A 'game' on Israel's border


GHAJAR, on the Israel-Lebanon Border - Nightly now, numerous rockets launched by Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon strike Mount Dov and Shebaa Farms. Rockets and infiltrators on foot threaten Israeli towns to the west.

Ghajar, a village of 1,200 that straddles the border, looks increasingly like the place where the widely feared explosion of fighting involving Israel, Syria and Lebanon could begin. All the players are ready, including the Iran-backed militants of Hezbollah, itching for a fight.

Israeli troops control the southern entrance to the village. Hezbollah forces, ensconced in an abandoned U.N. position, control the entrance in the north. The residents, Syrian Alawite Muslims, insist that no border fence be built to divide them.

"Ghajar is one of our weakest points," says a senior Israeli commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "There was always smuggling here, but now instead of just drugs, it is weapons."

Ghajar and the nearby Shebaa Farms area are the epicenter of one of the world's most dangerous strategic games.

"Hezbollah wants fire all over this border," the Israeli officer says. "The Iranians are pushing them and the Syrians are restraining them. [Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik] Hariri wants Hezbollah out, but he is too weak" to force the issue.

Israel estimates that Hezbollah forces have more than 8,000 missiles stockpiled here, some capable of reaching Haifa, the principal city of northern Israel. Hezbollah openly controls and polices the Lebanese side of the border.

When Israel withdrew in 1999 from territory it had occupied in south Lebanon, it expected to be able to pacify this border and soothe relations with Lebanon. The United Nations contributed to the effort by certifying that Israel had fully withdrawn from occupied Lebanese territory.

But Syria and Lebanon, over which Damascus wields strong influence, asserted that Ghajar and Shebaa Farms - areas of the Golan Heights region captured by Israel from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967 - were part of Lebanon, not Syria.

Critics and supporters of Israel alike say this is a transparent pretext to justify the continued presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon and the continuing activities of Hezbollah fighters along the border.

Because the Lebanese army did not move in when Israel moved out, Hezbollah was able to deploy all along Israel's northern border. The organization now has at least 20 posts from which to observe Israeli forces and test Israeli defenses.

"Nowhere else in the world do you see such a ratio of shepherds to sheep," says an Israeli commander. "We have here seven shepherds for four sheep" - cover for Hezbollah men to approach the border fence and probe for weaknesses. "It is a very dangerous cat and mouse game. They go up to the fence, touch it, and time how long it takes us to respond."

One weakness was exploited March 12 when two men, bearing no identification, infiltrated into northern Israel and killed a shepherd, four motorists and a soldier before being killed by Israeli forces.

Israel, intent on avoiding a two-front war, initially said there was no evidence the terrorists came from across the border. Later, it acknowledged that they had crossed it, but could not be definitively identified as Palestinians or Hezbollah fighters. It did not retaliate.

"We are worried about this northern border," a Western diplomat in Israel says. "We are trying to get the Lebanese and Syrians to restrain Hezbollah, and we are encouraging Israel to continue its restraint."

If Hezbollah does not cease its provocations, the diplomat says, "at some point Israel will retaliate" with more than its current, limited airstrikes, "and then there will be anything from a minor incident to a real little war that could draw in Syria.

"Everyone says the Syrians don't want to fight because their forces are crummy, but they may think the Israelis have their hands full in the territories" and would thus be unable to handle a second front.

An official in Israel's Foreign Ministry says his country has "known for some time that Hezbollah has a policy of escalation and is under some pressure from Iran" to move forward more aggressively.

"They are trying to provoke us, through Palestinian groups working with training and protection from Hezbollah."

Even before the rocket attacks of recent days, the provocations were severe.

On Sheik Abhad Hill a little way southwest of Ghajar, the border fence divides in half a tomb that some Israelis believe is that of a 4th-century Talmudist and some Muslims say belongs to a sheik of the Middle Ages. On the Lebanese side, Hezbollah has erected gruesome pictures of Israeli soldiers maimed and killed in combat.

One picture, a couple of yards from the fence, is of the disembodied head of an Israeli soldier.

Young Hezbollah fighters stroll and loiter along the fence, sometimes making obscene gestures at Israeli troops, who respond with profane words.

Another factor contributing to deteriorating conditions on the border is the reduction in numbers of U.N. peacekeepers and observers in the area. Three of six U.N. battalions once assigned to the region have been withdrawn, and further reductions are expected before the end of this year.

The Lebanese particularly fear that the conflict here could re-ignite the animosities that tore their country apart during civil strife that stretched from 1975 to 1990.

Christians and Druze generally do not support the attacks across the border; militant Muslims, who fought with the other ethnic groups in the war, do.

On Tuesday, Lebanese prosecutors charged two Syrians and six Palestinians arrested last week with forming illegal armed groups and attempting to fire rockets. The prosecutors said they were members of Syria-based Palestinian militant organizations.

The fighters along the border are tight-lipped about their strategies, their weapons - about everything except the question of whether the northern front will open.

"There will be war, but we don't yet know when," said a Hezbollah man on the fringes of Ghajar recently. "We will know when it is time."

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