Peres gambles on air strikes at Hizbollah

PATRICK COCKBURN

Jerusalem

The Israeli government delayed air strikes against Hizbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla movement, for so long because it has more to lose than gain by escalating the war in Lebanon. By yesterday morning it could wait no longer.

With an election due on 29 May, Shimon Peres, the prime minister, could not afford to look weak. His election slogan is: "Israel is strong with Peres."

Pressure to do something against Hizbollah had been building up in Israel during the Passover holiday. On Tuesday guerrillas fired seven Katyusha rockets into northern Galilee, injuring 36 people and damaging 200 homes in Kiryat Shmona, close to the Lebanese border. Mr Peres was advised not to visit the town for fear of hostile demonstrations.

The Israeli army offered the government three options: mass air attacks, a mixture of air and ground attacks, or an attack on targets in Beirut. Mr Peres appears to have opted for the first and third options. By launching the first air attack on Beirut since the 1982-84 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, he hopes to convince the Israeli electorate Hizbollah is being punished.

Government ministers in Jerusalem were yesterday sounding bellicose. Ori Orr, the defence minister, said: "Beirut itself must understand that it cannot be quiet there and less quiet in Kiryat Shmona." Major General Amiram Levine, in command of Israeli forces in Lebanon, said: "Residents in south Lebanon who are under the authority of Hizbollah will be hit harder and Hizbollah will be hit harder."

There was a more muted analysis from other members of the government. Yossi Beilin, a cabinet minister in Mr Peres's office, said there would be no drastic change in the situation at the border until Israel had a "comprehensive diplomatic agreement with Syria and Lebanon". The air attacks so far have been light, probably designed more as a warning than a serious military assault.

The danger for the government is that Hizbollah will strike back both against Israeli troops in their occupation zone in southern Lebanon and through Katyusha rocket attacks against northern Israel. The guerrillas have shown in recent months that they effective at evading Israeli patrols and staging complicated ambushes. The Israeli explanation for this is that Hizbollah has set up special units which have good intelligence and are highly trained.

There were several signs of this increased sophistication in recent weeks. In one instance a Hizbollah unit fired shots at a patrol on the Israeli side of the border and then killed four soldiers who pursued them with a mine; a senior Israeli officer was targeted by a suicide bomber; and a bomb was placed in the local office of the South Lebanon Army, the local Lebanese militia armed and trained by Israel.

All this is in sharp contrast to the military incompetence of the Palestine Liberation Army when it ruled south Lebanon before the 1982 invasion. Though its forces numbered about 6,000 - while Hizbollah forces are probably in the hundreds - it failed to mine the roads or bridges. Hizbollah has proved a much tougher antagonist and, as one Israeli observer put it, "Peres cannot afford another 20 military funerals."

Israel's opponents are far more skilled than they used to be, but Israeli tactics have remained much the same. Air attacks on Beirut and Baalbek and reported shelling by gunboats are an old recipe which has not proved very effective.

One possible innovation in Israeli tactics is to target villages from which Katyusha rockets are alleged to have been fired. Israel might announce that Hizbollah must leave certain villages by a certain date or Israel will feel free to fire at them.

If it does so this will mean the end of the understanding, brokered by the US in 1993, whereby Israel and Hizbollah pledge not to hit each other's civilians except by way of retaliation.

This would mean an escalation in Lebanon just when the Israeli government does not want it. In 50 days it will face a general election. It had hoped that Lebanon would not become an issue. It has enough troubles calming public anxiety over the four suicide bomb attacks which killed 62 people in February and March.

But an editorial in the daily newspaper Ha'aretz said a breaking point was close in northern Israel when "the population will move southward and, in politics, voters will shift to the right".

The air strikes yesterday were an attempt to achieve three aims: Show Israelis that firm action is being taken, send a warning to Hizbollah but, at the same time, not escalate the level of fighting. The extent of Hizbollah retaliation will decide if Mr Peres has achieved these contradictory objectives.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Life and Style
tech
News
The 67P/CG comet as seen from the Philae lander
scienceThe most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
film
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Koenig, creator of popular podcast Serial, which is to be broadcast by the BBC
tvReview: The secret to the programme's success is that it allows its audience to play detective
News
Ruby Wax has previously written about her mental health problems in her book Sane New World
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas