“The nerves are on edge”

In less than three weeks, the clock has been turned back 20 years in the middle east: israeli soldiers are back in gaza and lebanon – likely to stay there longer

In the past two days, the israeli air force has bombed positions and training camps of the lebanese militant resistance movement hezbollah all over lebanon, but also a district of beirut that is considered a hezbollah stronghold, the airport of the lebanese capital, which is now closed, bridges, the access roads to the south of the country and the port of lebanon. At least 60 people were killed. Meanwhile, the israeli navy set up a naval blockade.

According to military spokesmen, this is to prevent the two soldiers who were abducted on wednesday from being taken out of the country, possibly to iran. On the other hand, the aim is to cut off hezbollah’s supplies. Organization fighters, meanwhile, fired katyusha rockets, whose range is becoming increasingly coarse: they struck for the first time in the center of the rough city of haifa, and in the small town of naharija, 20 kilometers from the lebanese border, killing a 40-year-old woman thursday morning.

Meanwhile, in the gaza strip, "operation summer rain" continues unabated: friday night, attack helicopters fired missiles at the palestinian ministry of defense building, which was heavily damaged. Once again, targets of the radical islamic hamas and islamic jihad were also attacked. Palestinian fighters again fired qassam rockets at the israeli town of sderot. How long the operations will continue, no one can say at the moment: that, defense minister amir peretz said friday at noon, depends on how long public opinion in israel will go along, and also on what steps the lebanese government will take now.

At noon on friday, the atmosphere in northern israel was tense to the breaking point: otherwise notoriously peaceful people reacted irritably to every little thing. Residents of towns and villages near the lebanese border were repeatedly alerted by sirens to seek shelter in their houses and apartments. "The nerves here are on edge," said ehud goldman, an employee of the municipality of naharija, an actually quite idyllic little coastal town 20 kilometers from the border. "At the moment, nothing is going on here: we can’t get to work, we can’t get to sleep, there’s no relaxation – i don’t know how long this is going to go on for."

A sentence that is often heard in the north of the country at the moment. Like, for example, the 32-year-old avivit ma’oz, who on thursday morning stood shaken behind a police barrier and watched as sanitarians and security guards searched the trunks of a building: a few hours earlier, a katyusha rocket fired from sud lebanon had hit the building. A 40-year-old woman had died; the sound of the detonation had been heard throughout the city and had given even hardened minds the feeling that it could have hit anyone.

It was the first time that one of the katyusha missiles, a surface-to-surface missile originally developed in the soviet union but now mostly modified, crossed a distance of more than 20 kilometers, but not the only time that one of them was fired at northern israel. While all eyes turned to the rocket fire on neighboring towns and communities after the evacuation of israeli settlements in the gaza strip, the residents of northern israel suffered silently for months under the ever-widening katyushas fired by hezbollah fighters at galilaa: "we have been asking the government to help us for months – but we haven’t even received an answer," said ma’oz: "this is no life: when the troops left lebanon in october 2000, we all believed that we would finally have peace, after all, even the united nations stated that the withdrawal was complete. In fact, it had been quiet for a while – and then suddenly one after the other came again and made life here holle."

In recent days, the israeli media have repeatedly commented that the withdrawal from lebanon and the gaza strip was a mistake that had to be corrected. Only the otherwise fairly conservative newspaper ma’ariv loved to hear soldiers recount their horrific experiences during their lebanon deployments in the 1990s, and followed it up with a commentary warning against a repeat of the lebanon adventure:

It is a mistake to think that the war in lebanon has ensured security in the north. It has put hezbollah on the map and given it a reason to attack the people of israel more ferociously than the plo had ever done before. Moreover, the lebanon war created wounds in our country that have not healed completely to this day. There must be other ways to resolve the problem, and one is to strip hezbollah of its legitimacy and hand over the sheba’a farms to whoever wants them most.

Point of contention: the sheba’a farms

The sheba’a farms are an approximately 14 by 2.5 kilometer area of very fertile land in the israel-lebanon-syria tri-border area. In the 1967 six-day war, israel conquered the land from syria. Hezbollah nevertheless maintains that it is part of lebanon and that the israeli withdrawal is therefore not complete. "It is a decidedly complicated ie," says a united nations spokesman in new york. "We were asked after the israeli withdrawal to determine the exact course of the border on 14.May 1978, the day when the first israeli offensive in sudlibanon began. However, the border between lebanon and syria has not been clearly established to this day because syria does not recognize the independence of the neighboring country. It is quite possible that syrian troops were operating on lebanese territory at the time and lebanese officials were performing civilian functions on syrian territory," the un spokesman explained.

Thus, during the border demarcation process, the lebanese government had presented ownership titles of landowners in the area of the sheba’a farms bearing lebanese stamps to emphasize lebanon’s claim. "However, because of the situation described, this was not conclusive evidence," the spokesman said. "Therefore, our staff looked at more than 90 pre-1978 maps, all of which showed the sheba’a farms as part of syria – except for one from 1966.An examination of this map showed that it was a recent hoax, and not even a very good one: "it was probably a matter of creating that one little spark of doubt that would give certain forces the legitimacy to continue their armed struggle". From whom exactly it came, is unknown until today."

Thus, israel and most of the rest of the world consider the sheba’a farms to be part of syria, which itself, however, is ambiguous: after damascus had claimed the sheba’a farms for years, government officials declared several times in recent months that the area was lebanese. Members of the israeli government had indicated that jerusalem could be ready to withdraw in this case. But an official cession of the syrian claim to ownership to the lebanese in the form of an exchange of letters between damascus and beirut, as demanded by the united nations, has so far failed to materialize – for good reason, as employees of the un and the american and israeli governments believe: "syria has no interest whatsoever in providing clarity," says amos weisz, lebanon expert at the public israeli television station kanal 2:

The country does not recognize lebanon to this day and has occupied lebanon for a long time. After the assassination of the former lebanese prime minister rafik hariri and the following mass demonstrations damascus had to withdraw its troops, however. Syria’s only remaining power base is hezbollah: the lebanese government did not dare send troops to the south after the israeli withdrawal, so as not to jeopardize the fragile balance of power in lebanon, which has been ravaged by years of civil war, so the organization can do as it pleases there.

But with the increasing stabilization of the cedar state and the growing national consciousness, the call for disarming hezbollah (palestinian refugees in lebanon in a tight spot), but also the palestinian militias, who continue to say what’s what inside and outside the refugee camps without hindrance, has become louder and louder in the public arena. Weisz:

Then, as hamas also kidnapped an israeli soldier and the army re-entered gaza, and prere mounted on the syrian president to put prere on hamas chief khaled mashaal, who lives in damascus, the time came for hezbollah to bring the situation in northern israel into the light of day with a large-scale operation. The strategy of spreading fear and terror through random and relatively untargeted rocket attacks has given way to a deliberate escalation in which the israeli reaction was predictable.

Amos weisz

For in this way, not only is attention diverted from damascus, but beirut is also weakened and israel’s military deployment is costly and exhausting.

Nevertheless, israel’s government and general staff are convinced of the necessity of the offensive: "we have watched long enough," says a defense ministry official in tel aviv: "the danger to our citizens has reached a level that can no longer be controlled by restraint."He does not believe that handing over the sheba’a farms will make any difference: "a year ago i was convinced that the only thing that mattered was this. But we have seen in recent weeks that the stakes are quite different. We must by no means underestimate the syrian government’s interest in a strong hezbollah."

Many observers agree with him: "by linking the kidnapping in the north with the kidnapping of the soldier in the gaza strip, hezbollah has sent a signal that it is changing its self-definition, away from the lebanese liberation struggle to a pro-palestinian cause," says avi leitner of the channel 1 television station. And gabriel ochajon of the state broadcaster adds: "they will probably always find something to legitimize themselves."

Defense minister amir peretz said at midday friday that israel’s involvement in lebanon could not be short-lived: "we will stay as long as the public backs us, and as long as the lebanese government does nothing to bring order to their country."

Meanwhile, in northern israel, those who could packed their bags, got into cars, buses or trains and headed for the south – including avivit ma’oz and her family: "i’m fed up," she said at midday thursday, as she heaved a heavy bag into the back of her suitcase. When they will come back? "No idea. It’s been no life here for a long time."

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