centers.

From the Hizbullah side, there has been no evidence of softening, though analysts say it is possible the group would agree to a withdrawal from the border in exchange for a hostage deal, betting it will be able to eventually move back into the area.

Hizbullah has strong ties to both [Syria and Iran], particularly to Iran, which has traditionally armed and financed the group. Syria’s role for arms and other aid to Hizbullah has been as a transit point. And both countries see Hizbullah as a useful proxy in their confrontations with Israel, and a likely ally if war ever breaks out. Claims that Syria and Iran had a hand in Hizbullah’s decision to capture the Israeli soldiers are unproven.

Though President Bush appears to think Syria is pulling the strings – caught in a candid moment saying that Syria is capable of forcing Hizbullah to release the hostages and ending its rocket attacks on northern Israel – others say Hizbullah’s independent hatred of Israel can’t be discounted, and that it probably acted out of sympathy with Hamas.

The connections between Hizbullah and the countries the US views as terror supporters makes this conflict an American priority in the region. The US has strongly supported the Lebanese government since Syria’s withdrawal last year, and would view a collapse of Prime Minister Siniora’s government a calamity.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Siniora is demanding compensation from Israel for the “unimaginable losses” to the nation’s infrastructure caused by Israel’s bombing. Addressing foreign ambassadors, including U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, he gave the first official death toll in the conflict (300 killed), saying also that 1,000 have been wounded and a half-million displaced. He made an urgent appeal for an end to the fighting, saying Lebanon “has been torn to shreds.”

In a swipe particularly at the United States, Siniora asked: “Is this what the international community calls self-defense? Is this the price we pay for aspiring to build our democratic institutions?”

In another less observed development, an Israeli cabinet member has said that the release of Lebanese prisoners held by Israel might have to be considered. Hizbullah is calling for the release of Lebanese prisoners in return for two captured Israeli soldiers, a request repeatedly denied by Israel.

Speaking on Army Radio on Tuesday, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter said, “I think at the end we will bring the soldiers home and if one of the ways must be through a negotiation about Lebanese prisoners, I think the day will arrive when we must consider that as well.”

All the while, the intense international pressure which had been directed towards Iran in respect of its nuclear development program appears to have been sidelined. Iran, in any case, has said that it would not respond to proposals advanced by Europe and the U.S. in connection with this program until the middle of August.

As an aside, while Hizbullah, solidly Shiite, captures the front page of every newspaper in the world and whose leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has mentioned the possibility of strikes against the United States, one must wonder how al Qaeda, solidly Sunni, takes this apparent displacement.

And, oh yes, there is one additional development. Turkey has said that its army may move into northern Iraq if violence by Turkish-Kurdish guerrillas continues. The plans range from limited artillery and air strikes on guerrilla bases to attacks by commando forces or a broader ground offensive.

American officials, including Condoleezza Rice, have repeatedly warned Turkey against entering northern Iraq, one of the few stable areas of the country.

Click the headline for Dan Murphy’s Q&A summary.

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