Amid growing pressure both inside and outside of Lebanon for Hizbullah to disarm, it was just a matter of time before the organization would lash out at Israel. Indeed, senior security officials have been warning the cabinet for months of the likelihood of an attack in the north.
Since Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, Hizbullah has been an Iranian/Syrian proxy in search of a reason for being. That reason - or at least the reason Hizbullah head Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah likes to tell the Lebanese - is to defend southern Lebanon from "Israeli aggression."
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It stands to reason, therefore, that if there is no "Israeli aggression," then Hizbullah needs to provoke some, because it is Hizbullah's raison d'etre.
Which places Israel in a delicate bind. On the one hand it cannot tolerate Katyusha rocket attacks from southern Lebanon; on the other hand if it responds too harshly it plays directly into Nasrallah's hands. An errant Israeli shell causing extensive Lebanese civilian casualties would go a long way toward silencing those inside and outside the country who want to see the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the country's armed militias to be demilitarized and the Lebanese government to move its troops southward.
This tightrope has been one that Israel has gingerly walked since leaving Lebanon six years ago. Sunday, however, marked the harshest Israeli response to Hizbullah provocations since May 2000. One reason is that right now it is not only Hizbullah that has to prove itself, but also the new Israeli government.
Sunday's Katyusha attack represented Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's first serious "Lebanese test," and it was imperative for him to send a forceful message back that he, too, would not be pushed around.
"We carried out an aerial attack and will use all the means of response at our disposal, on land and in the air, to attack terror elements trying to disrupt life in the north," Olmert said after meeting President Moshe Katsav.
"There should be no doubt, we will hit with a very painful blow anyone who tries to disrupt life in the north," he added. Olmert said the Israeli response was an important warning to Palestinian elements in Lebanon of what was liable to happen to them if this continued. "We hope that the response will be understood correctly and there will be no other tests," Olmert said.
Senior diplomatic sources in Jerusalem said they expected that the escalation in the north would not drag on for more than 24 hours, because neither Lebanon, facing considerable domestic problems, nor Syria, facing international isolation, "have a stomach for a large confrontation" at this time.
Nonetheless, what Hizbullah succeeded in doing was to put everyone on renewed notice that it retains a potent mischief-playing role in the region. Nasrallah's Descartes-like message Sunday was simple: "I fire rockets, therefore I am."