BRUSSELS/REVIVIM, Israel: A senior Israeli officer warned Thursday that the Syria conflict could ignite a war with Hezbollah, as Israel’s president urged the European Union to add the group to its list of designated terrorist organizations.
Israeli President Shimon Peres said Hezbollah, which the EU has so far declined to blacklist as a terrorist group, was now intervening directly in Syria against rebels opposed to President Bashar Assad and so was spreading its reach.
Bulgaria in February implicated Hezbollah in a bombing in the Black Sea resort of Burgas last year that killed five Israelis, putting pressure on the EU to sanction the group.
“If you do not take measures against Hezbollah, then they may think that they are permitted” to do what they like, he said after a meeting with European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso.
But Barroso said the EC did not yet have sufficient evidence of Hezbollah’s activities in Europe to make a decision. He added that Bulgaria was still finalizing its investigation into the attack and had asked the Lebanese government for help.
“The judicial process will show whether we should take political decisions. We cannot decide this in advance,” Barroso said. “Once the perpetrators are known, their inclusion in the list ... may be considered.”
A European diplomat close to the issue said one EU member state was expected to file an official request to blacklist Hezbollah’s military wing in the next month.
“A request should be made within a month and be considered in two to three months,” the diplomat told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It has become an overwhelming case.”
As Peres stepped up Israel’s lobbying effort in Brussels, a senior Israeli officer from the Lebanese front said that tensions in Syria “had the potential to spill over and trigger a confrontation” with Hezbollah.
“We want to preserve the quiet, and we want the other side to know that if they take a step that necessitates we exact a price, they will pay dearly,” the officer, who declined to be identified, told foreign reporters while overseeing a simulated, regiment-strength battle with Hezbollah in a desert army base.
Israel is on the verge of being drawn into the 2-year-old Syrian insurgency.
As the Syrian conflict drags on, Israel suspects that Hezbollah is getting advanced weapons from a distracted Damascus.
Israeli U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor has also written to the 15-member U.N. Security Council to complain about shells from Syria landing in Israel, warning it “cannot be expected to stand idle as the lives of its citizens are being put at risk.”
Iran’s nuclear ambitions could also prove to be a flash point. The Jewish state believes the Lebanese party stands ready to retaliate if it carries out long-threatened strikes on the nuclear sites of Iran.
The desert exercise, combined with the saber-rattling of top brass, suggested an attempt to deter Hezbollah by warning that the next conflict could bring greater suffering for Lebanon.
“The way they behave will have repercussions on the population and infrastructure of southern Lebanon,” the senior Israeli officer said, referring to Hezbollah’s heartland where Israel suspects it has sown rocket launchers and gun-nests in Shiite villages. Hezbollah fought Israel’s far more advanced forces to a standstill when they last came to blows in 2006, and rained more than 4,000 rockets on northern Israel. Israel killed 1,200 people in Lebanon, most of them civilians according to the U.N. Hezbollah killed 160 Israelis, most of them soldiers within Lebanese territory.
Asked if a new war would be more asymmetrical than in 2006, the senior Israeli officer said: “Yes. I don’t in any way expect the casualty ratio to be similar. I want things to be as bad as possible for the other side and as good as possible for us.”
He said Israel would try to give Lebanese civilians enough opportunity to evacuate, “such that I hope noncombatants will be significantly fewer than 40 percent [of casualties].”
Demonstrating Israeli plans to overrun Hezbollah-held ground quickly and suppress cross-border rocket salvos, the troops dashed across hillocks toward 10 mock guerrilla emplacements that had been raked with tank and machine-gun fire.
The exercise assumed around 100 Hezbollah fighters would face off against the 200 soldiers and Israel’s heavier ordnance – an indication of the army’s tactics of superior deployment.
The Israelis were all reservists, ages ranging from the mid-20s to early 40s, and were training to back up the standing army should it get bogged down on the Lebanese or other fronts.
One captain, who in civilian life is writing a doctoral dissertation on Balkan and Caucasus guerrillas, voiced a regard for Hezbollah that was more than merely academic.
“They have grassroots support and they fight on home turf,” said the captain, who gave only his first name, Yiftach. Though he said he and his comrades were better prepared for war than in 2006, “ Hezbollah worries me, to tell the truth.”
Speaking to high-school students last week, Israel’s armed forces chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, appeared to acknowledge the dangers Lebanese civilians could face.
“Would it be better to be a citizen of the state of Israel in the next war or a Lebanese citizen in the next war? Better to be Israeli citizens,” he said. - Reuters