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Middle East: How The Conflict Unfolded

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Damage caused by a Hizballah rocket in the northern Israeli city of Haifa on July 19 (epa) PRAGUE, July 19, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- For three weeks now, the Israeli military has maintained a two-front offensive that, according to Lebanon’s prime minister, has thrown open “the gates of hell” in the region.


History is a hard book to write, as the saying goes, and it’s even harder to pinpoint the exact causes of the open conflict now raging in the world’s most volatile region.


A Single Artillery Shell


But the events of June 9 are one place to start in looking at the current crisis.


In the television footage of that fateful day, a 10-year-old Palestinian girl is seen wailing on a sandy Gaza beach amid the corpses of seven family members. Enjoying a picnic on a sunny Sabbath, they had apparently been killed by Israeli artillery fire in response to weeks of rocket fire on Israel by Hamas militants.


The next day, thousands of Palestinians demonstrated against the attack in Gaza, as Hamas spokesman Sami Abu-Zuhri called for a formal end to the Islamic militant group’s 16-month truce with the Jewish state.

"The main thing now is to stop violence, stop the growing confrontation, prevent the region from falling back into chaos, prevent a wider conflict, end the suffering of common people, give priority to political and diplomatic methods of settlement with the central mediating role of the United Nations," Russian President Vladimir Putin said on July 17.

“These demonstrations to show outrage which were called by the Islamic resistance movement are meant to stress that our Palestinian people are holding on to their rights and principles," Abu-Zuhri said. "These mass demonstrations are stressing our choice in the way of struggle. Amid the continued bloodshed of our people and the horrific images of the children, the women, the girl that screamed for help, there is no place for silence. These demonstrations are stressing the need for the renewal of the struggle."


Hamas Steps Up Attacks


The same day, Hamas stepped up Qassam rocket attacks on Israel. The militant group had resumed the attacks a few weeks previously, amid diplomatic and economic isolation that has left the Hamas-led Palstinian government hamstrung, unable to pay the salaries of tens of thousands of Palestinian Authority employees. Western governments have cut off all but humanitarian aid until the ruling Hamas recognizes Israel’s right to exist.


On June 25 the conflict took a major turn for the worse.


Hamas and another militant group attacked an Israeli military post, killing two soldiers, wounding three, and taking one hostage. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking the next day, vowed that Israel would respond decisively.


Israel Responds In Gaza


“We have considered our steps," Olmert said. "But the time ahead of a comprehensive and harsh operation by the state of Israel is getting shorter. We would not wait forever. We would not make ourselves a subject to Hamas terrorist extortion, and we will act with all our forces to bring an end to terror and ensure no harm comes to the Israeli Defense Force soldier.”


Two days later, on June 28, Israeli forces moved into the southern Gaza Strip in the first major military action in the region since Israel's withdrawal from the strip in September.


The overnight incursion began with air strikes that destroyed three bridges linking north and south Gaza. F-16 jets also fired rockets a water plant as well as a Gaza’s main power station, leaving much of the strip blacked out.


Targeting Politicians


But that was just the start.


Israeli warplanes flew at low altitude over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's residence in what was called a warning to Syria over its harboring of Hamas leaders.


Lebanese refugees crossing into Syria on July 17 (epa)

Israel then arrested dozens of Hamas ministers and lawmakers, which Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri called a declaration of war against the Palestinian people.


"The targeting of the [Palestinian] government and [members of parliament] is a dangerous act, even an international crime, and a declaration of open war against the Palestinian people," al-Masri said.


Hizballah Captures Two Israeli Soldiers


On July 12, a cross-border raid into Israel by the Lebanese Shi'ite militia Hizballah left eight Israeli soldiers dead and two captured.


Israel immediately responded, unleashing its largest military operation against Lebanon in a quarter-century, as U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack blamed Syria and Iran for inspiring the violence.


"These are deliberate attempts to try to escalate tensions in the region," McCormack said. "And you look at the timing of it with the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier just outside of Gaza and the killing of two soldiers in that attack -- just days later you have this action, this unprovoked action by Hizballah. Very clearly, there are individuals here that are seeking to provoke a negative reaction in the region."


Taking On Lebanon


In the week that followed, Olmert vowed to set back Lebanon by “20 years,” as Israeli warplanes have devastated the country, hitting not just Hizballah targets, but much of the country’s vital infrastructure, including highways, airports, and power stations.


Some 250 civilians have been reported killed, and hundreds of thousands, including many foreigners, are now fleeing a country that had just finished rebuilding following a civil war that killed 1 million people.


Hizballah responded to the Israeli offensive by firing some 1,000 rockets into northern Israel, including the cities of Haifa and Nahariya, killing at least 10 civilians.


World leaders meeting last weekend at the Group of Eight (G8) summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, called for an end to the violence and the start of a diplomatic process.


"The main thing now is to stop violence, stop the growing confrontation, prevent the region from falling back into chaos, prevent a wider conflict, end the suffering of common people, give priority to political and diplomatic methods of settlement with the central mediating role of the United Nations," Russian President Vladimir Putin said on July 17.


An Israeli warplane takes off for a mission in Lebanon on July 12 (epa)

But in a joint statement, the leaders of the world’s eight richest nations did not call for an immediate cease-fire. Instead, they blamed the crisis on “extremist elements” -- a clear reference to Hizballah -- and called for the militia’s disarmament, as required by a United Nations Security Council resolution.


What Will Happen Next?


U.S. media reports on July 19 suggest that U.S. officials will allow Israel to carry on its offensive for another week in order to degrade Hizballah’s capabilities. Then, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would travel to the region and seek to establish a buffer zone in southern Lebanon.


At the same time, both UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have spoken of setting up an international force to monitor Lebanon’s borders to prevent Hizballah from getting rockets and arms.

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