Yesterday, a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv killed 4 people and injured 15.
Right now, Israel and the Palestinians are gearing up for a serious round of talks, with new leadership (Mahmoud Abbas) on the Palestinian side, and new indications of good faith (pullout from Gaza, prisoner releases) on the Israeli side. The major local terrorist groups – Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and so on – had all agreed to a temporary truce, at least in the run-up to the Palestinian parliamentary elections, which are one of the next major navigational points for local politics. So this bombing is significant, because it means someone stepped out of the group.
One of the first things to understand about this is why the truce happened. Over the past several years, Sharon systematically killed all of the high-ranking members of the terrorist groups he could get his hands on. When Arafat finally passed away, the groups had weak leadership, and more importantly, had lost a good deal of political support among the Palestinian people, who seem to be fairly sick of bloodshed and really wanting to go back to some sort of peace. (Exactly how much support they’ve lost will become clear in the upcoming election – which is why that stage is so important) But the groups were basically backed into a corner, knowing that if they tried to push for more warfare now nobody would help them. So who would act next?
Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the blast, but this can safely be ignored. They disclaimed responsibility for about a day afterwards, and then switched to taking it; the English translation of this is that there was about a day of horse-trading over which group would take responsibility, and this has more or less nothing to do with who actually did it. Islamic Jihad has perhaps the least to lose from this, since they’re the most overtly militant group (Hamas, at least, has some functions other than murdering people in the streets, and they’ve got their eyes set on the upcoming election fairly closely). But my money says that the responsible party was the odd man out in this, the Hezbollah.
Unlike the other terrorist groups in the area, Hezbollah is not a local Palestinian group. Their bases are in Lebanon, their training facilities and main logistical support come from Syria, and central command and control, as well as funding and resources, comes from Iran. Especially in the past year, it’s safe to consider them to be direct agents of the Iranian government when it wants to act somewhat covertly; the government has tightened its control, sending its own operatives down into the Palestinian territories (especially Gaza) to personally monitor things. During the past year, they’ve been involved in more and more attacks, both on Israelis and on Palestinians – their objective is to cause havoc in the area, prevent any peace deal from being formed, and generally keep Israel from stabilizing enough to allow it, or anyone else in the area, to become a regional power. (They’ve had some side goals as well, e.g. to establish enough local control over the Gaza strip so that it can be used as a safe base of operations for them and indirectly for Iran, in the same way that Lebanon can – thus their games of assassinating Palestinian officials in that area about a year ago)
The problem is that more or less everyone in Israel and the Palestinian territories now is looking for some way to conclude a peace with dignity for both sides. (With the obvious exceptions of the leadership of the terrorist groups and the religious fanatics, but they’re becoming more marginalized as a real chance for peace emerges) This means that Hezbollah is going to be getting more and more active, working towards scotching any semblance of process and returning to the healthy anarchy of a few years ago, and they’re not going to give up – they’re going to throw as many resources as they can muster into causing trouble.
(Abbas and Sharon, in the meantime, have reacted fairly well to this – they both swiftly arrested people responsible, and the rumor has it that the people arrested weren’t random people at all, but actually involved. There have also been a good number of attacks foiled in the past few days. This whole thing has improved my opinion of Abbas as dealing on the level in this whole matter – I think there is a real partner for peace discussions here, and I hope that both sides can stay that course; it’s the only hope for anyone)
Now for a controversial question: What can be done about this? If either Abbas or Sharon tries an all-out campaign against Hezbollah, not only will it only have partial success, but it would be the death knell for the nascent peace process. Increasing political power for the moderates in Iran might help – but then again it might not, since Khatami may have some good incentive to keep this stuff up as well. (And this ties in to the whole question of Iran’s nuclear program, and its impact on their domestic politics – something not to be ignored)
The one weak point in Iran’s plan is distance. Iran doesn’t have easy access to Israel; the Red Sea has navies floating in it that don’t like them much, and there’s a lack of places to land long-range aircraft and the like. Instead, it works through Syria, with which it recently concluded an alliance. (Side note: Bashar al-Assad is still working on consolidating power, and he’s getting increasingly nervous, what with the US rattling sabers at him, and more or less no country in the world really liking Syria. Jordan’s attitude is basically “we aren’t going to kick your ass or anything, but that doesn’t make us friends;” Iraq is no longer a country; more or less everyone else actively dislikes them. So he needs this alliance, even though it’s a step towards making Syria a client state of Iran in the same way that Lebanon is a client state of Syria) Iran has fairly good routes to there, nowadays through unsecured parts of Iraq, air and sea, as well as more exotic routes heading a bit further north. It doesn’t want to be seen as openly acting in this area, either; that’s why it’s nice for it to have some local puppets.
It seems to me that this is the weak spot in the whole plot to perpetuate war in the region. It may well be that the best thing to encourage a peace process would be the successful interdiction of Hezbollah operations in Syria and in Gaza. However, Israel can’t participate directly in this – that would end the peace process just as surely. Nor is it likely to be helpful for America to mount a full-scale invasion, since turning Syria into another Iraq is just asking for trouble in the long run. (Although the gods know, their government isn’t much better than Iraq’s was – the al-Assad family are brutal sons of bitches)
But maybe it’s time to start looking seriously at precision operations against Hezbollah positions, including joint Syrian-Hezbollah positions, inside Syria?