A New Front in Israel's War

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In the dusty hilltop villages populated by Lebanese Shi'ite Muslim supporters of Hizballah, convoys of cars adorned with yellow Hizballah banners wove through the streets this afternoon honking horns at the news of the capture of two Israeli soldiers. Some people stood in the center of main roads handing out fistfuls of sweets to passing motorists, a traditional Arab gesture of celebration. "This is a great victory for the resistance," said Ali Hammoud, 32, in the town of Arab Salim.

Hizballah leader Hassan Nasralllah said that the group did not seek a war in southern Lebanon but sought to swap the captured Israelis for Arab detainees held by Israel. He did not specify, but Nasrallah seemed to be referring to a handful of Lebanese as well as the hundreds of Palestinians whose release is being demanded by Hamas militants holding a captured Israeli soldier in Gaza.

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, an expert on Hizballah at the Lebanese-American University in Beirut, predicts that Hizballah's popularity will increase because of the operation. "It will be seen by many as a perfectly legitimate operation because Israel holds Lebanese detainees," she says. "There will be widespread support for this operation in Lebanon and the region."

But not everybody in Lebanon was pleased, as there is a price to pay. From the Christian town of Marjayoun just north of the Israeli border, crashing booms of Israeli shellfire exploded in a nearby valley at the foot of Shebaa Farms mountainside, an Israeli- occupied strip of territory that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war. Israeli aircraft also destroyed three key bridges across the Litani River, cutting off much of southeast Lebanon from the capital. One Lebanese soldier and two civilians were killed when Qasimiyeh Bridge, six miles north of Tyre, was blown up. Lebanese troops blocked the roads leading to the destroyed bridges and instructed motorists to return north and get out of the area. "This is not good. We don't need another war," said Marwan Haddad, a Christian resident of Marjayuon, as he listened anxiously to the Israeli artillery fire.

In fact, Hizballah's attack comes at a time when the Iranian-backed group faces intense domestic and international pressure to disband its military wing, which is credited with driving out Israeli forces from southern Lebanon in 2000 after a 22-year occupation. Hizballah refuses to disarm, saying that the resistance — as it calls its armed wing — is a vital component of Lebanon's national defense against the threat posed by Israel. Although Hizballah occasionally attacks Israeli positions in Shebaa Farms, it rarely admits to launching operations elsewhere along the border that it is widely suspected of carrying out.

In October 2000, Hizballah fighters captured three Israeli soldiers from Shebaa Farms in a well planned and executed ambush. In January 2004, Hizballah swapped the remains of the three soldiers who died in the attack for more than more 400 Palestinian and Lebanese detainees. Similar swaps occurred in 1996 and 1998 when Israeli forces were still occupying parts of southern Lebanon.