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The real spectre that is looming on Israel

The wadi or streambed between the northern Israeli villages of Zarit and Shtula is eerily quiet. A vast expanse of Lebanese territory, mostly rocky heights with a sprinkling of olive trees, lies on the other side of an Israeli border fence across the road from this streambed which is devoid of even a drop of water at this time.

It was in this wadi that Hezbollah militants, who scaled the border fence, hid for several days before they ambushed and made away with Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev to Aita al-Shaab, a nearby Lebanese village which was dotted with tobacco plantations and pomegranate, lemon or fig orchards and had 11,000 residents at that time.

This incident in July 2006 triggered the Israel-Hezbollah war, which lasted 34 days, the only Arab-Israeli conflict that did not result in a decisive victory for the Jewish army.

Aita al-Shaab’s residents are mostly gone now because the town suffered extensive damage during the war and its orchards and plantations are largely a tragic wasteland.

From the road above the wadi, nothing moves on the Lebanese side.

“Don’t be deceived,” Captain Mitch Pilcer warned me. “Right now, the Hezbollah are watching us from those heights, unseen.”

Before the abduction of Goldwasser and Regev and the death of three other Israeli soldiers in that ambush, the Hezbollah would be all over right up close to the border fence.

“They would stand face-to-face against me and call me a mother ****er and threaten to abuse my sister,” Captain Pilcer told me. “After the July 2006 war, if we spot anyone anywhere on the other side of the border, we shoot to kill.”

Captain Pilcer is the spokesperson for the Israeli Defence Forces in this segment of the Israeli-Lebanese border. Like the bulk of the Israeli army, he is a reservist, who owns a farm and runs a small bed-and-breakfast business in Zippori village in the lower Galilee, on a hillside facing the Zippori National Park and the spectacular vista of the Bet Netofa Valley.

Despite the stalemate in the war nearly five years ago, the spokesperson was brimming with confidence when he drove me along the long border. Yes, there could be another war, there could be suffering on both sides. But he was dead certain Israel was secure.

Lebanon, a nation hopelessly divided against itself and controlled by proxy from Damascus, was no match for Israel.

In the last few weeks, which changed the complexion, mood and morale of the Arab world, some of that has changed, however.

While the world focuses its attention on the dramatic events in Cairo, the most significant change with long-term implications for the whole of West Asia has taken place in Beirut.

Overshadowed by the first big demonstration against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and largely ignored by Indians, the superbly organised, radically anti-Israeli Hezbollah — the Party of God — effectively seized the Lebanese government through long and patient intrigue on January 25.

Two weeks earlier, the Hezbollah succeeded in unseating Saad Hariri, its pet hate who had become Prime Minister after the “Cedar Revolution” of 2005 which saw the Syrian army vacating Lebanon after 29 years of occupation. That was a phase when everything was going so well for Israel.

The Lebanese constitution requires that the country’s President should be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of parliament a Shia. The Hezbollah, made up of Shias, did not change that, but it has now made enough allies in parliament to have the majority to dictate that a Sunni of its choice is Prime Minister.

With the parliament and the executive under its wing, the Maronite Christian President must either toe Hezbollah’s line or be isolated. And the parliament Speaker is already its nominee. Not since the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia through a democratic process between 1946 and 1948 has any single political party anywhere taken over a country so smoothly and through rigorously constitutional means.

The only real threats of another armed conflict between Israel and the Arabs come from Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. A peace agreement between Israel and Jordan is firmly in place. It would be foolish to presume that the first step by a new government in Cairo would be to go to war with Israel from whom, Egypt got back territories occupied during previous wars at a very big price.

Iran is not contiguous to Israel’s borders and any threat Tel Aviv faces from Tehran is not physical. Even Syria, despite its rhetoric and support for hardliners in the Arab-Israeli conundrum, has much to lose from any direct confrontation with the Jewish state.

But Gaza, controlled by Hamas, is a different story. And now, in Lebanon, for the first time since Israel’s peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan — in 1979 and 1994 respectively — control of a neighbouring state has fallen to a group which not only abjures peace with Israel, but is willing to go to war.

Lebanon’s new Prime Minister who owes his job to the Hezbollah, Najib Mikati, is a billionaire businessman who has close ties with Syria. The emergence of a new triumvirate of governments in the region — in Beirut, Damascus and Tehran — which wants to call Israel to account, also complicates any effort in Washington to isolate Iran over its nuclear programme.

Like the Christian Mass and the Muslim namaaz that were held in perfect harmony in Cairo’s Tahrir Square today, of equal significance was the Hezbollah’s success in persuading the Lebanese Druze to support Mikati, its preferred candidate.

Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, like his father Kamal, wakes up every morning to a picture of Mahatma Gandhi in his bedroom. If the Hezbollah has persuaded Gandhians to support its moves, the silver lining maybe that all hope is not lost in the land of some of the worst conflicts in our time.

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