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Israeli Troops Enter Lebanon

Prepared by: CFR.org Staff
Updated: July 17, 2006

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With Hezbollah and Israel trading rocket attacks and air strikes (MSNBC), and with Israeli forces temporarily crossing the border into southern Lebanon (AP), the UN Secretary General, backed by Britain, has called for the deployment of a strong peacekeeping force to resolve the escalating conflict (BBC). Israel says it is too soon to deploy such a stabilization force (al-Jazeera). Errant missiles from both sides have struck nonmilitary targets and killed scores of civilians in the six-day conflict.

Meanwhile, President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, meeting on the sidelines of the G8 Summit, jointly called for a ceasefire (WashPost). The U.S. is virtually alone in arguing Israel's offensive into Gaza and southern Lebanon is justified. However, Arab newspapers expressed dismay, too, that Arab League foreign ministers had been unable to agree on a resolution blaming Israel for the debacle (DPA). Divisions over how much responsibility to assign Hamas and Hezbollah for their role in the conflict forced a more moderate statement.

The latest escalation was triggered by a July 12 attack by Hezbollah forces on border stations on the Israeli-Lebanese border, in which they kidnapped two Israeli soldiers. Israel responded by setting up a blockade, bombing runways at Beirut airport, and deploying gunships to seal off Lebanese ports. Richard Haass, CFR's president, told CBS News' Face the Nation Sunday Hezbollah's actions appear to be directly related to Iranian and Syrian ambitions in the region.

"Hezbollah wants to assert its primacy in the anti-Israeli forces. Iran and Syria are clearly using Hezbollah as a vehicle to get at Israel," Haass said.

The incursion by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) troops into Lebanon, the first since 2000, has already claimed the lives of dozens of Lebanese civilians (AP). As the conflict threatens to spiral into a regional war, Lebanon wants a ceasefire to halt the Israeli attacks and has demanded an emergency UN Security Council session to address the conflict (Ynet). The UN is sending a high-level team of envoys to the region to try to defuse the crisis.

The Hezbollah attack heigtened tensions, coming as Israel broadened its military offensive into the Gaza Strip to search for a soldier seized by Hamas gunmen two weeks ago. Abducting Israeli soldiers is a longtime Hezbollah strategy (Ynet) endorsed by Hezbollah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. Haaretz calls the border attack "an impressive military achievement for Hezbollah and a ringing failure for the IDF." Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says he holds the Lebanese government responsible for the attacks, though his response has been criticized by Russia and France, which called the retaliation a "disproportionate act of war" (Ynet). The doctrine of proportionality and Israel’s recent moves are examined this new Backgrounder.

Attention is also focusing on the role of Iran, which—with Syria—is the main arms supplier and financial supporter of Hezbollah. Some experts say Iran's involvement in the current crisis is a bid to deflect international attention away from the debate over its nuclear program. CFR President Richard Haass said on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer that Iran is trying to send two messages: "One is that nothing in the Middle East now can happen without Iran playing a significant role." Secondly, he said, Iran is signaling that if the United States ever uses force against Iran's nuclear program, "Iran retains many different avenues for countervailing pressure." This TIME profile suggests that if Iran is attacked, Hezbollah may be called on to retaliate against Israel with rocket fire. 

Many question the ability of the Lebanese government—only a year after Syrian forces withdrew after nearly thirty years of occupation—to assert control over Hezbollah or its own southern region. Karim Makdisi of the American University of Beirut says in this interview that Lebanese political leaders are too divided and ineffectual to take the country forward. And the massive economic and political damage Israel is inflicting on Lebanon could bring down the shaky Lebanese government (BBC). Lebanon's military is also notoriously weak. However, a Washington Post analysis says the central government might use this opportunity to try to push Hezbollah out of the way. But Hezbollah represents the powerful Shiite bloc in Lebanon, and alienating such an important constituency could restart the civil war that ended in 1990. Some Lebanese are furious with Hezbollah for rekindling the conflict (Slate). Nevertheless, the Daily Star sees opportunities in the crisis to resolve longstanding Israeli-Lebanese issues. Al-Jazeera offers a timeline of the two nations' tumultuous history. 

The conflict also threatens to spread to Syria. Khaled Meshal, profiled in this new Backgrounder, is the exiled head of Hamas' political wing and is widely considered responsible for ordering the kidnapping of the first IDF soldier by Hamas. He lives in Damascus, and Israel blames Syria for sheltering him. IDF planes buzzed the palace of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after the first soldier's abduction. Assad's regime has also been accused of providing arms and funding for Hezbollah, Iraqi insurgents, and a host of other terror groups. This Washington Institute for Near East Policy analysis says Syria has gone from providing safe haven to offering outright support for Hamas.

This crisis could determine the fate of Olmert’s government. Neither Olmert nor his defense minister, Amir Peretz, is a general, and many observers say this fact is forcing both men to take harsh actions to prove their toughness. So far, the Israeli government has closed ranks around Olmert, but this Haaretz analysis questions how long the unity will last. David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Olmert's political fate depends on how he deals with the attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah.

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