As President George W. Bush pressed for a bipartisan congressional resolution in support of military action against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, there was increasing speculation that Syria hopes to delay an attack by creating a confrontation between Lebanon and Israel.
The issue is over water and Lebanonís plans to cut back on the amount of water it will permit to flow south into Israel from the Hasbani River, the leading artery in the region.
Lebanese President Emile Lahoud said this week that despite Israeli objections, his country plans to proceed with installation of a 16-inch water pipe (four times the size of current pipes) as well as a pumping station to divert water from the Wazzani River, a tributary of the Hasbani.
He said the water (Lebanon plans to pump 315 million cubic feet of water a year from the Hasbani instead of the present 245 million cubic feet) is needed for parched Lebanese villages in South Lebanon, and that this action is within international law.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned last week that such a move would constitute "causus belli," or grounds for war.
The Jerusalem Post pointed out in an editorial that Israeli intelligence has been warning for months that Syria and Lebanon were plotting to heat up Israel’s northern border with Lebanon "in the hopes of complicating, or even forestalling, the planned American assault on Baghdad. Recent Hezbollah assaults, including an attack on Mount Dov [in the Shebba Farms area] that killed one Israeli soldier and wounded two others, were seen as the prelude to a further escalation."
Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Sharon, said he viewed the water crisis as a "deliberate provocation apparently instigated by Syria, which wants to put Israel into a quandary. If it does not react, it would create an intolerable situation and if it does (which it could do with very little effort) they believe it would create a diversion from the Iraqi situation."
The crisis on Israel’s northern border threatens to open a second front militarily for Israel, which Wednesday faced a renewal of Palestinian terror attacks, the first in six weeks. A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up near a bus stop at the Umm al Fahm junction near the Israeli town of Afula in northern Israel, killing himself and one Israeli policeman and injuring several others. The site of the attack is near the Palestinian city of Jenin, a hotbed of Palestinian terrorist activity from which at least 20 suicide bombers have come. It was the first suicide attack since Aug. 4 when a bomber blew himself up on a bus, killing himself and nine Israelis.
Earlier Wednesday, the charred body of a 67-year-old Israeli who had been shot in the head was found in a garbage dump outside the West Bank village of Al Azaria. Police said he had apparently been murdered in a terrorist attack. And an Israeli motorist was killed and another man was lightly as they drove Wednesday afternoon near the West Bank settlement of Mevo Dotan in the Jenin region.
There have also been several terrorist failures in recent weeks, most notably the Israeli seizure of a vehicle carrying more than 1,300 pounds of explosives that Palestinians apparently planned to detonate in a crowded northern Israeli city.
Just a day before Wednesday’s attacks, Moshe Yaalon, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, had said the conflict with the Palestinians is far more worrisome than the possibility of an Iraqi strike against Israel.
On Tuesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told reporters in New York that he had seen positive signs of ‘serious debate" among Palestinian leaders at last week Palestinian Legislative Council meeting. And he noted that there were moves by Palestinian President Yasir Arafat’s Fatah organization to call for an end to the killing of Israeli civilians. He said he had also heard for the first time "a vision for a modern, democratic, market-oriented state with a separation of powers."
But he scoffed at Arafat’s assertion that there would be Palestinian elections Jan. 20, saying conditions were not ripe for such a move.
The Palestinian attacks came after Tuesday’s explosion at a West Bank school that wounded five Palestinian children. A hand-grenade had been planted outside the primary school and exploded about a half hour before the children were to go outside for recess. Israeli authorities suspect that Jewish extremists were responsible for the attack, although there was no claim of responsibility. Jewish militants were responsible for a similar attack in March that injured several Palestinian children and their teacher.
Hezbollah Behind Crisis?
Regarding the crisis in Lebanon, Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, said Lebanon is a "satellite of Syria and the Syrians have chosen to give their proxies a great deal of autonomy." And he said Hezbollah terrorists, who have thousands of missiles in South Lebanon trained on Israel, are now "an autonomous force no longer under the thumb of Damascus."
"The Syrians are no longer tightly controlling the area, and so this has the potential for being the place that sets off a war," Pipes said.
Mordechai Kedar, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said he believes Hezbollah has been pushing the Lebanese to install the larger water pipes.
"Hezbollah is trying to get Israel into a confrontation to open another front for the West so that the U.S. would have to deal with Lebanon and Israel," he said.
Kedar added that Hezbollah feels free to take this bold initiative because Syria has given it increased support. He added that the "real problem is Iraq because Lebanon can be taken care of quickly. One Israeli bombing of a power station calms Lebanon for half a year."
Peres told reporters that Lebanon’s plans to "take away part of our water is a clear provocation without foundation and logic. We are not looking for a provocation with Lebanon."
Asked if he believed Hezbollah was behind the war crisis, Peres replied: "Hezbollah may finally destroy Lebanon. We are more for the integrity of Lebanon that Hezbollah. Their position comes from Iran [which supplies it with arms], ours comes from our neighborhood."
The U.S. at Israel’s urging sent experts to South Lebanon Monday to inspect the new installation and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said other experts would be sent to decide "whether what is happening is consistent with rules, regulations and agreements that have been made over the years. I expect we will have a judgment on this in the near future."
A Lebanese water expert, Nabil Khalife, was quoted by Reuters as saying that water is a red line for Israel and that there was a "50 percent chance this could escalate even if there is a U.S. war on Iraq looming."
But the Israeli newspaper Haaretz said that although water experts and some security officials in Israel believe Israel must be prepared to act militarily in this matter, Israeli political and diplomatic officials believe Israel should hold off militarily because of the Iraqi situation.
Peres pointed out that 30 percent of Israelís water comes from the north and that Israel supplies water to 10 million people, including Palestinians. He said Israel does this with a total of 1 billion cubic meters of water per year. On the other hand, Lebanon with a population of 4 million has 10 billion cubic meters of water, 1.5 billion of which it allows to "flow out to sea."
He noted also that Israel has supplied Lebanese villages near Israel’s northern border with 500,000 cubic meters of water without getting anything in return.
"If [Lebanon] continues with this work, the problem with grow in size," Peres warned, adding that the U.S. said it would like to act in this matter "as discreetly as possible."
Peres said the water crisis was one of the topics he discussed with Powell when the two met here this week for the United Nations General Assembly session and the Bush administration’s attempt to get United Nations’ backing for military action against Hussein. Hussein sought to undercut that effort by announcing Monday that he would allow UN weapons inspectors back into Iraq after kicking them out three years ago.
But Peres said he was not persuaded by that offer, explaining that "dishonest people can overcome easily" any weapons inspectors. "What is the difficulty in hiding in a cave biological, chemical or nuclear weapons?" he asked rhetorically.
Peres called Hussein "one of the most dangerous dictators" who initiated two wars: one against Iran that cost 1 million lives and the other against Kuwait. He added that Hussein has created "a culture of death and repression."
Preparing For Iraq Attack
Meanwhile, Israelis prepared for a possible Iraqi attack in response to an American military strike in Iraq. Hundreds of fire fighters and rescue personnel are slated to receive smallpox vaccinations in the next few days. Some health care workers have already received them and the Health Ministry said it has enough vaccine on hand to inoculate the entire population and tourists should the U.S. attack Iraq. The U.S. has promised to give Israel several days’ notice before attacking.
The director-general of the defense ministry, Amos Yaron, told Haaretz that Israelís new radar system gives the country three to four minutes advance notice of any incoming Iraqi missile; during the Gulf War 11 years ago, Israelis had only 30-seconds notice.
Although both Sharon and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer have both been quoted as saying that Israel would respond militarily if attacked, Peres declined to repeat that warning in his meeting with reporters. "I don’t feel we have to commit ourselves ahead of time," he said simply. "I don’t want to blow the trumpet; there’s no need for it. We shall try to use every possible way not to escalate any confrontation."
He stressed that the U.S. does not intend to attack the Iraqi because the "war is with Saddam Hussein. He is the one who people endangers many neighbors and oppresses his own people too. … A campaign against Saddam Hussein is a must. Postponing it will make it more dangerous."
One reason for Peres’ refusal to promise an Israeli military response may be the Bush administration’s unhappiness with Israel’s earlier bellicose comments, one that even suggested an Israeli nuclear response.
The Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot, in an editorial translated by Haim Shaket on the Web site Israelsg.com, wrote: "Like a nightmare, the Americans are finding out that it is impossible to house-train the Israelis. … Israel’s burst of energy are a millstone around his neck; not only is there no prudence here, but real damage as well."