Israel in military build-up on Lebanon border

Special to World
Wednesday, October 8, 2003

TEL AVIV Israel's military has launched a build-up along the borders with Lebanon and Syria.

Israel's military has sent an additional artillery battery and summoned three battalions for the build-up in the north. The build-up was said to have been the largest in the area since the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000.

Military sources said the mobilization was ordered by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who overruled a recommendation by Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon. The sources said Ya'alon drafted plans for a more modest reinforcement in the north.

The Israeli military build-up came in wake of Hizbullah rocket and mortar attacks on civilian and military positions along the northern Israeli border on Monday and Tuesday. The sources said Mofaz intends to use the build-up to deter Hizbullah from continuing its attacks.

Hizbullah, the sources said, has been ordered to escalate military tensions along the Israeli-Lebanese border in wake of the Israeli air strike on a Palestinian training facility outside Damascus on Sunday. The sources said Iran and Syria have used Hizbullah in a proxy war against Israel.

On Wednesday, the Lebanese military reported that six Israeli warplanes flew throughout Lebanon. The Hizbullah-owned Al Manar television said two of the Israeli jets shattered the sound barrier over Beirut.

The sources said the Israeli build-up would comprise of standing army forces and include the early return of combat units that had been on vacation. They said the reinforced deployment in the north would last until at least Oct. 22.

Mofaz would ask the government for the mobilization of reserves if the tension in the north continues beyond Oct. 22, the sources said. They said mobilization of the reserves would cost millions of dollars and signal the prospect of a large-scale military operation.

The sources said the current alert along the northern border has prompted a decision by Mofaz to cancel all exercises. They said the bolstering of troops along the northern border would also affect the deployment of troops in the West Bank, which has been a launching pad for Islamic suicide attacks inside Israel.

On Wednesday, Israel's military surrounded all Arab-populated cities in the West Bank and sliced the Gaza Strip into four areas. The sources said the measures were in response to 37 alerts of suicide and other Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilian targets.

Israeli ministers discussed the military reinforcement during its meeting on Wednesday in a move that could triple the number of troops in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Mofaz told the Cabinet that he would order reserves to man roadblocks and military patrols in and around Palestinian Authority areas.

On Oct. 6, Israel placed its military on alert along the borders of Israel and Syria.

The military alert was ordered on Monday in wake of two attacks by Hizbullah along Israel's border with Lebanon in which an Israeli soldier was killed. Hizbullah launched automatic weapon, rocket and mortar fire toward Israeli military posts along the Israeli border on Monday and early Tuesday in what officials deemed retaliation for an Israeli air strike on a Palestinian training base near Damascus.

Maj. Gen. Benny Ganz, head of Israel's military Northern Command, warned Lebanon and Syria against escalating tension with Israel and did not rule out additional attacks. Ganz said Syria would be held responsible for attacks by those trained in that country.

"We want to tell them that Syria is a major agent for terror and engages constantly in a war of proxy," Ganz said on Tuesday. "The [Israeli air] attack was a signal Syria that this cannot continue."

Officials said Sunday's air strike against the Ein Saheb training facility 15 kilometers northwest of Damascus was meant to send a message to the regime of President Bashar Assad that it would become a target for Israeli retaliation for Palestinian insurgency attacks. The officials said the attack came after several diplomatic warnings to Damascus, which serves as headquarters of Islamic Jihad, were sent through the European Union and the United States.

"The attack on the north has the potential for escalation," Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said. "But we can't be sitting ducks."

U.S. President George Bush has expressed concern over a military escalation in the Middle East. Bush telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon after the Israeli strike on the Palestinian camp as U.S. officials said the Bush administration was not informed in advance of the air attack.

"I think the point we're at now it's important to urge Israel to urge Syria not to do anything that would escalate the situation, not to do anything that would heighten tensions in the region," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "And that's what we're doing."

Israeli military sources said F-16 fighter-jets struck the Ein Saheb base on early Sunday, hours after 19 Israelis were killed in an Islamic Jihad suicide strike in the northern city of Haifa. The sources said the F-16s dropped several bombs and fired missiles toward buildings in the training base in the first such attack in more than 20 years. The pilots were said to have reported direct hits and the base was heavily damaged.

The base was said to have been used by Hamas and Islamic Jihad for training of their members. The sources said many of the Palestinian insurgents, financed by Iran, were then sent to the West Bank where they provided training to other Palestinians.

"We struck a base 15 kilometers from Damascus," Israeli Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman said. "We can also reach Damascus."

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