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Mideast Conflict Rages On

Prepared by: Esther Pan
Updated June 18, 2006


The violence continues in the Middle East. More than 200 Lebanese, nearly all civilians, have been killed (WashPost) in an Israeli offensive that followed Hezbollah's abduction of two Israeli soldiers last week. In response to Israeli strikes, Hezbollah has launched rockets ever deeper into Israeli territory, killing dozens. Many international observers criticize the Israeli offensive in Lebanon as a disproportionate response to the kidnapping. This CFR Backgrounder examines the doctrine of proportionality in relation to Israel. In a July 17 address to Parliament, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed the Israeli offensive would continue until two kidnapped Israeli soldiers are returned, the Lebanese army is deployed along the Israeli border, and Hezbollah halts its rocket attacks on Israel.

For its part, Hezbollah is trying to shatter the regional image of Israel's military strength and change the balance of power in the region (CSMonitor). The group's leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, profiled here by the Washington Post, declared "open war" on Israel (al-Jazeera). Although members of Hezbollah's political wing serve in Lebanon's Parliament and its cabinet, the group's allegiances to Iran and Syria subvert the goals of Lebanon's central government (NYT). CFR President Richard Haass told CBS News that Iran and Syria are using Hezbollah as a vehicle to get at Israel and advance their interests in the region. The relationship between Tehran and Damascus, and the two countries' influence on the current conflict, is examined in this new Backgrounder.

This CSIS report by Anthony Cordesman says Syria and Iran both gain by this proxy war, which divides the United States and Europe, distracts international attention from Iran's nuclear program and Syria's continuing influence in Lebanon, and feeds Arab anger against the United States.

So far, Israel has not threatened to attack Syria directly (al-Jazeera). If it does, it faces the threat of retaliation from Iran, which many suspect has provided Hezbollah with the new, longer-range rockets the group is using to hit Israeli cities as far south of the border as Haifa (Haaretz).

Tehran has said it will back Syria if Israel attacks Damascus. The new unity between religious Tehran and secular Damascus surprises many. Some Sunni governmentsthose of Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabiaare increasingly wary of the growing influence of Iran, and are blaming Hezbollah for its role in starting the conflict, a rare move (NYT). Middle East expert Robert Satloff writes in the Weekly Standard that the new cooperation between Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas is driven by political opportunism, not shared ideology.

Meanwhile, the Israeli campaign is wreaking havoc on Lebanon's infrastructure and economy, reversing the hard-won progress the country has made since its fifteen-year civil war ended in 1990. The Economist says Israel's actions risk destabilizing the entire region, and Beirut's Daily Star demands the United States step in to halt the "collective punishment" of the Israeli attacks. But some critics say the United States, divided from its allies and preoccupied with Iraq, has less influence than ever in the Middle East (CSMonitor).

There seems to be a lack of cohesive leadership on all sides. The Guardian called it a shame that the G8 summit meeting over the weekend produced no clear international leadership on the region, and no ceasefire. Arab League foreign ministers meeting over the weekend were unable even to agree on the wording of a resolution condemning Israel. Instead, the meeting ended with three separate resolutions (IRIN) on Lebanon, Gaza, and the Mideast peace process.

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