Brent Sadler: Israel holding Syria accountable for Hezbollah actions
Brent Sadler has been CNN's Beirut bureau chief since 1997. He has been covering events surrounding the recent round of strikes and counterstrikes between Hezbollah and Israel.
Q: An aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the "rules of the game" were going to change in Lebanon. What were the "rules," and how have they changed?
Sadler: In response to Hezbollah guerrilla attacks against Israeli troops just on the other side of the border, there was a response by Israel Sunday night that led to the destruction of a Syrian radar installation inside Lebanon. It was the first time in 20 years that Israelis had targeted the Syrian army to this extent.
This was a sharp departure from what the Israelis had been doing in response to guerrilla attacks against their forces. So, there has been a significant shift in the unwritten rules of engagement, which hitherto has seen Israel strike at suspected Hezbollah guerrilla bases, mostly in South Lebanon, and in part also attacking Lebanese infrastructure.
Most of the infrastructural attacks by Israel were committed before the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon almost a year ago -- May 25, 2000. Since the Israeli pulled out, the United Nations has demarked the so-called the U.N. blue line, meaning that Israel had completed its withdrawal in compliance of U.N. Resolution 425.
While all of that satisfied the international community, it didn't satisfy the Syrians and the Lebanese. They say continued Hezbollah guerrilla strikes against Israeli forces in the disputed area known as the Shebaa Farms region is justification for the Resistance to go on killing Israeli troops in the Shebaa area.
In the past 12 months we have seen a series of five attacks; three Israeli soldiers have been killed since the withdrawal last May. Last October, three Israeli soldiers were kidnapped; their whereabouts are unknown to this day, publicly at least. There has been a gradual escalation of the tension around that border area and calls from the United Nations, the United States and other countries for all countries to urge maximum restraint.
So, when the Israelis talk about the rules changing, they are. Israel is now holding Syria directly accountable for Hezbollah’s actions and making it quite clear that Syria could face even greater military action if Hezbollah strikes again. Hezbollah’s leadership has insisted again today, during an interview I did earlier with Sheik Naim Kassem, that it will respond to Israel’s attack against Syrian army positions a couple of days ago, and will do so at a time and in a way that it feels fit. So, in deed, there has been a lot of response over the past few days with the Hezbollah attack on Saturday and the Israeli retaliations.
Q: Are U.N. forces still in that area?
Sadler: For over 20 years, the U.N. has had the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. They really watch and observe what goes on along this UN blue line. Essentially, it was in part they actually painted on the ground and along concrete postings and it wasn’t the actually border. No on could agree where the border was, so the UN imposed this blue line that was acceptable to the international community and beyond that Israeli’s pull back. The Hezbollah or the Lebanese or Syrians are not supposed to violate. Every time Hezbollah attacks, it is regarded in violation of the UN blue line, and the Israelis retaliate. Previously the pattern has been a period of retaliation against suspected Hezbollah targets in South Lebanon, but this time the rules of the game have changed say the Israelis. They went to the Syrians this time and accused the Syrians who of course support Hezbollah not just politically in terms of their arms supply which comes from Iran, and Iran is a big supporter of Hezbollah in Lebanon both politically and financially, and it is the Syrians who help maintain a flow of supply of arms from Iran to Lebanon so the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah connection is very strong. And it is Syria that is being held directly responsible by Israelis for Hezbollah’s actions. In other words they are saying that Syria is helping sustain the guerrilla attacks against Israeli troops and it is Syria’s responsibility to reign in those guerrillas. If they don’t, then Syria can expect to pay a high price.
The Hezbollah leadership was meeting politically allies in Lebanon today to work out its next move. Hezbollah has been under some pressure from the Lebanese government. It is believed that continued.
It does say that it will continue to fight its resistance over the Sheba saying that they will strike again, perhaps in days or even months and the Israelis can expect to sustain more military casualties. Hezbollah is under some pressure at the same time by the Lebanese government, under Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri, to curtail its attacks. Lebanese authorities are saying openly that these continued attacks against Israelis and the continued responses of retaliation are having a damaging effect on the wider interests, particularly economic interests, of this country, which is still trying to recover after its long civil war, which ran from 1975 to 1990. So there is a lot at stake here. There is escalating tension along the border, efforts by the international community to calm things down, and Hezbollah saying its fight for existence its armed fight with the Israelis will continue.
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