Dangerous Brinksmanship Heats Up the Levant ; US-Syria Tensions, Aggressive Israeli Jets, and Hizbullah Artillery Are Challenging Diplomats

Article excerpt

Diplomatic efforts are under way to cap the worst violence along the Lebanese-Israeli border in more than a year.

A recent escalation between Lebanon's Hizbullah organization and Israel left one Israeli civilian dead and a Hizbullah antiaircraft gun destroyed in an air strike.

Diplomats and United Nations peacekeepers in south Lebanon fear fighting might soon resume unless a diplomatic solution is reached that will end the dangerous brinkmanship between Hizbullah and the Israeli military.

But Israel's staging of mass overflights by military jets in Lebanese airspace Wednesday has dampened hopes of an imminent breakthrough. The overflights are fueling suspicion that Israel is seeking to goad the Islamic party into an open conflict. Many Lebanese also suspect Israeli involvement in the recent assassination of a senior Hizbullah military commander in Beirut.

"I think the Israelis are setting up Hizbullah and Syria. They are trying to provoke a reaction by Hizbullah against Israel which can then be used to mobilize American support to pressure Syria to disarm Hizbullah," says Michael Young, a Lebanese political commentator.

The escalation began last Friday with an assault by Hizbullah fighters against Israeli Army outposts in the Shebaa Farms, a 15- square mile mountainous area running along Lebanon's southeast border with the Golan Heights. The attack shattered a seven-month lull. A day later, two Israeli residents of Kiryat Shemona in northern Galilee were treated for shock when anti- aircraft rounds fired by Hizbullah damaged buildings in the town.

Cross-border shelling

Hizbullah routinely fires antiaircraft shells across the border in a tit-for-tat retaliation to the almost daily violations of Lebanese airspace by Israeli jets. The rounds from Hizbullah's vintage 57mm cannons explode thousands of feet above Israeli border towns, spattering whatever lies below with light shrapnel.

Several Israeli civilians have been wounded by falling shrapnel and the UN had warned that it was only a matter of time before someone was killed. Sunday, the UN's worst fears were confirmed when a 16-year-old Israeli died and three other civilians were wounded after three antiaircraft rounds exploded in the western Galilee border town of Shelomi. Israel retaliated four hours later by bombing the antiaircraft battery that carried out the fatal shooting. In the early hours of Monday morning, an Israeli jet flew a low-level supersonic run over Beirut. The thunderclap of the sonic boom rattled windows, set off car alarms, and brought sleepy Beirutis out onto balconies to scan the inky night sky for the invisible planes, which continued to rumble over the city for another hour.

"If the Israelis are afraid of these antiaircraft shells, their leaders should stop their planes from crossing Lebanese skies," says Hassan Ezzieddine, a member of Hizbullah's politburo.

But Israel insists that the overflights are necessary for reconnaissance purposes, and that Hizbullah's antiaircraft fire is an unprovoked aggression. …

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