- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 10, 2002

SHEIK ABBAD HILL, Lebanon "Open the Arab fronts." "Where are the Arab armies?"

Those have been among the insistent slogans of street protests across the Arab world against Israel's invasion of the West Bank.

But the only front likely to be opened is here, in south Lebanon, which has no Arab army but only Hezbollah in its way the most formidable military adversary Israel has ever faced.

They confront each other along the frontier's 70-mile length from the Sheba'a Farms high in the rugged foothills of Israeli-occupied Mount Hermon where Israel, Syria and Lebanon converge, to a lush Mediterranean shore.

Ever since Israel's withdrawal from its 9-mile-deep "security zone" in southern Lebanon in May 2000, Hezbollah militiamen, not Lebanese soldiers, have manned a score of front-line positions. They have been stockpiling weapons in secret locations, monitoring Israeli movements, training and drawing up battle plans. They are said to be in a state of high psychological and military readiness.

At Sheik Abbad Hill, the high ground midway along the border, the two sides are eyeball to eyeball. Before ending their 22-year occupation of south Lebanon, Israeli forces used to peer northward toward the Lebanese village of Houla from their position here. Now, it is the other way around Hezbollah scans Israeli territory to the south.

On Thursday, the visitor could see nothing, so thick was the fog, and had to be told that the structure whose outline was just discernible 100 yards away was not part of Hezbollah's line but an Israeli outpost on the other side of the redrawn frontier.

Though close enough to exchange curses, the opposing sides have not yet exchanged fire.

Arab armies? "We all know what they are for," scoffed a militiaman. He meant that their main function was not to fight well-armed enemies but to protect decadent Arab regimes.

So was Hezbollah about to do their job for them in the Palestinian territories?

"Our business is to defend Lebanese territory, and the only place we fight is Sheba'a, because that is Lebanese territory we have yet to liberate." As for the Palestinians, he said, "We await orders from our leadership."

But no such order will come at least not out of the blue.

At Sheba'a on Thursday, the mist made any kind of fighting almost impossible. It was a day after the heaviest Hezbollah artillery onslaught on Israeli positions since the withdrawal: 116 mortar rounds, according to a UNIFIL count, discharged in 2½ hours.

"We couldn't see anything of it," said Ajai Touma, the Indian officer commanding the nearest observation post of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon. "They just shoot and scoot."

But he and others were impressed by the professionalism of the coordinated barrage. "I think," said one with experience of Afghanistan and Central Asia, "that this is the most disciplined, organized and educated Islamic militia I've seen."

So far, the warfare unfolding on Lebanon's border with Israel has been carefully controlled and calibrated, with rules of its own. But that does not mean that military action on the front which for a quarter-century before the Israeli withdrawal had been the last in the Arab-Israeli struggle will not resume.

The more the conflict in the occupied territories deepens, the more likely military action becomes, because it is to the Palestinian struggle that Hezbollah has linked its own.

After the Israeli withdrawal, Hezbollah faced a difficult choice. Should it stick to its pan-Islamic, jihadist mission, which would not be complete without the liberation of Jerusalem? Or with the Israeli military gone from Lebanon, should it become exclusively the Lebanese Shi'ite political party it also is?

It deferred the choice by declaring the liberation incomplete. By suddenly proclaiming that Sheba'a Farms was Lebanese, not Syrian, it found a rationale for continued "resistance."

Then in September 2000, four months after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, Ariel Sharon visited Islam's third-holiest shrine, located in Jerusalem, to reassert Israel's claims to the site. The subsequent eruption of the Al Aqsa intifada reignited the jihadist option, and Mr. Sharon became Israel's prime minister.

From being an inspiration and model for Palestinian militancy, Hezbollah has ever since been drawn to direct involvement in it. In August, its chief, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said his party was "getting ready for direct military intervention from Lebanon."

The main questions, for a leadership known for its careful planning and calculations of risk, were always when and how? Above all, Hezbollah clearly wants to avoid any appearance of an unprovoked attack. This would fall outside its claim of undertaking legitimate Lebanese resistance, and could provoke large-scale Israeli retribution against the Lebanese and Syrians.

But the conflict in the Palestinian territories is pushing it toward bolder moves. The Hezbollah's intensified rhetoric in recent months has been matched in the past week by a military escalation. Sheba'a Farms has become more tense, and Hezbollah is not necessarily confining its escalation to "legitimate targets" there.

In cross-border attacks, six civilians were killed in a raid and a Katyusha rocket fell near Kyriat Shmona. On Thursday night, some nine armor-piercing Grad projectiles fired at a radar station on Syrian territory close to the Sheba'a Farms. If Hezbollah was directly responsible, these incidents would amount to a shift from resistance to Israeli occupation to strikes on Israel proper.

Hezbollah denied any part in the attacks, but UNIFIL officials had little doubt that, given Hezbollah's total control of the border, it connived in at least some of them. The likely culprits, they believed, were Palestinians.

Mr. Sharon said the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a Hezbollah ally, fired the Grads. The Lebanese government, alarmed, said it had arrested some of the perpetrators.

Old and new combatants in the refugee camps are said to be seething with frustration at their inability to assist their Palestinian brethren.

Hezbollah possesses Katyusha rockets in abundance 8,000, according to Israel with a range of at least 25 miles. If it also has the longer-range, third-generation model, Hezbollah could strike Israel's third largest city, Haifa, from its Lebanese border positions.

For UNIFIL officials, South Lebanon is a tinderbox that could flare at any time.

"The Israelis," said one, "are aware of the grave implications of opening up a second front, but their patience is almost exhausted. They have let us know they are very close to massive retaliation."

Any such attacks that cause heavy loss of civilian life or destruction of infrastructure could embolden Hezbollah to unleash Katyusha havoc on northern Israel. More than simply a full-scale resurrection of the Israeli-Hezbollah border conflict, that would dramatically broaden and intensify the regional and international crisis that has been latent in the intifada from the outset.

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