On March 30, Hizballah attacked several Israeli army outposts in the Shebaa Farms, a disputed strip of mountainous territory running along Lebanon’s southeast border with the Golan Heights, in the first such attack since mid-January. Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah, Hizballah’s secretary-general, reportedly authorized preparations for stepped-up operations in the Shebaa Farms before holding a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, who wields extensive influence in Lebanon. A day after the meeting, Hizballah began firing upon Israeli outposts in the farms on an almost daily basis.
The immediate context of the Hizballah operations was Israel’s massive offensive against the Palestinians in the West Bank beginning on March 29. With Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat besieged in his Ramallah offices and Israeli troops advancing into towns and villages in the West Bank, a storm of protest engulfed the Arab world. Hizballah’s leadership felt it could not remain silent if it was to continue fulfilling its role of support for the Palestinian intifada.
While a symbolic gesture of support was expected from Hizballah, the unfolding events of the next few days caught most people by surprise. On March 31, unidentified gunmen attacked an Israeli border outpost opposite the Lebanese village of Ramieh. Two days later, two short-range Katyusha rockets hit a field in northern Galilee. These were the first attacks from Lebanon against targets on Israeli soil since May 2000, when Israel withdrew from an occupied border zone in south Lebanon to behind the Blue Line, the UN-delineated boundary between Lebanon and Israel and the Golan Heights.
The initial stages of the escalation appeared to be carefully calibrated, testing Israel’s restraint a little further with each passing day. While Hizballah limited its operations to the Shebaa Farms theater, Syria appears to have given a green light to Palestinian groups based in Lebanon to stage attacks across the Blue Line into Israel itself, sparking international anxieties about a second front in the Middle East conflict.
The Lebanese government and Syria argue that the Shebaa Farms belong to Lebanon, and that Hizballah is simply resisting Israel’s occupation of the district. The UN, however, has decreed that the farms are Syrian territory, so that Hizballah’s attacks in the farms are breaches of the Blue Line.
Senior Hizballah commanders and veteran fighters were drafted to the Shebaa Farms front to oversee and conduct the April attacks. The village of Kafr Shouba, which lies in close proximity to the Blue Line and several Israeli military outposts, became a base for the fighters. Around one-third of the village’s residents departed their homes to escape Israel’s retaliatory air strikes and artillery bombardments.
After two weeks of clashes, UNIFIL—the UN observer force along the Blue Line—estimated that Hizballah had fired 1,160 mortar rounds, 205 anti-tank missiles and Katyusha rockets as well as several SAM-7 anti-aircraft missiles, the first recorded use of AA missiles for several years. Hizballah’s actions peaked on April 10, when all six Israeli outposts in the Shebaa Farms came under what UNIFIL said was probably the heaviest artillery barrage by the party since 1992. At least 400 mortar rounds were fired along with 25 anti-tank missiles and six Katyusha rockets. The barrage provided cover for a squad of Hizballah fighters to reach the ramparts of an Israeli outpost and plant a party flag—the first such feat in the 18-month Shebaa Farms campaign. The London-based Foreign Report estimated that the April 10 bombardment cost $800,000. It added that some of the mortar rounds used were “bunker busters,” equipped with delayed-action fuses designed to penetrate the thick reinforced concrete roofs of the Israeli outposts before exploding. UNIFIL said it was the first time that Hizballah had employed such ammunition.
Rules of the Game
From the Syrian and Lebanese point of view, the April escalation hinged on Israel’s reluctance to open a second front along its northern border with Lebanon at a time when it was embroiled in the offensive against the Palestinians in the West Bank. Israel believes that a massive retaliation—possibly involving air strikes against Lebanese infrastructure, Syrian military positions in Lebanon and even targets in Syria—risks a rocket bombardment of northern Israel by Hizballah.
Hizballah has installed a well-developed and coordinated military infrastructure along the length of the 67-mile border from the coast to the foothills of Mount Hermon. Fighters man some 25 observation posts along the Blue Line, conducting 24-hour surveillance of Israeli troop movements on the other side of the fence. An extensive arsenal was stockpiled in south Lebanon between May 2000 and December 2001, according to sources closely connected to Hizballah in south Lebanon. Training of fighters continues in remote parts of the Bekaa Valley, and one wadi system close to the border with Israel has become a weapons testing ground and training camp, off limits to the general public. Even UNIFIL’s helicopters avoid flying over the wadi.
Previous duels between Hizballah and Israeli forces since May 2000 have followed a pattern of attacks in the Shebaa Farms and limited Israeli counter-attacks on Hizballah and Syrian positions. By countenancing the attacks across the Blue Line outside the Shebaa Farms, Syria apparently bent the rules of the game.
Diplomats and analysts believe that this escalation was Syria’s way of demonstrating its continued influence over Middle East stability. Syria has long believed that peace negotiations between the Arabs and Israel should be conducted simultaneously. Syria’s primary concern in negotiations with Israel is to recover the Golan Heights, a strategic volcanic plateau captured by Israeli troops in 1967 and illegally annexed by Israel in 1981. But with Israel having concluded separate peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and with the Palestinian track taking center stage, Syria fears being left behind. If Israel and the Palestinians come to a settlement, there is little incentive for the Israelis to offer a deal favorable to Syria, especially with the rest of the Arab world probably willing to cement diplomatic and commercial relations with Tel Aviv. “An Israeli-Palestinian settlement means Syria is last,” said Michael Young, a Beirut-based analyst. “The closer a settlement comes between Israel and the Palestinians, the more Syria will push the border” between Lebanon and Israel, he added.
The timing of the border escalation was also connected to the peace initiative proposed by Crown Prince Abdallah of Saudi Arabia and adopted at the Arab summit in Beirut at the end of March. In essence, the proposal offered Israel full normalization with the Arab world in exchange for a full withdrawal from all territory occupied by Israel since 1967. Syria has consistently refused to discuss normalizing ties before receiving a guarantee that Israel would completely withdraw from the Golan Heights. Promising Israel normalization first might cost Syria its bargaining card in future negotiations. Though in the end Syria endorsed the proposal, along with 21 other Arab League member states, rockets began flying over the border two days later. “Syria was on the one hand offering Israel normalization, but at the same time saying ‘don’t take this too seriously, we’re still at war with you,'” Young said.
In keeping with its position on the Shebaa Farms, the Lebanese government “authorized” Hizballah operations in the Shebaa Farms. Meanwhile, “unauthorized” attacks across the border into Israel soon escalated from short-range Katyusha rockets striking empty fields in northern Galilee to what appeared to be coordinated, simultaneous machine gun and missile attacks against Israeli border positions in the Israeli kibbutzes of Avivim and Manara. Four female soldiers were wounded when the Avivim outpost was struck by anti-tank missiles. Elsewhere, unknown gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades at an Israeli army post in Ghajar, a Syrian village at the foot of the Shebaa Farms—outside Hizballah’s area of operations. Five children were wounded when two of the grenades struck a neighboring house.
The Lebanese government refuses to deploy troops in strength along the Blue Line, arguing that it does not wish to serve as a border guard for Israel. But the Lebanese authorities are genuinely concerned that Palestinians might stage repeated “unauthorized” attacks across the border, possibly inviting massive Israeli retaliation. In August 2000 Beirut dispatched to the border district a 1,000-man Joint Security Force (JSF) comprising paramilitary police and soldiers. The JSF stepped up its presence on the main roads as the cross-border attacks increased. Several armed Palestinians, some equipped with rockets, were arrested. But initially the security measures failed to prevent the attacks into Israel from continuing.
Many Lebanese reacted to the escalation along the southern border with dread. While the plight of the Palestinians in the West Bank received widespread sympathy across Lebanon’s fractious sectarian divide, few Lebanese support “opening” a southern front with Israel. The most vocal opposition to the attacks came from Christian leaders, who view Hizballah’s monopoly over south Lebanon with suspicion. “What is the benefit to Lebanon of being the only open front? This could call for Israeli retaliation on a country that is already exhausted,” said Boutros Harb, a prominent Christian Maronite MP. Jubran Tuwayni, editor of the leading an-Nahar newspaper and a leading critic of Syria’s hegemony in Lebanon, scoffed at the government’s claims to be cracking down on cross-border attacks. “What kind of a joke is this?” he asked a student audience in Beirut. Whenever it wants, Lebanese intelligence can get anyone from the remotest area and can tell the color of his underwear. But now, Lebanese intelligence can’t tell us who is firing mortars and Katyushas across the borders?”
As the escalation entered its second week, there were indications that it was spinning out of control, perhaps beyond the expectations of Syria and Lebanon. The first few unclaimed attacks into Israel were relatively harmless. But by April 10, Israeli soldiers had been wounded, the Avivim and Manara assaults had imperiled Israeli civilians, and Katyusha rockets had struck a populated area in northern Galilee, damaging a house.
It became impossible to guarantee that the Israelis would not respond forcefully. According to Zeev Schiff of Israel’s Haaretz daily, Israeli ministers attending a security cabinet meeting on April 10, at the height of the escalation, voted by a majority of one to respond with forceful military action. But Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had voted in favor of heavy retaliation, decided that a one-vote majority was insufficient to launch reprisals that risked developing into a war with Syria.
A diplomat in Beirut said that the Syrian green light swiftly changed to red when it became apparent that “unruly Palestinian elements” threatened to upset the controlled escalation. The JSF’s initially half-hearted security measures picked up steam as of April 12. Checkpoints proliferated to search cars and plainclothes intelligence personnel kept watch on remote sections of the border fence. More than 50 Palestinians and Syrian laborers were arrested, mainly for not possessing the required permit to work in the border area. But some Palestinians were caught redhanded with Katyusha rockets. The affiliation of the detained Palestinians was unclear. Six of them were identified as members of the Damascus-based, hard-line Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. The PFLP-GC spokesman in Beirut denied that the arrested fighters were members of the group, however. A senior Lebanese Army officer said they were “disorganized individuals.” Another arrested group of three Palestinians were apparently members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Esbat al-Ansar, a small, radical Islamist faction which has been linked to the al-Qaeda network of Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden and is based in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp outside Sidon.
Calls for Restraint
Mounting tension along the border led international actors to call for calm and relay Israeli warnings to Beirut and Damascus. On April 9, Farouq Qaddumi, head of the Political Department of the Palestine Liberation Organization, gave a message from Arafat to Lebanese President Emile Lahoud: the escalation was diverting attention from the crisis in the West Bank. Two days later, Iran’s foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi paid a sudden visit to Beirut and delivered a stunning call for restraint in south Lebanon, reportedly at the behest of Russia.
Kharrazi tempered his bombshell by adding that “the Lebanese resistance [Hizballah] is considered a legitimate right for Lebanon.” Nonetheless, Kharrazi’s comments provoked a storm of controversy in Iran, reflecting the struggle between the reformists led by President Mohammad Khatami and the hard-liners, headed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The hard-line newspaper, Jomhuri-ye Eslami, accused Kharrazi of acting on behalf of the “American and Zionist regimes” by calling for a cessation of cross-border attacks.
Following Kharrazi’s comments in Beirut, Hizballah staged just one more attack in the Shebaa Farms. There were no more “unauthorized” attacks into Israel following an early morning Katyusha barrage on April 10. Indeed, by the time Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Lebanon and Syria on April 15, the escalation had ended. Perhaps because Beirut and Damascus had not been included on Powell’s initial itinerary, the Israeli and US media attributed the cessation of hostilities to Powell’s intervention. But the reality was that the clashes and attacks had already ground to a halt before Powell arrived. Indeed, Powell’s last-minute decision to fly to Beirut and Damascus in some ways vindicated the decision to heat up the border, demonstrating to Syria that its signal had been noticed.
Off Again, On Again?
The steadily worsening violence of the intifada has granted Hizballah continued relevance as a military force and, the party’s leadership proclaims, helped bring closer to realization key ideological goals of liberating Jerusalem and eradicating the Jewish state. Hizballah sources admit frankly that the party believes a renewed conflict with Israel is inevitable at some point. Certainly, Hizballah’s preparations in the border district suggest that the party is not content merely to pose a psychological threat to Israel. But Hizballah does not operate in a vacuum. Not only is it constrained by domestic considerations, such as the interests of its Shia Muslim constituency, it is forced to maneuver within the parameters set out by Syria.
Analysts in Beirut believe that although Syria does not want a war with Israel, it was prepared for a possible Israeli backlash to cross-border attacks. Several thousand Syrian troops were redeployed at the beginning of April from Lebanon’s coastal mountain range to positions in the Bekaa Valley, running along Syria’s western border. It was an odd defensive redeployment. Regrouped in the Bekaa, the troops provide a clear target to Israeli warplanes. There were reports that some of the estimated one million Syrian workers in Lebanon were instructed to return home, although it is unclear how many heeded the call. Furthermore, Syrian-backed Palestinian groups in Lebanon, such as the PFLP-GC, were ordered to mobilize and recruit new fighters in preparation for a possible outbreak of hostilities. The mobilization in fact spread to all Palestinian factions in Lebanon.
Some diplomats warn that the recent two-week escalation has let the Palestinian “genie” out of the bottle. Some 375,000 Palestinians live in Lebanon—most of them in squalid refugee camps outside the country’s main cities. Most Palestinian factions follow the cues of either Damascus or Arafat. But pent-up Palestinian anger was tapped when the nod was given to escalate cross-border operations. “The unruly elements are still very much around and are the most dangerous group,” said a diplomat in Beirut with close Palestinian connections. While the reinvigorated JSF security measures lessen the chances of further attacks, “it only takes one successful attack to light the fire.”
On April 17, four days after the last Hizballah attack in the Shebaa Farms and a week after the last recorded “unauthorized” attack into Israel, an exchange of gunfire was reported along the Blue Line between unidentified fighters and an Israeli army patrol. A day later, two short-range Katyusha rockets were launched toward Israel. Both rockets exploded short of the border.
The prospect of further attacks along the Lebanon-Israel border, whether by Hizballah or other actors, is expected to mirror the level of violence between Israel and the Palestinians. With Sharon’s offensive apparently winding down, fears of a second front have abated. But with the failure of the Powell “peace mission,” some observers believe the Lebanon-Israel border will heat up again sooner rather than later.