Israel masses troops, tanks along Lebanon border

Friday, July 21, 2006

Israel has warned civilians in Southern Lebanon to leave their homes and villages and move into the city of Beirut as Israel masses tanks, armored personnel carriers, bulldozers and at least 5 battalions of troops totaling at least 3,000 reserves along its border with Lebanon. Villagers were warned to leave the area before 2:00 p.m. in at least 12 villages in Lebanon that border Israel.

Chief of the Israeli army, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz says that operations conducted on the ground will be limited. "We shall carry out limited ground operations as necessary in order to strike at the terrorism which strikes at us.", Halutz said during a press conference. Senior Israeli army commanders have left open the possibility that a large-scale ground invasion would soon be launched. "It's possible that in the coming days our ground operations will increase," said Israeli Brigadier-General Alon Friedman

The Lebanese government has warned Israel that if an invasion occurs, the Lebanese army would engage in battle with Israel's army."The Lebanese Army will resist and defend the country and prove that it is an army worth of respect," said Elias Murr, Lebanon's Defense Minister. "Our constitutional duty is to defend Lebanon as a Lebanese army. This is our role. But for the resistance (Hezbollah) to enter the army and fight alongside the army, this is not an option".

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud said that Lebanon are not going to "let anybody take our land. We are not going to let them come back and take it." However, according to Mail & Guardian Online which is quoting an anonymous Israeli military official, there will not be a "full-scale incursion into Lebanon."

On the other hand, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora was quoted in the Milan-based daily "Corriere della Sera" calling for the disarmament of Hezbollah. "It's not a mystery that Hezbollah answers to the political agendas of Tehran and Damascus," Siniora said to the Corriere. "The entire world must help us disarm Hezbollah. But first we need to reach a cease-fire." Siniora later denied the interview, but "Corriere della Sera" stands by its report. "The interview was recorded," a senior staff member said.

"The important thing now is to restore full Lebanese sovereignty in the south, dismantling any armed militia parallel to the national army," said Siniora. "The Syrians are inside our home and we are still too weak to defend ourselves. The terrible memories of the civil war are still too alive and no one is ready to take up arms."

So far, Lebanon's army has not engaged in battle with Israel's army except for firing anti-aircraft guns at Israeli warplanes.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah issued a strongly worded statement indicating, as he has before, that he will not release any Israeli prisoners except through a prisoner-exchange. Nasrallah stated that Israeli reports of having destroyed half of Hezbollah's missile stores were erroneous and that, "the leadership of Hezbollah has not been touched." He promised "more surprises".

While Nasrallah asks for an exchange of Israeli-held prisoners for two IDF soldiers captured by a Hezbollah incursion into Israel following the G8 summit, the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for an immediate cease-fire between the two bordering nations on Thursday. But the UN holds little sway in Lebanon.

The Lebanese government is the first elected by a popular vote following last year's resignation of the Syrian backed government of Omar Karami in February. Demonstrations and pressure from the international community led to a complete withdrawal by Syria and free and democratic elections in June. The current Israel-Lebanon crisis is the most serious challenge faced by the relatively inexperienced government.