Israel’s weekend assassination of the leader of a militant Shiite Muslim group has starkly highlighted the roiling progression of bloodshed in south Lebanon, a violent sideshow in the parade of conflicts that has dominated the past year’s Middle East headlines.
Since last spring, Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Muslim militia in south Lebanon, has steadily stepped up its attacks on the Israeli-occupied buffer zone there.
Israel has responded--not only with patrols by its own troops and an allied Christian militia in the south but also by ever more daring forays north of the zone into Hezbollah-dominated territory. Sunday’s killing of Sheik Abbas Moussawi, the Hezbollah leader, was the latest in a train of events.
More blowups are likely, bringing on the threat of an Israeli clash either with the Lebanese army, which is trying to extend its control throughout the country, or with Syria, the military and political steward of Lebanon.
Israeli officials are openly threatening more raids. “The liquidation of Abbas Moussawi . . . constitutes a first step demonstrating the determination of Israel to confront to the best of its ability the hostile actions of Hezbollah,” Uri Lubrani, the Defense Ministry’s overseer for south Lebanon, said Monday.
In Beirut, seething anger filled the streets as Shiite Muslims vowed retribution for the Israeli air raid.
Tens of thousands of Shiite men marched for three hours in the teeming southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital, carrying the coffins of Moussawi, his wife and their 5-year-old son. They were killed Sunday afternoon when Israeli helicopter gunships fired rockets at their convoy. Eight other Muslims were killed and 29 wounded in two waves of raids in southern Lebanon earlier Sunday.
The funeral procession, organized by Moussawi’s pro-Iranian Hezbollah, passed by tenements draped with black flags of mourning for the man Israeli officials had declared a terrorist.
Hezbollah leaders said they will continue to pressure the Muslim guerrillas who have stepped up armed attacks on Israeli soldiers in the buffer zone and on Israel’s proxy South Lebanon Army. Along the Lebanese-Israeli frontier, Muslim guerrillas sent volleys of Katyusha rockets into the Israeli security zone. Several fell harmlessly inside Israeli territory.
In Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Shiite spiritual leader, declared, “The United States and the Zionists should know that such crimes do not pave the way for their dominance. Nations cannot be scared.”
The Iranian Foreign Ministry sent an official delegation to the Beirut march and Moussawi’s scheduled burial today outside the Bekaa Valley town of Baalbek. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the delegation leader, told crowds, “We are struggling for martyrdom. We will continue the resistance.” The mourners, many openly weeping, responded: “Death to the Great Satan. They killed Abbas. We are Abbas.”
Despite the timing of the helicopter raid, which at first appeared to have been meant to retaliate for an armed Palestinian guerrilla attack on an army base in Israel, senior Israeli officials affirmed that the helicopter attack on Moussawi was only marginally related.
Israel had been warning Hezbollah for months that it would react sharply on two counts: first, that the noticeable step-up in guerrilla attacks in south Lebanon would bring ever harsher retaliation; second, that the failure of Iran to turn over a missing Israeli serviceman who is believed to be in the hands of an Iranian-allied militia would attract military wrath.
The missing soldier, Ron Arad, is an air force navigator shot down over Lebanon a decade ago. Israel had entered into last year’s prolonged hostage bargaining in hopes of gaining his release. Israel let it be known that it would free more than 200 Shiite Lebanese prisoners it holds, plus abducted Hezbollah cleric Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, in exchange for Arad.
Expectations of Arad’s release were dashed when Lebanese kidnapers freed all American hostages after elaborate dealings last year--dealings in which Moussawi played a key role. Although Israel recovered the bodies of three missing servicemen, Arad was left out.
Defense Minister Moshe Arens deflected concern that Moussawi’s assassination would end any hopes of recovering Arad. On the contrary, he suggested, harsh attacks in Lebanon would ease the way for his release. “We’ve learned that terror organizations like Hezbollah only understand one language--the language of force.”
Israel attributed 60 bombings and hit-and-run attacks on its soldiers in south Lebanon to Moussawi’s 10-month reign as a top Hezbollah leader. In the past year, 10 Israeli soldiers have been killed in the buffer zone and 15 more wounded. Ominously, Israeli officials were speaking of the Moussawi assassination as only a first blow in an impending war on the organization. “This won’t stop here,” predicted government spokesman Yossi Olmert.
Israeli newspapers competed with one another to make dire, vivid predictions. A sample from the conservative Maariv daily: “Whoever’s hands are stained with Israeli blood in the end will roll in his own blood.”
Echoes from the attack on Hezbollah drowned out the criticism in Israel of army preparedness that erupted after a weekend Palestinian assault on an army camp that left three soldiers dead.
The attack--by assailants wielding knives, hatchets and pitchforks--was viewed as a humiliation for the high-tech Israeli army. The attackers, members of a band of fugitives known as the Black Panthers, escaped and carried off the weapons of the victims. “What is involved is complacency,” intoned the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, Israel’s biggest-selling daily.
The Black Panthers are thought to owe allegiance to the Palestine Liberation Organization but to function beyond PLO control. Last year, the Panthers rejected PLO demands that they stop killing Palestinians suspected of collaborating with the Israeli secret police. The group that carried out the raid on the army camp operated around the town of Janin, in the northern West Bank, home to several armed groups.
Defense Minister Arens blamed the killings on PLO chief Yasser Arafat. Palestinian observers scoffed at the claim, saying it is unlikely that Arafat has any contact with the Panthers. But Arens’ accusation has helped to ease Arafat’s do-nothing image in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, observers say. “He is at a new peak of popularity,” said Palestinian journalist Daoud Kutab.
Hezbollah, one of several groups representing Lebanon’s majority Shiite population, was established in 1982 under the direction of the revolutionary Iranian regime of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Moussawi was an important figure in the organization from the start and took over as general secretary in May.
Under his leadership, Hezbollah rejected demands of the Syrian-backed government in Beirut that it turn over its heavy weapons, insisting that it intended to pose a threat only to Israel, not to Lebanon. Hezbollah had become, as the PLO once was, a virtual state within a state in Lebanon, answering only to its leadership of militant clerics and their sponsors in Tehran. Within bounds, the Syrian army, the ultimate power in Lebanon, agreed to let the Shiites harry the Israelis in the south and continue to train at bases in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa.
In succeeding months, the Islamic guerrillas launched a campaign of increased strikes against Israeli soldiers in the south, specializing in radio-controlled bombs set off under passing military vehicles.
Daniel Williams reported from Jerusalem and Nick B. Williams reported from Nicosia, Cyprus.