Fighting On Israel's Border May Force Exodus
Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Fierce fighting along Israel's northern border and in southern Lebanon may force some residents of border communities to leave permanently.
The Iranian-backed Islamic militia in southern Lebanon continued to increase the pressure ahead of Israel's planned pullout in July.
Three Israeli soldiers, two allied South Lebanese Army militiaman, a United Nations peacekeeper and four Lebanese civilians were wounded in Hizballah attacks on Israeli and SLA positions late on Wednesday and early on Thursday.
The two sides engaged in sharp exchanges of weapons fire, and Israeli Air Force jets bombed Hizballah targets inside Lebanon.
"Hizballah will be very happy if it can cause an escalation and bring us to a situation in which we would be withdrawing with our civilians sitting inside shelters," Prime Minister Ehud Barak said in a radio interview.
An escalation in fighting was sparked two weeks ago when the SLA mistakenly killed two Lebanese civilians. Hizballah responded by shelling northern Israel, killing one soldier and sending residents to underground bunkers and security rooms for two days.
Israel retaliated by bombing the main Beirut-Damascus highway and Lebanese power stations plunging the capital, Beirut, into darkness.
Increasing Aid To North 'Won't Help'
In an effort to bolster the 170,000 residents of Israel's 70 "confrontation line communities," the cabinet approved a 1.6 billion shekel ($400 million) aid package on Wednesday.
It is designed to encourage investment in northern Israel, enhance social and economic conditions and build up infrastructure in order to encourage residents to stay and promote growth in the area.
But Ofer Adar, aide to Mayor Haim Barbivai of Kiryat Shemona, said the aid package is not enough.
"Its not exactly what we agreed upon," Adar told CNSNews.com. With 24,000 residents, Kiryat Shemona is the largest town along the confrontation line. It is often the target of Katyusha rockets.
"We want security," Adar said. "We were in favor of a [troop] withdrawal with an agreement, but that is already behind us."
Adar was referring to Barak's hopes that a withdrawal from Lebanon would have taken place as a result of a trilateral peace agreement between Jerusalem, Beirut and Damascus.
But the collapse of US-brokered Israeli-Syrian talks several months ago dashed hopes of an agreement ahead of the withdrawal.
Adar said the government could offer substantial discounts, but there may be no one left in the north to accept them. Adar said that he was afraid there may be an exodus from northern Israel at the end of the current school year because people would be unwilling to live under the threat of attack.
Adar said northern communities were planning a demonstration at the Defense Ministry next week to demand security for their area.
Across the border in south Lebanon, the SLA also has come under increased threats.
There were reports of an increase in defections from the SLA this week. Six militiamen were reported to have left the force and turned themselves over to the Lebanese authorities or guerrilla groups.
SLA spokesman Raymond Abu Mrad told CNSNews.com that the reports had been exaggerated by the Lebanese media for propaganda purposes.
"There are some people who [were] maybe in the SLA before and left the area," Mrad said.
One former SLA militiaman was murdered on Tuesday, allegedly for his past links to the force. Hizballah claimed responsibility for the killing, saying Azar Shaklah had been condemned to death as a "collaborator" and the sentence against him had been carried out. Gunmen infiltrated the village of Markabeh, less than a mile-and-a-half from the Israeli border. They fired in the air to scare residents away and then killed Shaklah.
At the weekend, Hizballah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah threatened SLA members -considered traitors for siding with Israel in the conflict - that Hizballah members would "enter [their] homes and slaughter [them] in [their] beds."
Nasrallah also offered to help obtain amnesty for those who would kill an Israeli or an SLA officer and then desert their units.
Mrad played down the planned withdrawal of Israel's 1,500 troops and said that nothing had really changed because of Israel's decision to leave.
"We would like all foreign armies out of Lebanon," Mrad said, referring to the 35,000 Syrian troops stationed in Lebanon.
"For us, nothing has changed," he said. "We are fighting for ourselves. We are Lebanese. We live on our own land."