How Will Israel Respond?

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Palestinian rescuers search for survivors in the rubble of a collapsed building after Israeli bombs destroyed it

For the past three weeks, much of Israel's focus has been on the escalating crisis in Gaza — the fierce military and political battles with Hamas and other militants, and the effort to secure the release of captive soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit and to prevent the firing of homemade rockets from northern Gaza into Israel. But for a number of Israeli security officials, the more serious threat always lay farther to the north, in Lebanon, where the well-armed, deeply entrenched and disciplined militants of Hizballah have their stronghold.

Now that concern has proven justified, with Hizballah's deadly cross-border attack and kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. And the most vexing challenge for Israel will be determining what and whom to respond against, how far to take it and where to stop: with the Hizballah infrastructure or its leadership? With Lebanon, including Beirut? With Hizballah's backers in Syria, or Tehran?

Those decisions will be even tougher to make because the second front in Israel's current conflict holds many painful memories. In 1982 the Israeli military, led by then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, occupied a small portion of southern Lebanon, vowing to stay only a short time. They did not withdraw until 2000. Many Israelis view the Lebanon years the way Americans think of Vietnam — as a tragic quagmire no one wishes to revisit.

Moreover, Israel's response must be crafted while the Gaza campaign continues — its goals as yet unmet, its efficacy thus far unproven and its tactics drawing harsh criticism from some quarters of the international community. The bombing of the territory's only power plant, the source for more than 40% of electricity in Gaza, has been especially condemned.

Tuesday night, the Israeli Air Force killed a family of nine, including seven children, when it leveled a small apartment building in an apparently unsuccessful attempt to take out a top leader of Hamas' military wing. In a statement, Hamas vowed to retaliate against civilians, declaring, "This new crime is a changing point in the rules of the battle. We will choose the rules of the game in the coming period. Our message to the Zionists is that your leaders are leading you to violence from which no one will be safe and when they target civilians they decided for you to be the target of our resistance."

Under normal circumstances — if such a thing can be said to exist in this conflict — such denunciations of an Israeli attack would have flowed from around the world. But Hizballah moved that story away from the headlines and instead drew the brunt of international criticism, most vocally from western governments and the U.N.; U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in Paris for talks on Iran, issued a statement calling on Syria to use its influence to help resolve the incident peacefully.

Professor Galia Golan, Professor of Government at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya believes that, for the moment, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will have widespread popular support to launch a strong response, since the attack was unprovoked and will naturally heighten the sense of a nation that will never be accepted by its neighbors.

But for a still young and untested administration, Golan added, "this is a political nightmare." Olmert himself is operating in the still formidable shadow of his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, and Defense Minister Amir Peretz is working amid great skepticism that he, a man with no previous military leadership experience, is up to the task.

"They have to reestablish the power of deterrence of the Israeli military, some of which has been lost," says Golan. In Gaza, Olmert, Peretz and the generals are authoring a harsh script; early indications are that they have the same in mind for Lebanon. With reservists in the Israeli military being mobilized, it's clear they are preparing for more than just a few aerial attacks.

It didn't take long for a link between Hizballah's raid and the events in Gaza to be established."In order to fulfill a promise to free the prisoners and detainees, the Islamic Resistance captured at 9:05 a.m. two Israeli soldiers at the borders with occupied Palestine," Hizballah said in a statement. They offered a deal — Shalit and the two new Israeli hostages in exchange for Palestinian and Hizballah prisoners in Israeli jails. Later in the day, Hizballah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said the Israeli soldiers "will only return home through indirect negotiations and an exchange of prisoners."

The attack itself began around nine o'clock with Hizballah's traditional cross-border tactic — rockets and mortars launched from southern Lebanon began raining down on northern Israel. Then, in the ensuing chaos, a number of Hizballah foot soldiers crossed the border and ambushed a two-vehicle Israeli military patrol, killing three of the soldiers and dragging two others back into Lebanon. The attack was clearly planned in advance. The militants struck at a spot obscured from a nearby watchtower, and when a tank pursued them across the border soon after, explosives planted in the ground destroyed it. The four soldiers inside are now "presumed dead," according to the Israeli military.

Olmert quickly labeled the attack an "act of war" and warned that not just Hizballah but all of Lebanon and its government — to which Hizballah belongs — would be held responsible. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni called it an act of "unprovoked aggression" by a "terrorist organization, which is part of the Lebanese government." In a statement, she charged that Hizballah, Hamas, Syria and Iran represented "an axis of terror and hate," that "wants to end any hope for peace ... in these circumstances, Israel has no alternative but to defend itself and its citizens."

Soon after the attack, Israeli artillery and fighter jets began striking targets in southern Lebanon, particularly Hizballah positions, and bridges and roads the abductors might use to move the soldiers away from the border. Planes flew over Beirut as well. By evening, however, it appeared that the soldiers had been either moved away from the border area or secreted away somewhere. "The prisoners have been moved to a safe area," Hizballah said in a statement, without further elaborating.

Clearly, whatever Israel does to respond, time is of the essence. Golan says that if a campaign in Lebanon began to drag and people started thinking they were looking at a reprise of 1982 — or that they'd "been dragged into a trap by Hamas and Hizballah"— the current strong support could evaporate. Some opinion polls taken during the Gaza soldier kidnapping standoff, but before the Hizballah attack, had already shown that Israelis want the government to negotiate some sort of solution, releasing prisoners if need be, as it has done in the past. Olmert has vowed determination and perseverance, but he will also need flexibility and creativity. Otherwise he will learn , as his predecessors did, that getting into Lebanon is relatively easy. Getting out is the hard part.

with reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Tel Aviv and Elaine Shannon/Washington