Captured Soldiers Heading for Iran?

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

( - Israel says it has learned that the Lebanese-based Hizballah intends to transfer the two Israeli soldiers it abducted on Wednesday to Iran. That word came Thursday from a senior official in Israel's Foreign Ministry.

Israel is now linking Iran, Syria, Hizballah and Hamas all together in what it calls an "axis of terror and hate" that threatens the entire world.

Hizballah threatened on Thursday to hit the Israeli coastal city of Haifa with Katyusha rockets. With more than 270,000 residents, Haifa is Israel's third largest city and its main seaport. More than 80 rockets hit northern Israeli communities on Thursday, killing two women and wounding dozens of others.

Initially, Israel said it was holding Lebanon responsible for the Hizballah attack that opened a new front in the war on Wednesday. Hizballah fired rockets at Israel, killed eight Israeli soldiers in cross-border attacks, and abducted two other soldiers.

Now Israeli officials are saying that Lebanon is not the only responsible party - Syria and Iran are also involved. (President Bush on Thursday said his main concern is the "fragile democracy" in Lebanon, which the U.S. has done so much to encourage, and he urged Israel to use restraint.)

Iran is so involved that Hizballah is planning to transfer the two Israeli captives to that nation, Foreign Ministry Deputy Director-General for Public Affairs Gideon Meir said on Thursday.

"We also have specific information that Hizballah is planning to transfer the kidnapped soldiers to Iran," Meir told journalists in Jerusalem.

Syria, Iran and Hamas were also part of the same "axis of terror and hate threatening not only Israel but the entire world," Meir said.

Syria hosts the headquarters of about a dozen Palestinian terrorist groups in its capital Damascus, including that of Hamas and its political leader Khaled Mashaal.

Israel accused Mashaal of being behind the earlier Palestinian attack on an Israeli army outpost along the Israeli-Gaza border 19 days ago, in which Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit was abducted and taken into Gaza.

Syria also transfers arms, ammunition and operatives to Hizballah through Damascus, while Iran provides "funding, weapons, and directives" for the organization, Meir said.

Iranian influence has also been increasing over Palestinian groups such as Fatah's al-Aksa Martyrs' Brigades and Hamas' military wing, experts have said.

Although Hizballah and Hamas belong to different streams of Islam, they are both fundamentalist organizations that share the stated goal of destroying the State of Israel and erecting an Islamic state in its place.

"Damascus and Teheran [use the groups as] a tool to strengthen the influence of their own regimes and to divert attention from other issues which have exposed them lately to international pressure," Meir said.

The English language Tehran Times drew the connection between Hizballah and the Palestinians in its Thursday edition on the Internet.

"Hizballah fighters came to the help of the innocent Palestinians by capturing two Israeli soldiers on the border of southern Lebanon on Wednesday," the paper wrote.

"Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have come under the barbaric attack of the Zionist regime for more than two weeks just because militants captured an Israeli soldier with the goal of exchanging him for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including women and children, held in Israeli jails," it said.

Good for the Lebanese

Senior Israeli government advisor Ambassador Avi Pazner said that since the attack on Israel is coming from sovereign Lebanese territory, Israel holds the government of Lebanon responsible.

"Our aim is throw Hizballah out of southern Lebanon and activate the Lebanese government to take some action," Pazner said in a telephone interview.

Israel is hoping that the government of Lebanon will see that Hizballah is taking it some place it does not want to go, Pazner said. "Our primary concern is for the safety of our citizens in the north," he added.

President Bush backed Israel's right to defend itself on Thursday but also said that he was concerned about Lebanon's "fragile democracy" and said Israel should take care not to weaken the Lebanese government.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said that pushing the Lebanese government to disarm Hizballah was for its own good.

Implementing United Nations Security Council resolution 1559, which calls for the disarming of all militias - a veiled reference to Hizballah - is a "vital element in creating a truly independent and democratic Lebanon."

"As long as there is [an armed Hizballah] under Syrian and Iranian tutelage Lebanon will never be truly democratic and free," Regev said.

Hizballah is a fundamentalist Lebanese group that would like to see the country become an Islamic republic.

Analyst Dan Schueftan, deputy director of the National Security Studies Center, said that getting rid of Hizballah would also be an asset to two other U.S. Middle East allies, Jordan and Egypt.

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