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Phyllis Bennis says two Israeli soldiers were killed yesterday in retaliation for the killing of six Hezbollah fighters, including a son of a revered leader and an Iranian General

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon signaled to the United Nations on Thursday that their flareup in fighting across Israel and Lebanon borders were over. This is after the Lebanese Hezbollah fighters killed two Israel troops in retaliation for deadly airstrikes in Syria last week. And it killed six Hezbollah fighters and one Iranian general. Israel said it had received a message from UNIFIL, the UN peacekeeping forces in Lebanon, that Hezbollah was not interested in further escalation. Joining us now to address all of this is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis is a fellow and director of the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She’s the author of many books, but the most important and relevant among them for this discussion is Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. Thank you so much for joining us, Phyllis. PHYLLIS BENNIS, FELLOW, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Good to be with you. PERIES: So, Phyllis, it’s good news, of course, that both sides have wanted to de-escalate the situation. But why did Israel attack Hezbollah and the Iranian general in the first place? BENNIS: You know, Israel has been participating in strikes against Syrian territory since very early on in the Syrian Civil War. Despite the claim that they don’t want to be a player in this war, they have in fact issued several–they’ve carried out several attacks, primarily when they claim there are weapons that are being transferred to Hezbollah and they think they might be used at some point in the future against Israel. Israel, of course, has long claimed that it has, somehow, the right to attack anyone anyplace anytime, whatever weapons are involved that they think at some point could be used against them, even if they haven’t been. So this was not the first time, but this was a particularly significant attack ten days ago in the Golan Heights area, because along with the Iranian general and six Hezbollah fighters, one of those fighters was the son of a revered leader of Hezbollah. And his death meant that it was almost inevitable that there was going to be some kind of retaliation from Hezbollah. They’ve been sort of waiting, if you will, for that retaliation. And, indeed, it seems that it came in the last 24 hours with this recent attack. Luckily, we have not seen civilians being targeted or civilians killed in these attacks. Today there were two Israeli soldiers who were killed, also, in the Israeli retaliation today, a Spanish peacekeeper serving with United Nations on that border, in what’s known as the Shebaa farms area. It’s a very complicated area where the Israeli border, along with the Lebanese border and the Syrian border all come together. So it’s a very contested region. But I think that it is important to recognize that all sides have been saying in the last few hours that they do not want to escalate this. I think that’s probably true, given that both Hezbollah and Israel are facing significant political problems right now. Hezbollah militarily is stretched quite thin, with many of its fighters in Syria. They’ve taken significant casualties in these recent years of war. Hezbollah, of course, is fighting on the side of the Syrian regime. And Israel is facing extraordinary, high levels of political pressure right now, some of it involving the recent brouhaha with the invitation from John Boehner, the head of the House of Representatives, leading Republican, who invited the Israeli prime minister, Netanyahu, to come to speak to the Congress only two weeks before the Israeli elections, deliberately to undermine President Obama’s position on Iran. So there’s been a great deal of pressure. Now, mitigating against that is that there are political pressures on both sides. In Hezbollah’s case, of course, there is this question of retaliation for the death of the son of Imad Mughniyah, the long-standing leader of Hezbollah. And on the Israeli side there is pressure on Netanyahu from his right. It’s important to recognize that as right-wing as Netanyahu is, in the context of his own government and his own party and his own coalition, he is very much at the center. He’s not, by far, the furthest right. And some of those to his right, including his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said today, called directly for violating international law: he said there must be a forceful and disproportionate Israeli attack. Now, that’s an extraordinary thing for any foreign minister of any country, to call deliberately for a disproportionate response, something that is explicitly prohibited in the Geneva conventions. But that’s what Netanyahu’s foreign minister called for. And the pressure is rising inside Israel for an even greater response. So we should not put aside the idea that even if both sides don’t want to escalate, these kinds of cross-border disputes have on occasion in the past and could again escalate without anybody wanting it to happen. PERIES: Now, what is really the rationale for this kind of fighting at the moment? As far as Iran is concerned, they’re participating, playing a role in fighting the IS. Also, we are in the midst of negotiations, the nuclear negotiations with Iran. What is the purpose of Netanyahu escalating the situation in the region like this? BENNIS: Well, if you’re asking about rationality, there is no purpose, there is no purpose involved here. The fact that the Iranian general was killed, it’s not all clear that he was engaged in anything more than advising some of the Hezbollah commanders that were with him. There’s no evidence that he was involved in fighting at that time. It also isn’t clear whether Israel even knew that there was an Iranian general there. Of course, that raised the stakes significantly, raised the tension even further between Israel, which has consistently threatened military strikes against Iraq. So this has been something that’s a very dangerous escalation. Everything that goes on militarily right now Syria is very, very dangerous. This is a moment when the six or seven separate wars that are already underway in Syria, all of which are being fought to the last Syria–there’s a sectarian war, there’s a war for regional power, there’s a global war, there’s a set of wars that are being fought, and any one of them could spiral even further out of control. And the idea that there could be direct engagement by Israel in this war could throw everything up for grabs. It could be a real game-changer for the far worse situation. PERIES: Right. And then finally, Phyllis, we often have a lot of young people, sometimes students, writing in, saying some of the discussion we are having is a little over their heads. So in order to address that, I want you to explain further the historical context of the Golan Heights and why this conflict is taking place between the Lebanon and the Syrian border. BENNIS: Essentially what we’re dealing with is the Golan Heights is a part of Syria, a part of southern Syria that’s kind of alongside Lebanon and North, or above–when you look at the map–above Israel. Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 War at the same time that it captured the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. All of that territory was captured by Israel in the 1967 War. In years of negotiations, eventually Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and then said, that’s all, we’re not going to return anything more. Now, UN resolutions say they have to, but Israel has the protection of the United States, so it never did. And in 1981, Israel claimed that it was going to absorb the Golan Heights, to annex it, as it said, to annex the Golan Heights and make it really part of Israel. That was never accepted by anybody in the world. So, today Israel still is illegally occupying the Golan Heights. Now, again, looking at a detailed map, you see on one side an area called the Shebaa farms, and it’s right where Syria and Lebanon come together, right near the northern Israeli border. And there’s been a big fight for, like, seven or eight years now that the UN has tried to figure out where the exact the borderline should be, because the Israelis claim that the territory of this area known as Shebaa farms–and that’s where this fighting was today–actually is part of their controlled area of the Golan Heights. They say this used to be Syria, and therefore it’s ours, because we’re now occupying that Syrian land. The Lebanese say, no, this was never Syrian land, this was Lebanese land, and therefore it still belongs to Lebanon and not to Israel at all. Syria in the meantime says, it’s ours. So you have this three-way conflict, which is not being resolved, but because the entire country of Syria is now at war, there is so much tension and so many fighters from so many different factions going at it, killing way too many civilians all over the place, that is having the danger that it could spill right over those borders into Israel, into Lebanon. It’s a mess. It’s really a mess. There’s no logic to it. There’s a lot of political posturing on all sides. And it could be very, very dangerous. In 2006 there was a month-long war that Israel waged against Lebanon, saying it was fighting against Hezbollah fighters. And that war began after a small border incident that could well have stopped right there. But instead, Israel, in that case, pushed it forward, and it turned into a full-scale war with enormous human consequences. So we can only hope that that doesn’t happen again, but it remains a very clear danger. PERIES: And in the recent memory of people, that is why this incident over the past week has really put everybody on guard. Thank you so much for explaining that, Phyllis. BENNIS: Thank you. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.