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April 19, 2001

Showing Strength

Seeking to restore deterrence, Israel accepts risk of escalation.

http://www.jewishjournal.com/world/article/showing_strength_20010420

Israeli cannons fire at villages facing the disputed Shebaa Farms in south Lebanon. Israel bombed in retaliation to an attack by Hezbollah in the Shebaa Farms region. AFP photo

Israeli cannons fire at villages facing the disputed Shebaa Farms in south Lebanon. Israel bombed in retaliation to an attack by Hezbollah in the Shebaa Farms region. AFP photo

For those worried about the credibility of Israeli deterrence, the Israel Defense Force this week delivered an unmistakable message to Syria that it is willing to fight.

For those worried that military strength alone may not hold the answer to Israel's problems, however, the week of escalation did nothing to allay their fears.

Many people belong to both groups -- because on the tactical level, at least, there is no contradiction between them.

Escalation involves heightened risks, and the great majority of Israelis and Israel's supporters abroad were united this week in support of the government's deliberate decision to take these risks.

The second group, however, questions whether there is an overall strategy behind the tactics that can restore the hope of reaching a negotiated peace.

Israel's aerial attack on a Syrian radar installation deep inside Lebanon on Monday, in response to the killing of an Israeli soldier over the weekend, was a careful and deliberate upping of the ante -- a new "price list" for Arab attacks on Israel, in the words of Sharon spokesman Ra'anan Gissin.

"There are new rules now," Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer agreed, indicating that Israel would hold Syria directly responsible for Hezbollah attacks.

The action came after Hezbollah fired anti-tank missiles across Lebanon's border with Israel on Saturday, killing a soldier.

The incident took place at Har Dov, a rugged section of the Israel-Lebanon border near Shabaa Farms, an area that Hezbollah claims is Lebanese land still occupied by Israel.

Israel -- backed by the United Nations -- says the area is part of the Golan Heights that Israel conquered in 1967 from Syria and whose fate should be determined in Syrian-Israeli negotiations.

Indeed, after Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon last May, the United Nations confirmed that Israel no longer had troops on Lebanese soil, forcing Israel to make even small redeployments of several feet in some places to conform rigorously to the international border.

This week, the U.N.'s Middle East envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, reiterated that Hezbollah's claim flies in the face of earlier U.N. decisions.

The United States adopted a similar stance Monday, calling Hezbollah's cross-border attack "clear provocation designed to escalate an already-tense situation."

Just the same, Israel's decision to punish Syria for the incident represents a shift.

Then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak warned after last May's withdrawal that Israel would hold the Syrian and Lebanese governments responsible for any further Hezbollah attacks.

In practice, however, a series of Hezbollah kidnappings, shootings and bombings of Israeli soldiers went unanswered until this week.

Israel's Security Cabinet decided, by a vote of 11-2, to hit Syrian military targets rather than Hezbollah, which locates its bases inside civilian areas in southern Lebanon.

Following the Israeli attack, Syria vowed revenge "at the appropriate time," and put its 35,000 troops in Lebanon on high alert.

Israel, in turn, made it clear that it did not seek further escalation but is prepared to face a challenge from Syria if its still-green president, Bashar Assad, so decides.

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