Israel Fears Hezbollah May Try to 'Settle Score' Over Mughniyeh

Lebanon rejects call for starting peace talks with Israel, citing demand for withdrawal from Shaba Farms.

Israel believes Hezbollah may try a terror attack against Israel in order to "settle accounts" over the assassination of second-in-command Imad Mughniyeh. Hezbollah blames Israel for Mughniyeh's death in Damascus in February.

Lebanon on Wednesday dashed Israel's hopes that Beirut would follow Damascus in beginning peace talks with Israel, saying that Israel must withdraw from what Beirut considers its occupied land.

"There are pending bilateral issues between Lebanon and Israel which are governed by international resolutions which Israel must respect ... and which cannot be the object of political negotiations," a government statement issued Wednesday said.

"Lebanon seeks to enforce these two decisions completely especially regarding an end to the occupation of the Shaba Farms...."

The statement said that once Israel withdrew from Lebanese land, Lebanon got back its prisoners and received maps of land mines and cluster bombs which were used in previous wars, "a truce agreement between Lebanon and Israel will be in effect." Lebanon's response came after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the cabinet earlier this week that he hoped Lebanon would consider talks with Israel. Israel and Syria have been holding indirect talks under Turkish auspices. Additional meetings are scheduled to be held in Turkey later this week.

The caretaker Lebanese government said Israel must withdraw from the disputed Shaba Farms area, in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions. The site, a small area in the foothills of the Golan Heights, is considered Lebanese by Beirut, but the United Nations says it is Syrian land. Israel took over the area in the 1967 Six-Day War, a move not recognized by the international community.

Concerns of a Hezbollah action are increasing in part because of estimates that the organization will try to counter critics in Lebanon for its use of arms against its political opponents by attacking Israel.

One scenario is a hit against an Israeli public figure, particularly someone with a defense background. The military is particularly concerned with attacks on officers, and security for high-ranking officers has been increased recently. It is considered likely Hezbollah would consider such an assassination an appropriate response to the assassination of Mughniyeh.

Last month, Hezbollah gained an impressive political victory in Lebanon, crowning a sympathizer (former chief of staff Michel Suleiman) president and bolstering its presence in the cabinet to acquire a veto on matters of state. However, senior military intelligence officials believe the way Hezbollah garnered that victory could lead to its violent attack against Israel. This opinion has been expressed in a number of recent discussions, including an intelligence review presented to Barak.

In previous years, particularly ahead of the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, Hezbollah Secretary General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah vowed not to use "the weapon of resistance" for internal Lebanese political purposes, and that armed struggle would only be for "liberation" against Israel. That was one of Nasrallah's arguments against the disarming of Hezbollah, as opposed to other ethnic militias operating in Lebanon.

But last month Hezbollah used arms against its opponents within Lebanon, mostly from the anti-Syrian camp. Deaths in clashes lead to sharp criticism of Nasrallah and could motivate him to approve action against Israel on the northern border.

In addition, although the incident is no longer making headlines in Israel the intelligence community believes Hezbollah is still seeking revenge for the killing of Mughniyeh, which it attributes to Israel's Mossad. The military alert declared at the time is still in effect and various security measures are being implemented on the northern border and at potential Israeli targets worldwide.

Alerts have even been heightened recently, despite progress in indirect talks between Israel and Hezbollah regarding a prisoner exchange as well as recent reciprocal gestures which included the return to Lebanon of Nissim Nassar, an Israeli citizen who recently completed a prison sentence in Israel after being convicted of spying for Hezbollah.