31 August 2006 Edition

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International: Middle East conflict

Israel has 'indirect talks' with Hizbollah over prisoners

Over 30 days after Israel waged war on Lebanon, the head of Hizbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has confirmed that the group is holding "indirect talks" with the Israeli Government about its prisoners and the fate of the two Israeli soldiers whose capture on 12 July was used by the Tel Aviv administration as a pretext for war.

The question is: why did Israel decide that more than 1,000 Lebanese had to die before initiating contacts that, a month earlier, could have avoided such carnage and devastation?

In an interview with Lebanese television, Nasrallah explained that had they known that "the kidnapping of soldiers would have led to this, we would definitely not have done it. Neither I, nor Hizbollah, the prisoners in Israeli jails nor the families of prisoners would accept it."

Nasrallah spoke on the eve of a visit to Beirut by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who will discuss the presence of a UN peace-keeping force in Southern Lebanon made up of 15,000 soldiers, 7,000 of them from EU states. Kofi Annan expects the force to be deployed immediately. However, the EU presidency (which is held by Finland) has confirmed that it may take up to three months for them to position all troops.

So while the Lebanese wait for the UN and the Lebanese Government to act, Hizbollah is pouring money - which is believed to be coming from Iran - into the reconstruction of Southern Lebanon and Beirut's destroyed southern suburbs.

It has been reported by Robert Fisk in the London Independent that "most households in the south have received or are receiving a minimum initial compensation payment of $12,000, either for new furniture or to cover their family's rent while Hizbollah construction gangs rebuild their homes".

On the other hand, human rights organisations like Amnesty International continue to question Israel's disproportionate reaction to the capture of its soldiers, pointing out that the Zionist administration may be responsible for deliberate war crimes.

In a report published on Wednesday 23 August, Amnesty states that the destruction of homes and basic infrastructure "was an integral part of the military strategy" and not just "collateral damage". Along with destroying thousands of homes in mainly Shia Muslim parts of the country, the Israeli military destroyed some 80 bridges around the country. Amnesty also criticised attacks on fuel and water storage sites with no obvious military value.

More than 7,000 air raids and 2,500 naval bombardments were concentrated on civilian areas. The majority of the 1,183 Lebanese fatalities were non-combatants, around a third of them children. Nearly a million Lebanese people were displaced by the war. Israel lost 118 soldiers and 43 civilians.

However, and despite international condemnation, the Israeli Government may be planning a new offensive - this time against Syria.

On 13 August, a senior Israeli official commented: "We are walking with open eyes into our next war." It reflects the broad belief among many observers that the current ceasefire does not represent anything more than a temporary halt to Israel's military plans in the region.

During the latest confrontation with Hizbollah, it has been demonstrated that the Lebanese group's capability has increased in recent years.

In Palestine, it seems that Israel may be now reluctant to retreat from the West Bank, while there are rumours that a "third intifada" could be launched from Gaza, according to the Hamas newspaper, Al Risala.

But it seems that Syria may be the next target of the Israeli administration as a way to weaken Hizbollah and indirectly attack Iran.

There has been talk that a negotiated approach could be in the cards, with Israel agreeing on the devolution of the Golan Heights that were taken from Syria in 1967 during the Siz-Day War and are one of the most important water resources in the Middle East. However, the current aggressive and militaristic approach espoused by the US and the Israeli administrations points towards a 'pre-emptive' strike against Syria.

And in relation to Iran, Israel is monitoring its uranium enrichment project, with the Jerusalem Post (24 August) reporting that some officials are stating that if the international community fails to stop Iran, they may decide to 'go it alone'. It is important to remember that Israel has developed its nuclear potential in secret, flouting any concerns expressed by the international community. Mordechai Vanunu, a technician at Dimona, Israel's nuclear installation, from 1976 to 1985, exposed how this plant was secretly producing nuclear weapons in 1986. He was kidnapped by Israel's secret services in Rome and after a secret trial served 18 years in jail, 11 of them in solitary confinement.

Now Israel is demanding action from an international community whose opinions and decisions it has so far treated with contempt.

Senior Israeli officials have not completely ruled out the possibility of US military action. However, they believe this would not happen until next year, months before US President George W. Bush leaves the international stage. The question is whether Israel will be patient enough to wait for a negotiated solution to Iran's nuclear controversy.

News in Brief

Chad orders oil firms out

President Idriss Deby of Chad has ordered US firm ChevronTexaco and Malaysia's Petronas, together responsible for 60% of Chad's oil production, to quit the country. In addition, three government ministers - responsible for oil, livestock and planning departments - have been sacked and may be prosecuted over the alleged non-payment of taxes by the oil companies, a charge the firms deny.

Chad's Minister for State Control and Ethics, Mahamat Bechir Okormi, said:

"The problem was that Petronas and Chevron had to pay tax, then they arranged with a certain individual, a minister, in order to get a tax exemption."

In Chad, only the National Assembly can exempt companies.

Venezuela to double oil aid to poor US families

President Hugo Chavez has announced that Venezuela will double the amount of cheap heating oil allotted to poor households in the United States for the winter. The oil will be distributed through the months of November, December, January and February.

CITGO Petroleum Corp, a subsidiary of PetrĂ³leos de Venezuela, sold over 40 million gallons (about 150 million litres) to 181,000 homes and hundreds of shelters in the states of Massachusetts, New York, Maine, Rhode Island, Vermont, Connecticut, Delaware and the area of Philadelphia.

Last May, during his visit to Vienna, Chavez offered a similar deal for disadvantaged

European citizens

During his recent visit to China, Chavez also signed an agreement that will double the sales to the Asian country next year, will triple them within five years and will lessen Venezuela's dependency on the US market.

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