BEIRUT, Lebanon, July 13 (UPI) -- Would Israel be able to change the rules of game in Lebanon that have been in place since it withdrew its forces from the country in May 2000, ending 22 years of occupation?
Israel has launched a new military offensive called "Just Reward" against Lebanon with the purpose -- as it initially declared - of securing the release of two of its soldiers snatched by Hezbollah guerrillas on the border early Wednesday.
Again, Israel's real intentions were quickly revealed: to push Hezbollah militants away from its border and force the deployment of Lebanese Army forces on the Lebanese-Israeli frontier.
Dealing painful blows to Lebanon and its already ailing economy, Israel sent its warplanes and warships to bombard hundreds of targets across Lebanon: houses, bridges, airports, schools and Hezbollah TV broadcast units. Some 48 people, including children and many members of at least two families, were killed and more than 100 others wounded.
The Israeli bombing that was limited to areas in south Lebanon soon spread to reach Beirut's international airport, recently renamed after the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri who was killed in a massive bomb explosion that hit his convoy in Beirut on February 14, 2005.
Three air strikes and the few missiles that hit the airport's two tarmacs were enough to demonstrate how far Israelis, who claimed that the airport was "a central hub for the transfer of weapons and supplies" to Hezbollah, might go in their offensive. The attacks also prompted thousands of tourists, especially from the Gulf region, to pack up and find a way to return home. The safest route, at least for the time being, was the one leading to Damascus in neighboring Syria.
Two military airports in eastern and northern Lebanon were also hit by Israeli jets in a clear move to prevent the usage of those airports as alternatives to Beirut airport. Israel announced that it will maintain a sea and naval blockade on Lebanon to force the Beirut government to take control of the southern region where Hezbollah guerrillas are positioned.
By destroying nearly 20 bridges in south Lebanon, access to and from Beirut becomes extremely difficult. The road linking Beirut to the Syrian border is also threatened by a similar fate. A Syrian security source at the Lebanese-Syrian border, however, told United Press International that "no one would dare such an escalation."
But there are fears that the Israeli attacks and Hezbollah counter-bombardment on northern Israel, during which the Shiite group used for the first time a new and more sophisticated kind of rocket called "Raad-One," would escalate into a regional war. The situation in the Palestinian territories is already explosive, while tension marks the relations of Syria and Iran -- both supporters of Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas movement -- vis-a-vis the United States.
The Lebanese government, which was quick in distancing itself from Hezbollah's Wednesday action, Thursday called for a comprehensive cease-fire and total cessation of Israeli hostilities.
Israel, for its part, made clear that its military campaign against Lebanon will not stop until the Lebanese army is deployed along the international border and takes control of security on the Lebanese side of the frontier.
Lebanon has been pressed to deploy its army along its border with Israel since Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in May 2000. But Israel's failure to relinquish the disputed border area of Shabaa Farms when it pulled out its troops have kept Hezbollah armed and poised to resist.
Israel and Hezbollah are once more face to face and showing intensified aggression and resolve.
Sooner or later, guns will fall silent and both parties will have to negotiate indirectly to discuss the fate of the two Hezbollah-held Israeli soldiers and the roughly 10,000 Lebanese, Palestinian and Arab prisoners that have been held in Israeli jails for many years.
To be sure, Israel will not allow Hezbollah -- as its leader Hassan Nasrallah suggested Wednesday -- to join hands with Hamas to conclude a prisoner swap that would include another Israeli soldier captured by Hamas-affiliated militants in Gaza on June 25.
An Israeli source close to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told UPI Thursday that Israel was ready to negotiate a swap with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and hinted for the first time it was willing to release prisoners. Such a move would aim at separating future exchange negotiations with Hezbollah.
According to the source, Israel also aims at "changing the equation" in the region and dismantle what it called as the "Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas axis."
In an indicative development, the Lebanese cabinet, which met twice Thursday, emphasized in a statement "its right and duty to expand its authority on all the Lebanese territories." There was no objection from Hezbollah, which is represented in the government with two ministers.
Referring to this clause in the cabinet statement, Information Minister Ghazi Aridi explained "it does not mean sending the army tomorrow morning to the south."
This could well signify the beginning of an effort to force Israel to stop its attacks and excessive use of force against Lebanon. Disarming Hezbollah remains another issue.