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Tensions Flare Along Israel's Borders

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Tensions Flare Along Israel's Borders

Middle East

Tensions Flare Along Israel's Borders

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is away. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Israel's long hot summer is becoming increasingly tense. Over the past 10 days there have been three serious incidents - two separate attacks on Israel's southern border and clashes in the north with the Lebanese army. As the United States pushes for progress in the Middle East peace process, observers wonder if the area will erupt into conflict again.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro gets the view from Israel and the Gaza Strip.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: On July 30th, a rocket fired from Gaza hit the Israeli city of Ashkelon. On Saturday, another Gaza rocket hit a children's center in an Israeli border community. There were no Israeli casualties, but Israel held the militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, responsible. It retaliated with a strike on a Hamas military commander, which killed him and members of his family.

On Monday, a series of rockets fired from the Egyptian Sinai missed Israel's city of Eilat, killing a man in the Jordanian port of Aqaba instead. Again, Israel blamed Hamas and warned of harsh retaliation. But in both Israel and Gaza, observers say another conflict with Hamas is unlikely.

Sitting in his plush offices in the Gaza Strip, Hamas's deputy foreign minister Ahmed Yousef says Hamas wasn't behind the attacks.

Mr. AHMED YOUSEF (Deputy Foreign Minister, Hamas): We are not interested actually to escalate the situation, because our priority as government is for rebuilding Gaza.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Political analyst Mkhaimar Abusada with Al-Azhar University in Gaza says the attacks were probably the work of more radical Islamist militants opposed to Hamas's rule in the Gaza Strip.

Mr. MKHAIMAR ABUSADA (Al-Azhar University): I really think that Hamas is much more interested in keeping its government and keeping its position here in Gaza. Hamas knows that any new confrontation with Israel is going to cost them their government and maybe their existence as a government, as a movement here in the Gaza Strip.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Avi Issacharoff is the Middle East correspondent for the left-leaning Israeli paper Haaretz. He says Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip a year and a half ago had a desired result.

Mr. AVI ISSACHAROFF (Haaretz): Hamas is now acting as, you know, the good boy that learned his lesson and now is arresting people that are trying to shoot rockets. At the end of the day this is the quietest era ever between Gaza and Israel since 2001.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Up until this week, the border between Israel and Lebanon had also been quiet. On Tuesday, though, that calm was shattered. The Israeli military says its troops were pruning trees on their side of the border when a sniper from the Lebanese army targeted a senior military commander, killing him and injuring a deputy.

Israel retaliated, killing two Lebanese soldiers and a journalist. Lebanon maintains it was protecting its territory and Israel provoked the fight.

Israel's nemesis, the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, was apparently not involved in the incident. Still, says Ron Tira, an adviser to the Israeli Air Force campaign's planning department, that doesn't mean there won't be a confrontation in the near future with Hezbollah, because of its links with Iran and that country's suspect nuclear program.

Mr. RON TIRA (Israeli Air Force Adviser): Time is running out with Iran. And somewhere in the next few months, possibly not too many months, decisions will have to be made whether it's time to either accept the idea that Iran will become nuclear or take military action against Iran, because all other courses are proven ineffective.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And if Israel does decide to strike Iran, then it's likely that Hezbollah will get involved. Tira says since the 2006 war that Israel launched in Lebanon, Hezbollah has been stockpiling arms and has become a much more formidable opponent. Tira says Hezbollah can now cause large-scale destruction in Israel.

Mr. TIRA: The sort of damage that Hezbollah can inflict on Israel today - per day - is five notches higher than it was in 2006. And therefore we need to shorten the war dramatically, which means that we need to resort to extreme measures immediately.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So while he's not sure when a war will happen, if it does it will be brutal for all sides.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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