Israeli military aircraft attacked villages in southern Lebanon on August 10, and flew at low level over Beirut early the next morning, in the latest stage of a significant escalation of its constant tension with Hizbullah early this month. It had resumed air operations over Lebanon earlier in August after a long gap.
Israeli military authorities said that the August 10 attacks were in retaliation for the death of an Israeli civilian in the northwestern town of Shlomi earlier in the day. The Israelis said he had been killed by deliberate cross-border shelling by Hizbullah. Hizbullah officials said that they had been aiming anti-aircraft fire at Israeli aircraft violating Lebanese airspace and some of the shells had fallen in Israeli-occupied Palestine.
This month’s increasing conflict between the Hizbullah and Israel began on August 2, when Israel used a car bomb to assassinate a Hizbullah official in southern Beirut. Ali Hussain Saleh, 42, was martyred when his car exploded a few seconds after he started the engine in Hadi Nasrallah Street, a busy main road in the capital named after the martyred son of Hizbullah secretary general Shaikh Hassan Nasrallah. The car was reportedly blown across the road by the force of the blast, seriously injuring a passer-by.
A Hizbullah statement issued later in the day said that Saleh had been a member of its armed forces since 1982, and had "taken part in many training exercises and participated in many operations". The statement said that Hizbullah "placed the entire responsibility on Israel for this crime, which we consider an flagrant aggression against our people and country," adding that "this crime will not go unpunished".
Saleh was buried in his home town of Brital, in the eastern Bekaa Valley, on August 3.
Hizbullah’s response came a few days later, on August 8, when it launched operations against Israeli troops in the Israeli-occupied Sheba’a Farms region of southern Lebanon, the last area of the country still under Israeli occupation. Despite the positions of Syria, Lebanon and the UN, which all agree that the area is Lebanese territory, Israel insists that it is part of the Syrian Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since 1967. Israel was finally forced to withdraw from the rest of southern Lebanon, which it had occupied since 1978, in May 2000, as a result of many years of Hizbullah resistance.
The timing of Israel’s attack on Ali Saleh may be significant. Commentators suggested that it was deliberately designed to raise tensions with Hizbullah, Lebanon and Syria in order to distract from politicking in Palestine, where Israel is refusing to meet its obligations under the US-brokered ‘road map’ peace process, and is coming under some pressure from the US, its close ally, as a result.
Shaikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah’s secretary general, had earlier signalled the Islamic movement’s determination to maintain its resistance against Israel, and its support for the Palestinians, in a speech in the southern Lebanese village of Jibsheet on July 27.
Speaking at a rally to mark the 14th anniversary of the kidnapping of local alim and Hizbullah leader Shaikh Abdul Karim Obaid, Shaikh Nasrallah warned the Israelis that he was losing patience with their stalling of negotiations on the release of prisoners.
He also said that if no progress was made soon, Hizbullah would move to capture more Israelis, to add to the four it admits having captured in the past. They are three soldiers captured in the Sheba’a Farms region shortly after Israel’s withdrawal from the rest of Lebanon in May 2000, and Elhanan Tenenbaum, a Mossad agent captured in Beirut later in 2000 after being lured there by Hizbullah members.
"We will give the negotiations over detainees and prisoners a last chance," he said in his speech. "If this chance passes, we will consider the negotiations ...have reached a dead end and that the existing number of detainees in our hands are not enough to carry out successful negotiations and a full exchange. The alternative is not to back down, but work night and day to capture new Israeli prisoners."
He also said that he could no longer confirm the condition of any of the prisoners it is currently holding. Israel has said that it believes the three soldiers to be dead, but Tenenbaum to be alive. Hizbullah has always refused to comment on their conditions, as Israel refuses to give details on the conditions of the prisoners it holds.
On July 27, however, he said: "I have said in the past that... Tenenbaum was alive because he came to Lebanon and did not come dead. His family has announced on more than one occasion that he had a dangerous illness and this is true and we were concerned with his health condition."
"Today... I add the Israeli colonel to the three and say to the Israelis that the fate of Tenenbaum is also unknown. For who knows if he is still alive or has followed others before him and been killed on the stage of confrontation with this enemy?"
Shaikh Nasrallah was also very critical of the West for only being interested in Israeli prisoners, while showing no interest in the plight of Muslims held by Israel, and the suffering and grief of their families.
Apart from Shaikh Obaid, Israel is holding approximately 20 other Hizbullah prisoners, including another senior Hizbullah leader, Mustafa Dirani.
German negotiators have been trying to broker an exchange of prisoners since 2000 but have made little progress.