As the Hezbollah and Israeli forces engage in a new upflare of violence in south Lebanon, Israel is charging Iran with encouraging the Lebanese Shiite militia to sabotage the regional peace process. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports.
Prague, 17 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Recent weeks have seen an intensification of fighting in south Lebanon, where the Shiite Hezbollah militia is seeking to force Israel from its self-declared security zone.
Fighting last week saw Israeli jets strike deep into Lebanon to hit three power stations and plunge the country into darkness following Hezbollah's killing of six Israeli soldiers and Israeli-allied militiamen in preceding days.
The upsurge in violence has endangered the future of the Israeli-Syrian peace track, which has now stalled after resuming in December. Israel has said that to ensure the success of the peace talks, Syria -- the major power broker in Lebanon -- must rein in the Hezbollah and stop things from deteriorating in Lebanon further.
But even as Israel demands action from Syria, it also has charged that the real motor behind the Hezbollah's determined drive is Iran.
Those charges have come in a flurry of official accusations and Israeli newspaper reports that say Iran is deliberately encouraging the Hezbollah to derail the regional peace process and is equipping it with sophisticated weapons to do so.
In one of its strongest charges against Iran to date regarding the militia, the Israeli Defense Forces said in early January that Tehran has ordered the Hezbollah to sabotage the Middle East peace process. It also said that Iran has encouraged the Lebanese group to work with militant Palestinian groups -- Islamic Jihad and Hamas --in fighting the Jewish state.
A senior Israeli intelligence officer told the Israeli Knesset that Tehran has provided the Hezbollah with additional arms and training, plus bonuses for carrying out successful attacks. And leading Israeli newspapers quoted army officials as saying Israeli outposts in south Lebanon were being hit by Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-command-link (TOW) anti-tank missiles, which Israel itself supplied to Iran in the mid-1980s as part of an exchange of arms for U.S. hostages.
Israel has long charged Iran with supplying the Hezbollah with training and weapons. But analysts say the latest accusations are new in that they suggest Iran has launched an initiative aimed directly at torpedoing both the Israel-Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian peace processes just as they are at critical stages.
RFE/RL regional specialist William Samii says that Israel believes the Islamic Republic is determined to derail the Middle East peace process because any final peace deal would isolate Iran in its continuing rejection of the Jewish state.
"Iran does not accept Israel as a legitimate state or their government as a legitimate government. It will find itself isolated if Syria achieves a peaceful state with Israel. The other Arab countries have effectively accepted Israel's right to exist as a state, [so] this would leave Iran out in the cold."
The reactions of both the Hezbollah and Tehran to the most recent round of Israeli charges so far have been mixed.
A top Hezbollah leader has rejected any notion that Tehran is instigating meetings between the militia and Palestinian groups to fight jointly against Israel. Muhammad Funaysh, a Hezbollah member of Lebanon's parliament, called the Israeli charges a pure lie.
Asked if there is any coordination between Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Funaysh said: "In the course of resisting the occupation, we are not linked to any other quarter other than the will of our people."
Iran has responded to the recent Israeli charges by reaffirming its support for the Hezbollah but denying it is supplying sophisticated weaponry.
Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said Israel should withdraw unilaterally if it wants attacks on its military personnel to end. In Kharrazi's words: "It is the legitimate right of Hezbollah and of any Lebanese individual to resist against the occupiers, and therefore we cannot deny Hezbollah or the Lebanese government this legitimate right."
But at the same time Kharrazi rejected Israeli newspaper charges that Iran supplies the Hezbollah with arms, saying Iran only supplies humanitarian and political assistance.
Amid its demands that Syria reign in the Hezbollah and its accusations that Iran is stepping up support, Israel last week also sought to pressure Lebanon to curb the militia.
After Israel's air-raid on Lebanon's infrastructure, Israeli Culture Minister and former deputy chief of staff Matan Vilnai said that the strikes were a hint to the Lebanese government that it should restrain Hezbollah.
But some analysts say that neither Damascus, Tehran nor Beirut may in fact have the ability to reign in the Hezbollah so long as Israeli forces remain in south Lebanon. They say that the militia, which was formed in the early 1980s to force Israel out of south Lebanon, has since won broad popular support for its goal. William Samii:
"There has always been a perception that Hezbollah is basically an instrument of Iranian foreign policy and Syrian foreign policy. But, in fact, the movement has grown into a genuine national resistance movement. So, even without Iranian support, Hezbollah probably would continue its actions because these Israeli actions have so alienated the Lebanese population."
The early Lebanese reaction to the Israeli air strikes seems to show the raids have strengthened popular support for the militia's drive to force out Israel.
An editorial last week in the Lebanese daily "As-Safir" said it is the duty of all Lebanese "to resist and stand up to aggression."
Lebanon's daily "al-Qods al-Arabi" took an even tougher line, saying that the destruction of Lebanon's infrastructure will bring the whole of country into the resistance against Israeli forces.
And that, Samii says, may suggest where Israel's difficulty with the Hezbollah may finally rest. With the Lebanese people rather than with Iran.