Proxy war on Israel's northern front?
The Jerusalem Post

1 April 2003

For the first time since the outbreak of war in Iraq, Hizbullah gunners fired anti-aricraft shells over upper and western Galilee on Tuesday.

Separately, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz condemned the anti-Israel remarks made recently by Syria's president and warned that Israel is closely following the "rhetoric and action" coming from Damascus.

The shooting, just 24 hours after warnings by senior US officials to Iran and Syria to refrain from terror, did not cause any casualties.

There were reports, however, that an unexploded shell fell near a school in Kiryat Shmone and burning shrapnel fell on rooftops in the city.

Demolition experts went to the scene to defuse the shell. It was the second time that an unexploded anti-aircraft round has fallen in a community near the Lebanese border, since Hizbullah began routinely firing into the air over the Galilee after Israel withdrew troops from Lebanon in May 2000.

Lebanese security officials said two Israeli jet fighters violated Lebanon's airspace by flying at a medium-altitude over the market town of Nabatiyeh and the coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon.

Hizbullah's anti-aircraft batteries fired on the Israeli jets but missed, the officials said. Palestinians in the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp near Sidon, also joined in the shooting, the reports said.

In a statement, Hizbullah said its air defense unit confronted the Israeli planes twice Tuesday morning over the Bint Jbeil border region and in eastern Lebanon.

Since Israel withdrew its troops from south Lebanon in 2000, Israeli military aircraft have routinely flown over Lebanon on apparent reconnaissance missions, sometimes breaking the sound barrier with loud sonic booms and drawing fire from Lebanese army and Hizbullah gunners.

The Lebanese government and the United Nations have called the Israeli overflights a violation of Lebanese territory.

But the gunners had been silent since the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, despite the apparent persistence of Israeli flights in the area.

Still, observers in Israel feel it is too soon to say whether Tuesday's shelling marked a deliberate escalation by Hizbullah in response to the US warnings.

For the time being, the northern border has been tense but quiet since the start of the Iraqi war, with both sides closely monitoring the movements and actions of the other. For decades southern Lebanon and northern Israel were the scene of a proxy war between pro-Israeli and Syrian-backed gunmen, but the fighting became dormant after Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon three years ago.

Hizbullah is on the US State Department list of terrorist organizations but is recognized in Lebanon as a "resistance group." The group operates in parts of Lebanon that are under de facto Syrian control.

Defense Minister Mofaz, in remarks Tuesday to reporters at a recruitment base, indicated that Israel is particularly concerned about a remark last week by Syria's President Bashar Assad, that his country would be under threat as long as Israel exists. He said Israel was closely following the situation.

Just two days before Tuesday's shooting, US Secretary of State Colin Powell warned Syria to quit supporting terrorist groups.

Powell told more than 4,000 members of the pro-Israel AIPAC organization in Washington Sunday that "Syria also now faces a critical choice."

"Syria can continue direct support for terrorist groups and the dying regime of Saddam Hussein or it can or it can embark on a different and more hopeful course. Either way, Syria bears the responsibility of its choices and for the consequences," Powell said.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has accused Syria of shipping military supplies, including night-vision goggles, to Iraq. "These deliveries pose a direct threat to the lives of coalition forces," Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday.

(With The Associated Press)