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Sunday, August 06, 2006

Nasrallah goes ballistic


As the UN Security Council edges agonisingly slowly towards approving a resolution to stop the war in Lebanon and Israel, the leader of Hizbullah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has issued a threat to take the conflict into new and more dangerous territory through launching missiles at Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial capital. Mr Nasrallah emphasised that he would only resort to such a measure--likely to involve unleashing as yet unused Zelzal missiles--were Israel to bomb central Beirut, as opposed to the southern suburbs where most of Hizbullah's offices are located. He also offered to cease firing missiles altogether if Israel stopped its air strikes against Lebanon. However, the mere mention of Tel Aviv as a possible target has highlighted the very real risk of the conflict spreading: Israel may be sorely tempted to respond to such a move by carrying the fight to Hizbullah's backers in Syria and Iran.


Mr Nasrallah's statement was consistent with earlier references to his organisation's capability to strike "beyond Haifa and beyond beyond Haifa" and of the existence of further "surprises" in store for Israel. It is unclear whether his warning regarding any Israeli strike in central Beirut was meant to establish a red line, denoting that Hizbullah is in a position to dictate terms in the conflict, or whether he had some indication that Israel may be planning to attack specific targets in or near the city centre. With most of Hizbullah's facilities in the southern suburbs already flattened, the organisation may have shifted some of its key operations into Beirut proper, including perhaps the Iranian embassy, according to some accounts.

If Mr Nasrallah's threat is aimed primarily for political effect, rather than being a statement of military intent, it is likely to have been framed with the imminent UN call for a ceasefire in mind. Hizbullah has made clear that it has no intention of stopping military operations until all Israeli forces are out of Lebanese territory, but a halt to its rocket attacks in response to or in advance of a UN resolution would establish the party's credentials as an essential party to any negotiations, while the declaration that it could hit Tel Aviv if provoked by Israel would enable it to maintain that it is approaching such negotiations from a position of strength.

Alternatively, a Hizbullah strike on Tel Aviv could serve the purpose of derailing the current efforts to impose a ceasefire and drawing Israel further into a war in which solid military gains have been hard to come by.


Israel response to the prospect of a ceasefire has been to seek to complete the job of inhibiting any resupply of Hizbullah by land, sea or air. This has entailed maintaining a blockade on Lebanese ports, rendering the country's airports unusable and destroying all road connections between Lebanon to Syria. On August 4th, this operation included the destruction of a bridge on the main highway leading north out of Beirut in an area almost exclusively inhabited by Christians. Some 30 farm workers were also killed in an Israeli raid on a packing plant in northern Lebanon, near the border with Syria. The message from Israel appears to be that it aims to stop the movement of any goods within Lebanon, and particularly near its borders, to guard against the possibility that these may include supplies for Hizbullah. The net effect has been to cripple efforts to deliver humanitarian aid to the estimated 1m displaced people in the country.

Diplomatic wheels

The August 3rd agreement between the US and France on a two-stage approach to tackling the crisis at the UN Security Council offers the prospect of a ceasefire in due course, but there evidently remain some disagreements over the wording of the text of the proposed first resolution, calling for a ceasefire and laying the basis for a political agreement--the second resolution would have the purpose of setting up an international peacekeeping force. One of the critical elements of a ceasefire resolution will be whether it will require Israel to relinquish positions that it has occupied in South Lebanon and to cease all flights over Lebanon, even for reconnaissance. The French draft that have been circulated call for full respect of the "Blue Line" (the border established after the 1949 armistice between the two countries), which clearly implies that Israel should withdraw, something that the US is likely to resist. The resolution is also expected to reiterate calls for Hizbullah to disarm. The organisation has implicitly approved this demand by lending its backing to the seven-point plan drawn up by the prime minister, Fouad Siniora. However, it remains doubtful whether it has any intention of living up to this pledge.

As the discussions go on at the Security Council, Israel is continuing its quest for a knockout blow against Hizbullah, despite the accumulating evidence that this will be hard, if not impossible, to achieve. Hizbullah in the meantime has secured considerable political advantages, at a huge cost to Lebanon's economic and social fabric, but has yet to spell out what it intends to do with them.

Source: ViewsWire Middle East
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