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Israel vs. Hezbollah: what was their month-long war all about--and what does it mean for the Middle East and for America's role in the region?

The United Nations cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah seemed to be holding as summer ended. But the fragile deal leaves many questions unresolved, with great uncertainty about where the Middle East is headed and what role the United States will play there.

The 34-day war began on July 12 when Hezbollah militants sneaked into Israel from Lebanon, killed three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two more. Hezbollah, a militant Islamic group that controls southern Lebanon, had been periodically firing rockets at civilians in northern Israel for years. But Israel considered this raid across the border "an act of war" and announced its intention to destroy Hezbollah.

Israel then launched a month of air and ground attacks on Lebanon, targeting the Beirut airport and major highways (to cut supply routes for Iranian arms coming into Lebanon from Syria), and parts of Beirut and other civilian areas where Israel believed Hezbollah fighters were hiding. Hezbollah responded with a daily barrage of hundreds of rockets and missiles aimed at Israeli towns and cities, including Haifa, the country's third-largest.

The fighting killed more than 1,100 Lebanese and severely damaged Lebanon's infrastructure. More than 150 Israelis were killed. And hundreds of thousands of civilians in both countries were displaced as they fled the fighting.

Many countries condemned Israel's response as "disproportionate." They also criticized American support of Israel's actions, mocking Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's characterization of the fighting as the "birth pangs of a new Middle East." The Bush administration's view is that terrorist groups like Hezbollah must be dismantled for peace and democracy to take hold in the region.

The cease-fire calls for the Lebanese army to disarm Hezbollah and take control of southern Lebanon and the border with Israel, with help from a U.N.-sponsored force of 15,000 troops. It's a tall order for Lebanon, still weak from a 15-year civil war. In the first weeks of the cease-fire, Hezbollah said it would not disarm, and it was unclear if 15,000 troops could be found for the U.N. force.

Both Israel and Hezbollah claimed victory. Israel certainly damaged Hezbollah's military capability, but it did not destroy it. Meanwhile, Hezbollah emerged from the conflict stronger politically and with broader support in the Mideast.

A PROXY WAR?

Many experts say the conflict was more than a fight between Israel and Hezbollah, that it was in fact a proxy war between the U.S., Israel's staunchest ally, and Iran, Hezbollah's primary supporter. (Iran and Hezbollah are considered responsible for the suicide bombing of a Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, which killed 241 American servicemen.) Some analysts say Iran used the war to distract attention from its nuclear research, which the West and Iran's neighbors fear is being used to develop nuclear weapons. The U.N. has demanded a halt, but Iran has refused. (For more on Iran and its relationship with the United States, see Times Past, p. 22.)

So what is America's role in this volatile region? There is still much to be gained or lost: access to crucial oil fields, fighting terrorism, the security of Israel, and of course dealing with the continued instability in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. has a total of some 162,000 troops.

The current conflict, however, has put America's key Arab allies--Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan in a tough spot. They initially condemned Hezbollah for sparking the war but grew uneasy as their populations, watching the fighting in Lebanon on TV, became increasingly angry.

Between the situations in Iraq and Lebanon, pulling away from the region might look like an attractive option for the U.S. But that seems unlikely, and not just because of concerns about oil supplies or commitments to Israel.

"We learned from Afghanistan that we cannot just leave a volatile territory on its own," says Vali Nasr, an Iranian-born professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. "There is no broader security organization like NATO for us to try to pass the buck to. So in some ways we're stuck with it."

With reporting by Robert E Worth of The New York Times.

BACKGROUND

The Israel-Hezbollah war is the latest chapter in an ongoing conflict that started 60 years ago. In 1947, the U.N. partitioned British-controlled Palestine into two countries, one Jewish and one Arab. The Arabs rejected the plan, and attacked Israel when the British left in 1948. There have been five other Arab-Israeli wars since.

CRITICAL THINKING

* Note the reference to the recent Israel-Hezbollah war as a "proxy war" between the U.S. and Iran. Ask students to define "proxy war." If they agree that this was such a war, why do they think the U.S. and Iran are holding back from direct confrontation, and using proxies to fight their battles?

* How might U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq influence its willingness to confront Iran more directly?

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

* Critics say Israel's response to the Hezbollah raid, in which seven Israeli soldiers were killed and two more kidnapped, was "disproportionate." Do you agree or disagree with the critics' assessment?

* If you agree with the critics that Israel's response was disproportionate, suggest an alternative strategy Israel might have taken in response to Hezbollah's attack.

* If you think that Israel's response was appropriate, why do you think Israel agreed to the U.N. cease-fire and stopped short of its goat of destroying Hezbollah?

WRITING PROMPT

* Ask students to write an argument either supporting or opposing the view that the U.S. must involve itself in troubled areas of the world tire the Mideast. Address Professor Vati Nasr's view of the U.S. rote in the region: "We're stuck with it."

FAST FACT

* Hezbollah is an Arabic term meaning "party of God."

WEB WATCH

www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/mideast_war_2006.html This Web site of the University of Texas provides maps of this summer's Israel-Hezbollah war.

1. Which of the following is one of the provisions of the U.N. cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah?

a Lebanon's army is to take control of southern Lebanon.

b Israel must agree not to use force against Lebanon in the future.

c. Arab nations must agree not to go to war against Israel in the future.

d The U.S. must send peacekeeping forces to the Israel-Lebanon border and must contribute toward the reconstruction of damaged Lebanese property.

2. Another provision of the cease-fire agreement requires

a Britain to send troops to the region.

b Israel and Hezbollah to meet at a neutral site to conduct peace negotiations.

c a summit conference of Arab and Israeli leaders.

d the disarming of Hezbollah.

3. Many experts on the Middle East say the Israel-Hezbollah war was really a proxy war between

a Saudi Arabia and Syria.

b the U.S. and Iran.

c the U.S. and Lebanon.

d Iran and Iraq.

4. Which of the following statements best describes the outcome of the war between Israel and Hezbollah?

a Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's popularity in Israel has risen as a result of the conduct of the war.

b The U.S., one of Israel's staunchest supporters, enjoys widespread popularity in the Middle East.

c The leader of Hezbollah has become a popular figure in the Muslim world.

d The United Nations, because it brokered the cease-fire, is more admired in Arab nations than it was before the war.

IN-DEPTH QUESTIONS

1. The U.S. has been a staunch ally of Israel since that country's founding in 1948. What do you think might account for this close relationship?

2. Explain why you believe--or do not believe--that the United States would be as involved in the Middle East if there were not plentiful oil resources in the region.

ANSWER KEY

1. [a] Lebanon's army is to take control of southern Lebanon.

2. [d] he disarming of Hezbollah.

3. [b] the U.S. and Iran.

4. [c] The leader of Hezbollah has become a popular figure in the Muslim world.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:INTERNATIONAL
Author:Smith, Patricia
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Sep 18, 2006
Words:1332
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