Lebanese Border Skirmishes Seen as West Bank Power Play


By Ofer Shelah

Published November 19, 2004, issue of November 19, 2004.
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TEL AVIV — While Israeli politics went into a holding pattern this week, awaiting leadership changes in the post-Arafat Palestinian Authority — and in post-election Washington — other players in the region were seizing the initiative, beginning with Iran and Hezbollah.

Intelligence sources told the Forward that Hezbollah had initiated a string of recent provocations on Israel’s northern front, after a long period of quiet, as a response to “pressures” being exerted on the Shi’ite militia. These include Western pressure on Iran, its main patron, over its nuclear program, and on Syria, its other patron, over its links to terrorists. Most of all, though, the sources say, Hezbollah and Iran fear the prospect of Palestinians halting terrorism and reaching a deal with Israel.

Hezbollah attacked northern Israel with Katyusha rockets Monday in an apparent attempt to provoke an Israeli retaliation. The rockets came a week after an unmanned drone aircraft launched by Hezbollah successfully penetrated Israeli airspace and flew over Galilee for several minutes without detection, alarming and embarrassing Israel’s defense establishment.

Hezbollah and Iran are feeling threatened by the rise of interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is seeking to end the armed intifada, a senior intelligence source said. A halt to violence would undercut the leverage of Iran and Hezbollah in the territories, where they fund and organize much of the ongoing terrorist activity.

The cumulative pressures, the intelligence source said, led Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah to order the rocket fire, abandoning his longtime adherence to the unwritten rules of engagement that have been in place since Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000. For more than four years Hezbollah has largely refrained from firing rockets on Israel and has mounted attacks only when it could claim it was retaliating to an Israeli provocation.

Some intelligence officials are expressing fears that if Abbas reaches a cease-fire deal with Palestinian factions, Iran might try to provoke extremist Palestinian groups to assassinate Abbas in order to thwart any possibility of an agreement with Israel, which Iran and Hezbollah strongly oppose.

Intelligence officials say the Iranian threat is not connected to the Gaza shootout last Sunday in which two members of Abbas’s entourage were killed. That incident is blamed on a Gaza faction of Fatah, led by Mussa Arafat, which is believed to be seeking greater leverage within an Abbas-led government.

If an attempt is made on Abbas’s life, Israeli officials say it is likely to come from extremist groups close to the Al Aksa Brigades, which are nominally linked to Fatah but have fallen under Hezbollah-Iranian control in the last year.

Hamas, the largest Palestinian Islamic extremist group, declared this week that it opposed Abbas’s call for a cease-fire in attacks on Israel, but it is not expected to move against Abbas himself.

Israel’s military chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon, issued a sharp warning to Lebanon not to allow a repetition of this week’s rocket attacks, which rattled Israelis in Western Galilee but caused no damage. “If they don’t stop this on their own, they’ll pay the price,” Ya’alon told Channel 2 Television.

Ya’alon himself has been under fire in recent weeks, following a series of embarrassing missteps, including the November 3 overflight by the Hezbollah drone and the penetration of an unidentified foreign submarine into Israeli territorial waters three days later. The submarine, identified only as “belonging to a Western nation,” is believed to have approached Israel on a spying mission. Navy officials said it had been under Israeli surveillance from the time it approached Israeli waters, but that did not silence the critics.

Ya’alon is also under fire for a highly publicized spat with one of his most popular field commanders, Brigadier General Shmuel Zakai, the commander of the Gaza Division, who resigned his post and was discharged from the army last week over a seemingly minor incident. Critics say the escalation of the incident into a public feud is a reflection of Ya’alon’s clumsy management style.

The Ya’alon-Zakai feud arose in the aftermath of Operation Days of Penitence, Israel’s three-week incursion in Rafiah in September. After Ha’aretz reported that senior field commanders were questioning their civilian superiors — Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — over the operation’s length and scale, the chief of Southern Command, Major General Dan Harel, ordered an investigation to find out who leaked the story. Suspicion settled on Zakai, Harel’s immediate subordinate, responsible for all Gaza operations, after he acknowledged publicly that he had close relations with several journalists. Harel accused Zakai of leaking the debate, and Zakai – known for his stormy ways both on and off the battlefield – offered his resignation. A meeting between Zakai and Ya’alon turned explosive; Ya’alon asked Zakai if he had anything to say, and Zakai replied defiantly, “You invited me, so I thought you wanted to tell me something.” He was cashiered on the spot.

The firing of the popular brigadier unleashed a flood of criticism in the press and in the ranks. Ya’alon’s final act was the most incendiary of all: When questioned about the affair in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, he said that Zakai had a long history of not telling the truth — as though he, as chief of staff, had not trusted Zakai enough to put him in charge of the main theater of war.

Ya’alon’s anger over the press leak — which Zakai denied — also raised memories of an off-the-record briefing that Ya’alon himself gave to three journalists, almost exactly a year ago, in which he voiced criticisms of government policy under a thin veil of anonymity. Ya’alon’s complaint last year was that the government helped bring about the downfall of Abbas during his first stint as Palestinian prime minister by failing to offer him gestures that he could hold up to his followers as achievements.

This week, perhaps chastened by last year’s stumble, Sharon and his aides were looking for ways to ease Abbas’s path without offering him a bear hug that could discredit him among Palestinians. Sharon told a Likud mayors’ meeting that he might consider coordinating his Gaza withdrawal with the new Palestinian leadership.

Moreover, defense officials said the army had given Palestinian security forces broad leeway to oversee Arafat’s funeral without visible Israeli interference. Ya’alon, however, announced this week that the free hand was only in force during the initial mourning period. Now that it’s over, he said, it’s back to the old rules.

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