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Middle East: Israel, Hizbollah Risk Escalation In South Lebanon

Prague, 2 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The killing (Feb. 28) of a top Israeli general by Hizbollah fighters threatens to escalate fighting in southern Lebanon and further polarize Israelis over how to get their troops out of Lebanon.

The Lebanese Shiite Hizbollah, which is fighting to force Israel from a self-declared buffer zone in southern Lebanon, detonated two roadside bombs in the zone on Sunday morning, killing General Erez Gerstein, two Israeli soldiers and an Israeli journalist.

Israel has responded with artillery and airstrikes on Hizbollah strongholds near the buffer zone, south of Beirut and in Syrian-controlled eastern Lebanon. Israel's cabinet said its army is poised to continue the fight.

General Gerstein's death has galvanized Israel because he was the most senior officer to die in southern Lebanon since the country's 1982 invasion of its northern neighbor to evict the Palestine Liberation Organization from Beirut. His death follows that of three Israeli officers earlier last week, bringing to seven the number of Israelis killed in southern Lebanon this year.

Analysts say that both Israel and Lebanon are now bracing for what may be the heaviest fighting in southern Lebanon since Israel's so-called Grapes of Wrath offensive there three years ago. Israel's bombardment of southern Lebanon (Feb. 28) was one its most intense operations since its 1996 offensive which was intended to crush the Hizbollah and left at least 150 people dead, most of them Lebanese civilians.

Paul Wilkinson an expert on the Hizbollah at Saint Andrews University in Edinburgh, Scotland, says that both Israel and the Hizbollah are now locked into an escalating series of strikes and counter-strikes that risks growing into a major confrontation.

"This does look like a major escalation of Israeli military activity and, of course, it is likely to meet with a greater response from the Hizbollah. So, I think there is a real danger of a more serious war developing in southern Lebanon and that carries with it the danger of further escalation, perhaps drawing in Syrian forces if the Syrians came to the conclusion that their own security interests were seriously under threat."

Syria is the main power-broker in Lebanon, Damascus tacitly supports the Hizbollah as a tool to push Israel toward a peace agreement that would get Israel out of both southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967.

The escalation in southern Lebanon comes as Israeli politicians are already campaigning for general elections due May 17. It is likely to exert a strong influence on how voters respond to what is already one of the country's most divisive campaign issues: how to get Israeli soldiers out of southern Lebanon.

The buffer zone, which Israel has patrolled since 1985 along with a client Lebanese militia, is the scene of almost daily skirmishes with the Hizbollah and other Shiite and Palestinian fighters. Last year, such skirmishes cost the lives of 21 Israeli soldiers.

In the face of these casualties, Israeli politicians across the spectrum are proposing varying solutions for escaping the quagmire in southern Lebanon. Some Israeli opposition figures have called for a unilateral and immediate pullout from Lebanon, while others have called for renewed regional peace negotiations with power-broker Syria in order to secure the Lebanese border. So far, however, none of these ideas has made any substantial progress. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strongly opposes any deal with Damascus that would include a significant withdrawal from the Golan, an essential condition for Damascus. Instead, Netanyahu says Israel would be willing to withdraw from southern Lebanon if Beirut provides security guarantees. Both Beirut and Damascus have insisted Israel withdraw unconditionally.

Analysts say any escalation of fighting in southern Lebanon would bring the question of an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon to the forefront of Israel's campaign issues and strengthen the hand of hard-liners. Paul Wilkinson said:

"One of the unknown factors, of course, is how the Right in Israel sees this. It may be that there are people in the leadership in the Right wing who want to take this opportunity of showing a very iron fist in their policy against the opponents in Lebanon and who might wish to build this into a platform for strengthening their claims to be the appropriate people to lead Israel."

Wilkinson also says that, at the same time, the Hizbollah is similarly divided into hard-line and more moderate groups which are working at cross-purposes toward their goal of evicting Israel from Lebanon. He says the attacks in the run-up to Israeli elections are most likely the work of the most extreme groups among the fighters. These extremists want to hit hard at Israel as any opportunity arises, even if it risks derailing the prospects for regional peace negotiations, to achieve their goal of evicting Israeli troops from Lebanon.

The Hizbollah was founded in 1982, with Iranian help, during Israel's invasion of Lebanon. Its most immediate aim is to force Israel militarily from southern Lebanon. Its long-term goal is to turn Lebanon into an Islamic republic along the lines of Iran.