Saturday, July 15, 2006

Israel and Lebanon on verge of all out war

The Israel-Lebanon crisis has taken a dangerous new turn today. The Lebanese ruling Hezbollah party has declared ‘open war’ on Israel. The audiotape declaration came after Israeli missiles struck the group's headquarters and its leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's house in southern Beirut. Nasrullah’s message ran: "You wanted an open war. You will get an open war," This is a dramatic escalation of the conflict which began on Wednesday. In the wake of Hezbollah’s warning, an Israeli vessel enforcing a naval blockade on Lebanon’s ports was hit by an unmanned airborne vehicle known as a “drone” which was packed with explosive. The ship was badly damaged and four Israeli soldiers are missing.

The tensions started on Wednesday July 12. Hezbollah launched a diversionary cross-border attack on Israel. Hezbollah fighters fired dozens of Katyusha rockets and mortar rounds on the Israeli occupied Shebaa Farms border area. This was followed up by an attack on two Israeli humvees with a combination of explosives and antitank missiles. Eight troops were killed and two were captured. These two are now being held as bargaining chips to release Palestinian fighters from Israeli jails. However instead of negotiating, the Israelis responded with massive aerial attacks on Lebanese targets.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert described the Hezbollah attacks as an "act of war" by Lebanon and promised a "very painful and far-reaching" response. Israeli ground forces crossed into Lebanon to search for the captured soldiers. Two Lebanese civilians were killed and five people wounded in retaliatory Israeli air strikes.

On the day after the initial violence, a rocket attack was launched on the Israeli port city of Haifa. Hezbollah denied firing the Haifa rocket but their guerrilla forces were responsible for firing scores of Katyusha rockets on targets across northern Israel killing two Israelis and injuring another 120. The Israeli army Home Front Command ordered residents of Haifa and nearby towns to stay indoors and listen to radio broadcasts. Hezbollah has declared it has over 10,000 rockets to use against Israel. People have started to evacuate from border towns towards safer areas such as Tel Aviv.

The Israelis have also imposed a total sea, land and air blockade on Lebanon. As well as a naval blockade, this involved bombing Beirut international airport and the main highway to Damascus, Syria. The airport was closed and all international flights were diverted to Cyprus. Several airlines, including Qatar Airways and Gulf Air, have suspended flights to and from Beirut. Israel also targeted Hezbollah's al-Manar television station, but Hezbollah continued transmission from another location.

The Iran backed Hezbollah (which means Party of God in Arabic) is the main political party representing the Shia community, Lebanon's largest religious bloc. It calls for the establishment of an Islamic state in Lebanon and runs hospitals, news and education services. Hezbollah emerged as a force during the 1980s war in Lebanon. In 2005, the European Parliament branded them a terrorist organisation but this has not yet been acted upon by the EU. The 45 year old Hassan Nasrallah was elected as the secretary-general of Hezbollah in 1992. The continued existence of Hezbollah's military wing after 1990 violates the Taif Agreement that ended the Lebanese civil war, which requires the "disbanding of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias" and requires the government to "deploy the Lebanese army in the border area adjacent to Israel."

The current tensions may provide Israel with an excuse to demolish the military wing of the party. Meanwhile the G8 leaders currently meeting in St Petersburg, Russia are divided in their response to the crisis. US President Bush has unsurprisingly backed Israel's right to “defend itself” in the same week as the US blocked an Arab-backed UN Security Council resolution demanding Israel halt its simultaneously military operation in the Gaza Strip (which was also started by the kidnapping of an Israel soldier). Russia meanwhile has called Israel’s response “disproportionate” whereas the European members of the G8 have endorsed a EU call for Israel to show restraint.

The most immediate international effect of the crisis is likely to be at the petrol pump. Oil prices hovered above US$78 per barrel yesterday, near record highs, as the intensifying violence prompted concerns of a possible supply disruption.

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