Analysis: A sign of weakness

The government gave up bargaining chips - the dead Hizbullah terrorists - for nothing.

hizbullah bodies298 88ap (photo credit: AP)
hizbullah bodies298 88ap
(photo credit: AP)
You would think that when Israel handed over the bodies of the three Hizbullah gunmen, who were killed after they infiltrated Israel in a botched attempt to kill and kidnap Israeli soldiers, that at least a thank you would be in order. Not only did Hizbullah react with characteristic contempt, but it even vowed to continue to stage attacks on Israel to kidnap soldiers who would, no doubt, be held for lengthy and tormenting negotiations. If the paltry IDF retaliation to last Monday's attack on the Galilee hinted that there was no real penalty for unprovoked aggression against Israel, then the government drove home the fact by giving up bargaining chips - the dead Hizbullah terrorists - for nothing. Israel's official reason was to reduce the tension and that it came "following the Lebanese government's urgent request to do so." Government sources said it was also hoped it would lead to Beirut extending its sovereignty in the Hizbullah-controlled southern Lebanon. Yet there was no formal request by Jerusalem for such action. In fact, IDF soldiers carried over the coffins of the three Hizbullah terrorists Friday with no strings attached. Israel lost a chance to set a new policy with the terrorist organization. It could have given over the bodies with an announcement that Israel no longer intended to negotiate for bodies in the future. But it did not make this statement. The impression it gives is one of "Aw shucks, we're just a bunch of nice people who respect the dead." The 80 hours which Hizbullah had to wait for return of the bodies comes nowhere close to the torment it caused the families of St.-Sgts. Adi Avitan, Benny Avraham and Omar Souad who were captured by Hizbullah in October 2000 and were returned, dead, 40 months later. Speaking from Hizbullah's stronghold in southern Beirut, leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah warned that his fighters would keep trying to capture Israeli troops. "It is our right to capture Israeli soldiers," Nasrallah said. "Do you want more clarity than this? And I'll tell you more than that. It is our duty to do this." Nasrallah added that from their experience, holding Israeli hostages was the best way to bring back their detainees. Israelis have now been warned that Hizbullah may try to kidnap them, proving that Israel's goodwill gesture in returning the bodies of its enemies does nothing to remove Hizbullah's threats. Perhaps there is a new secret channel of communication between Israel and Beirut and returning the bodies was a way to strengthen it. Perhaps Lebanon's forces are going to thwart the next attempt to kill and kidnap Israeli soldiers. But the heroic military action displayed by paratroopers last week in defending the state by killing infiltrators was followed through with hasty and even careless diplomacy. Perhaps it was because Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz were too preoccupied with their upcoming election bids that the issue was mishandled. What Israel showed this week is that it is lacking self-confidence when it comes to Hizbullah. It allows the Shi'ite-backed terrorist militia to maintain its freedom of movement. While Hizbullah may be in distress and its recent attacks may have been carried out to divert attention from troubled Syria, Hizbullah also retains its deterrence against Israel. It still has the freedom to attack Israel whenever it feels like. The mantra that is heard in the defense establishment is that Israel wants to avoid opening a second front in the North. This policy should be on shaky ground, particularly after Hizbullah sent the residents of the North to the shelters.