Israel's cold war warms up

23 July 2004
Security is tight in the southern suburbs of Beirut, where local newspapers report that Hezbollah is preparing to expand its 'security zone', the effectively autonomous part of the city that the group retains from the civil war. Political tensions in the capital are rising after one of the Shia group's military leaders, Ghaleb Awali, died in a car bomb on 19 July. The attack was carried out 'either by Israeli hands that infiltrated into Lebanon with European, American or other passports, or at the hands of local Lebanese agents,' said Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Israel is routinely implicated in such assassinations, but security officials are concerned that Awali's death may indeed mark an escalation in the conflict between the two old enemies.

The following day, two Israeli soldiers and a Hezbollah fighter were killed in an exchange of fire across Lebanon's southern border, after which Israeli jets flew at low altitude along the Lebanese coast, breaking the sound barrier and drawing anti-aircraft fire. It was only the latest in a series of cross-border clashes, in which Israel has become bolder in its use of heavy weaponry and choice of target - Israeli jets in early June bombed suspected positions of the Palestinian guerrilla group PFLP-GC, just south of Beirut, while on 20 June warplanes fired four air-to-ground missiles at a Hezbollah outpost in the south.

Relations between the Islamist group and Lebanese authorities generally remain cordial. Interior Minister Elias Hrawi joined Nasrallah in voicing fears that the recent bombing was intended to drive a wedge between the two: 'Israel's low-ranking collaborators have been benefiting recently from a political harmony and cover-up provided to them by high-ranking collaborators.'

Hezbollah is growing in boldness, however, as was demonstrated in recent municipal elections. In the past, the party was persuaded to stand in local elections with the Amal movement, which also maintains close ties to Damascus. Resisting pressure from Syria, however, in the 10 May election in Baalbek the two parties forged strong oppositional alliances, with Hezbollah trumping its rivals. The Islamist group has proved a useful buffer against the Jewish state, but both the Lebanese and Syrian governments may be wondering if it has also become something of a liability.

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