How Israel's trap was sprung using live bait

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The Independent Online

Everyone knew that the Hizbollah wanted Israeli soldiers as hostages. Now they have three. For weeks, the guerrilla organisation had been claiming that the "liberation" of southern Lebanon would never be complete until Lebanese hostages were released from Israeli jails. Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah chairman - as its former south Lebanon military commander, he is as tactically shrewd as he is politically astute - was demanding freedom only last week for Sheikh Abdul-Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani, linking their return to a few square miles of Lebanese land still occupied by Israel in the foothills of the Golan Heights.

Everyone knew that the Hizbollah wanted Israeli soldiers as hostages. Now they have three. For weeks, the guerrilla organisation had been claiming that the "liberation" of southern Lebanon would never be complete until Lebanese hostages were released from Israeli jails. Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah chairman - as its former south Lebanon military commander, he is as tactically shrewd as he is politically astute - was demanding freedom only last week for Sheikh Abdul-Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani, linking their return to a few square miles of Lebanese land still occupied by Israel in the foothills of the Golan Heights.

And it must have taken weeks to plan. To storm a heavily fortified Israeli military position takes days of reconnaisance, weapons training, artillery co-ordination, careful time-targeting and a lot of secrecy. To cross a border wire - albeit into another part of Lebanon - would have to be practised repeatedly. And the word had been around since May: the Hizbollah wanted Israeli hostages to exchange for Israel's Lebanese hostages. But they also needed a raison d'etre, something that would force the Israelis to acknowledge that the capture - under the rules of engagement which the Hizbollah and Israelis have long accepted on the border - was retaliation rather than outright aggression.

These rules meant that Israel and Hizbollah must not endanger civilians but could expect retaliation if civilians were killed. Yet no one had died on the Lebanese-Israeli border since Israel's withdrawal in May of this year. Not, that is, until 15 bus-loads of Palestinian refugees arrived at the little crossroads above the frontier gate at Marouahine on Saturday morning.

Individual Palestinians have been visiting the scene for weeks, to stare at the land they still call "Palestine" and - in some cases - at the very villages from which their families were driven by the Jewish fighters in the 1948 war which created Israel. But on Saturday it was different. For hundreds of Palestinians to leave a Beirut refugee camp en masse needed the tacit approval of Syria - I only have to walk through the Sabra and Chatila camps to be waylaid by a Syrian agent - and to have staged a border demonstration in which refugees would try to scale the frontier wire needed organisation. Not long before the buses arrived, a few Lebanese policemen were seen touring the area. The Israelis would have watched the Palestinians for at least 10 minutes as they marched from the buses down the narrow road with its concrete blocks towards the border.

The Palestinians were not to know that any of them would die but the Hizbollah must have banked on Israel's reputation for brutality. Why, after all, should Israeli troops behave in any more disciplined a fashion towards Palestinians on their border than they do towards Palestinians in Gaza? It was, of course, a trap. The Hizbollah waited patiently for the Israelis to walk into it. And the Israelis obliged by opening fire on the demonstrators as they tried to climb the fence. Two were killed outright, another 17 wounded by live rounds.

The first mortars exploded around the Israeli soldiers within half an hour of the shooting at Marouahine - the Hizbollah routinely watch the Maraouhine border gate and must have had their men there, ready to radio back reports on the shooting - and within another quarter of an hour, Hizbollah guerrillas were running across the shale and rocks of the hillside to the Israeli bunker. According to their own organisation, the three Israelis - in a state of shock - surrendered at once.

Ironically - and no doubt deliberately - the attack combined the capture of Israeli troops with Nasrallah's other obsession: the Shebaa "farms", the hilly tracts of land that belong to Lebanon but which the United Nations decided to ignore in its "blue line" withdrawal limit for the Israeli army last May. The area is owned by Lebanon but was taken over by Syrian police in 1947. When Israeli troops captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, they therefore assumed the land was Syrian, not Lebanese. So it was included in Israel's subsequent illegal annexation of the Golan as Israeli territory. Lebanon is still demanding its return. But for the Hizbollah, its continued occupation was a godsend.

Yesterday in southern Lebanon was a day like any other. The bougainvillaea bloomed along the border roads, a giant lizard scuttled into the shade and the Nepalese UN soldiers of two armoured vehicles lounged in the sun, squinting through binoculars at a few Palestinians who threw stones over the border fence more out of weariness than desperation. Old men sat in the shade of village squares. Here at Houla, you could look out across the heat haze at the Israeli frontier and the red-roofed settlements beyond without hearing a single shell. And why not? The Hizbollah had got what they wanted.

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