The Mideast Erupts

Friday, July 14, 2006

WHEN ISRAEL withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon in 2000 after more than two decades of occupation, it also issued a warning: Any cross-border provocations by Hezbollah, the militant Shiite group, would elicit a severe military response. So there can be no surprise at the violent reaction to Hezbollah's ambush of an Israeli patrol Wednesday, in which three soldiers were killed and two others taken captive by the guerrillas. And there can be no doubt that Iran and Syria, Hezbollah's chief sponsors, bear responsibility for what has instantly become the most far-reaching, lethal and dangerous eruption of cross-border fighting in the Middle East in recent years.

Europeans and others in the international community are already criticizing as excessive Israel's swift military response. Conspicuously they have said comparatively little about the volleys of dozens of rockets Hezbollah rained down on northern Israel yesterday. In fact, given the all-too-familiar patterns of violence and retribution in the Middle East, the Israeli attacks are entirely predictable, and precisely what Hezbollah and its patrons must have expected and even wanted. But for Israel, the pressing question must be whether its reprisals will be effective in achieving the desired results -- retrieving the soldiers taken hostage and reasserting Israeli deterrence in the north.

Following the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Hamas guerrillas in the Gaza Strip and the resulting Israeli incursions into Gaza, the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert now faces hostilities on two fronts. In Gaza, Israel has shown that it can assert military power, decapitate the Hamas-led government and halt normal life for 1 million Palestinians; however, none of that has forced Hamas to return its hostage.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah offers few conventional military targets; its offices, training camps and safe houses are hidden from view. So the Israelis have opted to inflict general pain on their northern neighbor, destroying bridges, blockading ports, cratering runways at its brand-new international airport -- and, now, threatening to attack Beirut itself. The idea may be to intensify popular Lebanese opposition to Hezbollah, which forms part of Lebanon's governing coalition and controls cabinet seats. That has apparently worked; many Lebanese, including but not only Christians, are furious at Hezbollah for exercising what amounts to a unilateral foreign policy.

But even if Hezbollah is punished politically at home for its wild irresponsibility, the underlying problem -- its benefactors in Iran and Syria -- remains. That's where American and allied diplomacy and influence should be focused. Tehran should be called to account in the U.N. Security Council not only for its program to enrich uranium but also for its support of Hezbollah. Damascus, which hosts Hezbollah and Hamas, should also come under renewed international pressure, including sanctions. In all the diplomacy, the false lure of "evenhandedness" must not be allowed to obscure the fact that Hezbollah and its backers have instigated the current fighting and should be held responsible for the consequences.


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