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Israel: Time for changes on Lebanese front

By
JOSHUA BRILLIANT, UPI Israel Correspondent

METULAH, Israel, Nov. 25 (UPI) -- Israel responded with uncommon alacrity to a Lebanese request to return the bodies of three Hezbollah guerillas killed in a failed raid on the village of Ghajar.

The bodies were brought to the border and transferred to the International Red Cross that took them to Lebanon, Friday.

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Photographers were invited to cover the event and a statement the army spokesman issued stated, "The transfer comes in response to the Lebanese government's request."

It was the second time, this week, that the defense establishment stressed Israel reacted to Lebanese government requests. In the past officials belittled Lebanon's governments.

Is something happening behind the scenes?

Judging by Monday's battle with Hezbollah, interviews with government and military officers the answer seems to be: No, but we're trying to change that.

Israel withdrew from Lebanon, unconditionally, in May 2000. It deployed along a line the United Nations set.

However, across the border it sees Hezbollah fighters, whom it considers terrorists, not Lebanese soldiers.

The commander of the 91st Israeli division that is deployed along Israel's northern border with Lebanon, Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch, led reporters outside his office Thursday, past several trees to an open space, and pointed at two towers a few hundred meters away. Hezbollah's yellow flag was fluttering over one of them.

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Hezbollah's front line positions are small and often vacated after clashes. However, inland, it has an arsenal of more than 12,000 rockets some of which can reach targets south of Haifa.

Israeli officials maintain that Iran and Syria, which back Hezbollah, wanted to heat up the border area to deflect world pressure on Teheran and Damascus. A senior Israeli military source said he suspected Hezbollah sought to spark a fight, kidnap soldiers, draw the Israelis into Lebanon (for example by chasing after the missing soldiers) and thus justify continuation of the fight. The BBC this week quoted unmanned Lebanese security sources as having say the raid was designed to take Israeli hostages.

Israeli intelligence knew an attack was coming. The army was on alert and senior commanders approached the U.N. peacekeeping force, UNIFIL, to prevent an outburst.

"We talked to the U.N. representatives a few times, even the chief commander of UNIFIL ... made meetings," but it was futile, a senior military source said.

Contacting the Lebanese directly appeared to be out of the question. "I cannot talk with a Lebanese general. I do not talk with anyone there, I do not have any kind of address there," Brig. Hirsch said.

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Monday's fighting was the heaviest in years. It raged almost along the entire border from the Israeli town of Shlomi, near the Mediterranean Sea to Mount Dov on the Golan (which the Lebanese call the Shaba Farms and claim as their own despite the U.N. ruling).

Hezbollah fired hundreds of mortar bombs and rockets, more than 100 anti tank missiles some of which hit Israeli positions and Israel's northernmost town of Metulah. Fires raged at position Tulip near Ghajar and Thursday soldiers were still examining the results. One of the rockets crashed into the side of the road to Ghajar and a bomb disposal expert was seen knelling over it, smelling its contents.

The shelling was coupled with two raids, one of them into Ghajar, apparently to kidnap soldiers guarding its entrance. The attackers reached a round, unfinished gray house overlooking the entrance but an Israeli paratrooper waiting in ambush in a nearby white house opened fire, killed the three gunmen and foiled the attack.

Israeli planes and artillery struck across the border. They hit several roads and a bridge to block the guerrillas' escape routes but otherwise concentrated on Hezbollah facilities.

Eventually Hezbollah contacted UNIFIL and requested a cease-fire.

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The Israelis refused. "We're not talking to terrorists," they said.

According to Israeli intelligence assessments Hezbollah's member of Cabinet asked Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to "save their lives." Siniora contacted UNIFIL.

"After a few requests from the Lebanese government through UNIFIL, when we were sure it comes from Mr. Siniora personally, we agreed to cease fire at 00:30 (on Tuesday) and that's what happened," a senior military source said.

Siniora's request meant his government assumed responsibility for the border area, Israeli officials maintained.

"There is an address," a military spokeswoman said.

The other implied message was aimed at the Lebanese people: 'Look who obtained the ceasefire and who got the bodies repatriated. It's the government, not Hezbollah.'

For years Israeli officials realized the Lebanese government was too weak to assert its authority. The Syrians were interested in keeping Hezbollah alive to harass Israel and since the Syrians dominated Beirut, there was little the Lebanese government could do.

Now the situation has changed. Syria was forced to pull its troops out and its President Bashar Assad is in the defensive.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 requires Hezbollah be disarmed and the Lebanese government can do so, reporters were told during a briefing at the 91st division headquarters.

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Alluding to the fact that Hezbollah ran in the elections and is probably more attuned to Lebanese public opinion, an Israeli officer predicted: "When ... the leadership of Lebanon would insist on disarming them that would happen without using any kind of force."

Meanwhile Israel is planning to raise UNIFIL's conduct with the Security Council members and with U.N. Secretary General Koffi Anan, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

The U.N. is supposed to support the disarming of all the armed militias in Lebanon but UNIFIL has, "A collaborative relationship with Hezbollah," he said.

UNIFIL failed to prevent Monday's attack, its presence hampered Israel's retaliation, reporters were told. That is why Hirsch maintained it should leave.

Hezbollah border outposts are located 50 meters from UNIFIL's positions "because Hezbollah wants the U.N. presence there as a shelter, a shield."

In some places Israel refrained from attacking Hezbollah positions because the U.N. peacekeepers were too close. "I am talking of 20 meters, or 50 meters I cannot attack (there because of the danger) of collateral damage," reporters were told.

In Jerusalem, Regev told United Press International "There should be a rethinking of the UNIFIL mandate."

However in Beirut, UNIFIL's spokesman Milos Strugar said they have done "everything" in accordance with their mandate, mission and capabilities. That mandate never included "enforcement power," he maintained.

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"We have to rely on the will of the parties. We cannot force something they do not want to (do). This is how a peace-keeping force like UNIFIL functions," Strugar said.

Its 2,000-armed soldiers have light weapons and can use them only for self-defense, he noted. The Indian and Ghanaian battalions are deployed in 21 positions near the border and in 14 sites inside Lebanon and have recently intensified their patrols he said.

And, "We brokered the cease-fire," he noted.

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