At an undisclosed location in Europe, discrete negotiations are being held between Israel and the Palestinians. Others participating in the talks are the United States and Sunni Muslim states in the region. The agenda: How to cope with mounting Iranian influence and the Shiite revolution that is at their doorstep.
Yoram Turbowicz and Shalom Turjeman, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s two senior advisers, are taking part in these discussions. On the Palestinian side, two aides to President Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat and Yasser Abed Rabbo, are scheduled to leave for Washington over the next few days.
Israelis and Palestinians are making the final preparations for the expected summit in the last week of February with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Abu Mazen and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. That summit is supposed to be the launching point of negotiations between the two sides, which will be defined as a framework of meetings and reciprocal examination.
The summit meeting among Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian Authority Chairman Abu Mazen and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be held in Jerusalem on Feb. 19.
The parties are aware that, in the current state of affairs, it would be impossible to carry out any action on the ground, such as implementing the first stage of the road map: to disband and disarm Palestinian terrorist organizations.
Rice is scheduled to arrive in Israel two days before the summit meeting. Very high-ranking political officials said last night that Rice wants to show the parties that the U.S. administration is deepening its involvement and is intensifying its efforts to renew the peace process.
Rice will discuss with Olmert and Abu Mazen the central issues on the agenda: Establishing a Palestinian state within provisional borders, the nature of such a state and its relations with Israel, the status of Jerusalem, and the settlements, in a final status arrangement and the question of a Palestinian right of return to areas that they left in 1948.
However, senior Israeli security officials describe Rice’s efforts as an “empty effort that won’t ripen into anything real.”
The sources said they did not believe that there was any chance of a breakthrough in the near future given the fighting between Hamas and Fatah.
Hezbollah is alive, breathing and kicking in southern Lebanon. There are 350,000 residents there spread out over dozens of villages, most of whom are Shiite supporters of Hezbollah-members of that organization live and operate in their midst.
The Israeli army is concerned over the erosion of one of the only achievements of the war in Lebanon: distancing Hezbollah from the border. Hezbollah has returned to the border area on a low profile, without outposts, and in the past several days, succeeded in planting a group of bombs near Moshav Avivim against IDF patrols along the border. The political echelon was surprised, saying, “We never guessed that Hezbollah would start its provocations at such an early stage after the war.”
Officials of the Israeli Army Northern Command breathed a sigh of relief on Monday after they prevented a terrible disaster. During a routine road check, troops of the Engineering Corps spotted a suspicious object 60 meters north of the security fence, precisely on the international border. The explosives, which included five powerful anti-vehicle and anti-personnel bombs, were found near the village of Maroun a-Ras.
“This was done by a professional Hezbollah cell that took advantage of the stormy weather of the past several days, when it was impossible to observe the area, in order to approach the fence and plant the bombs,” a high-ranking officer in the area said. “If the patrol had not discovered them, it would have been hit. These were sophisticated bombs that were planted precisely at the right distance-but close enough-to harm IDF patrols moving along the security fence.”
French U.N. troops operating in the area were summoned to the scene, together with troops from the Lebanese army, who began searches. IDF snipers blew up one of the bombs with gunfire from a distance, and three other bombs were burned.
Since the end of the fighting last August, Hezbollah has continued to operate along the border in civilian disguise. “We spot shepherds who hold binoculars in one hand and a camera in the other, gathering intelligence,” a high-ranking officer said. “It is likely that the bombs were planted by civilians sent by Hezbollah. Before the war they did so openly, and now they only camouflage themselves. Since the war, they have been mostly waving flags along the border.”
A month ago, IDF troops found a bag containing weapons on the Lebanese border. The bag is believed to belong to the cell that kidnapped Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. Only last week, UNIFIL troops discovered a large bunker in the village of Shuba, in the eastern sector of southern Lebanon, close to the border.
Israeli army officials are disturbed by Hezbollah’s return to the fence and by the return to the days that preceded July 12, 2006, when the soldiers were kidnapped and the war broke out. IDF officials sharpened their orders to the troops: open fire at any hostile activity beyond the fence.
“They are rehabilitating themselves much more quickly than we are,” Shimon Biton, the secretary of Moshav Avivim, said yesterday. “The calm here is temporary. The bombs were really right under the noses of the U.N., the Lebanese army, the residents and the army.”
Shortly after the group of bombs was discovered near the blue line inside Lebanon, the IAF sent out a number of planes for a number of low-flying sorties.
The inclement weather notwithstanding, the army wanted to find targets: armed Hezbollah men, vehicles, something or someone who could be designated as a terrorist element near the fence.
In tandem, ground forces were sent out along the border to carry out a variety of activities, some of which were overt and others covert, in an attempt to find targets and to strike at them. No targets were found because of the weather conditions. But Israel flexed a small muscle to remind itself that it had resolved not to allow the incidents that occurred along the northern border last summer to recur.
The orders are not to allow Hezbollah to reposition itself along the border, even at the cost of clashes. The muscle that was flexed yesterday was geared to make it clear to the other side that it would be best if the cluster of bombs that was discovered yesterday were to remain an isolated incident rather than the harbinger of things to come.
Currently, based on intelligence received, it is still not clear whether it was Hezbollah that planted the cluster of bombs, as there are other terrorist groups operating in southern Lebanon as well. The claymore bombs disguised as rocks that were discovered this week were reminiscent of the roadside bombs that Hezbollah used against IDF patrols before the withdrawal. Moreover, it is not clear whether the bombs in question were to be used immediately or whether the plan was to use them at a later date, in keeping with political developments. The bombs may also have been planted in order to threaten the patrols that the IDF sends into the Israeli “enclaves” that lie between the border fence and the actual border.
Israeli Foreign Ministry And Security Officials: ‘Nasrallah Will Take Over Lebanon’
Within a decade, Hezbollah will turn into the largest political force in Lebanon and could also take over the Lebanese government, according to assessments by the Israel’s Foreign Ministry and Israel’s security establishment.
The president of Lebanon is always a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the parliament a Shiite Muslim. This is based on a population census from 1932, when the French founded Lebanon and the Christians were a majority. Since then, the Lebanese have not dared to hold a census, since they are afraid of destroying the fragile political framework. According to assessments, 40 percent of the Lebanese are Shiite, approximately 30 percent Sunni, 25 percent are Christian and five percent are Druze.
Yet, because of the very high birth rates among Shiites and the massive emigration of Christians, in approximately a decade the Shiites are expected to comprise more than half of the population. Today, Hezbollah has 14 seats in parliament, as opposed to 17 for the Amal organization, which is also Shiite. Yet in a decade, most of the Shiites will be supporters of Hezbollah. In such a situation, the prime minister of Lebanon will be an ally of Hezbollah, or the constitution will be changed in the meantime, and a Shiite, or Nasrallah himself, will be able to become prime minister.
©The Bulletin 2007