Israeli troops remained in southern Lebanon this week after their withdrawal was delayed by disagreements with United Nations commanders over how to handle armed Hezbollah terrorists and amid reports that Hezbollah was rearming and moving rockets closer to Israel’s border.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz was quoted as saying that until the "rules governing eventualities that could occur along the border are formulated, such as rules of engagement, we will not leave southern Lebanon. There is continuing dialogue concerning what is permitted and what is forbidden. We want to establish new rules" for the Israeli-Lebanese border. Although an IDF official said he hoped Israeli troops could be withdrawn by this weekend, Gerald Steinberg, a professor at Bar-Ilan University, warned that there might be a "breakdown of the cease-fire agreement."
"They have two or three weeks to work out an agreement," he said. "Otherwise, we will be in there more strongly and that might trigger the next round" of Hezbollah-Israeli fighting.
Steinberg explained that because 90 percent of Israeli troops have been withdrawn from Lebanon, the few hundred troops that remain are "very vulnerable."
"At some point someone will shoot at Israeli forces and we will not be able to respond" adequately with the limited manpower there, he said.
Yuval Steinitz, a Likud member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said he is "very concerned" about the situation in Lebanon because "it is now evident that neither the Lebanese Army nor UNIFIL [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon] are going to engage Hezbollah. And if you are not ready to shoot and exercise power, there is no chance of preventing the rebuilding of Hezbollah forces."
Steinitz said it will take Hezbollah "one or two years to recover their fighting capacity in the south and three to four years to rebuild their headquarters in Beirut and their training camps," he said, warning that UNIFIL forces might operate "more as a shield for Hezbollah’s rebuilding than to [ensure] Israel’s security."
There were reports this week that Hezbollah is moving rockets into Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon, knowing that the Lebanese Army would never enter those camps. Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, appearing last Friday for the first time in public since the war, boasted to an estimated 800,000 cheering supporters at a "victory rally" in Beirut that he had 20,000 rockets aimed at Israel. He said he would "rehabilitate the force and bases within a short period of time. … The resistance today is stronger than it was on July 12" when the war started.
But just one day earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told American rabbis in a conference call arranged by the Jewish National Fund that "all of the missiles close to the border are destroyed and there is no more threat to the people of the north" of Israel.
"For years the Iranians were building up the power of Hezbollah in order to use [the weapons] against the State of Israel," he said. "In the past they challenged us but Israel refrained from responding in a manner that might have stopped it. But with the kidnapping of two soldiers and the killing of eight, the cabinet decided we can tolerate it no more. … We will never tolerate in the future any attack against Israel."
Olmert said that in going to war with Hezbollah, Israel "changed the rules so that it will become totally unacceptable" for the terror group to engage in such a war again. "Nasrallah said that had he known even one percent of what would have happened, he would not have started [the war]," Olmert noted.
Steinitz said he does not believe Nasrallah’s claim of having 20,000 missiles, but he said it is clear "he has a few thousand, and this is bad enough."
Noting the enormous size of the Nasrallah rally in Beirut, Jacob Shamir, director of a poll released this week by the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the war had "empowered" the Shiites in Lebanon who are Nasrallah’s followers and had also "empowered the Palestinians."
"They became tougher in their support of Hamas" against Israel, he said. His poll, conducted with the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, found that 59 percent of Palestinians favored negotiations between Israel and Hamas, compared with 70 percent who favored such talks in June.
The poll found also that although 63 percent of Palestinians supported the Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israeli towns, 74 percent favored a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"I don’t think it is surprising because [violent resistance] is the openly declared policy of the Hamas government," Shamir said. "We have consistently observed that Palestinians wish to try to use both tracks: they don’t want to give up on violence but they also seek a political route. I don’t think it’s contradictory. It is complementary because often in conflicts the weaker side wants to hold onto violence but keep open the political option. We saw that in Ireland."
There was also talk this week that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas might begin serious negotiations with Israel that could lead to a proposed peace agreement to be presented as a referendum to the Palestinian people, thus avoiding a veto by the Hamas-run Palestinian government.
Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he had heard such reports. Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog said the reports were an attempt to come up with innovative ideas to break the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.
"Abbas took an important step [last week] because he stood in front of the U.N. plenary and said the new Palestinian government would recognize Israel," he said. "He said it in front of the whole world. Therefore I tend to look at the initiative of Abbas as serious. We’ll see how it bears fruit."