Middle East whiplash as strikes hit Israel and Lebanon


Peacekeepers of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) patrol along the Lebanese-Israeli border on Aug. 23, 2013 after the Israeli air force launched a rocket toward a Palestinian group in Lebanon. Israeli aircraft targeted the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command in response to a barrage of four rockets launched at northern Israel on Aug. 22, 2013.



JERUSALEM, Israel — It took a contortionist's skill to follow the news in Israel on Friday, usually the first quiet day of the weekend here.

Israelis went to sleep Thursday night knowing that their northern border had been attacked by extremist jihadi elements in southern Lebanon — an Al Qaeda-linked group called the Abdullah Azzam Brigades — and awoke to hear that their air force had retaliated against Lebanon overnight, hitting empty structures belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).

The Israel Defense Forces, which said it holds the Lebanese government responsible for the attack, said it aimed for a believed terrorist target near the coastal town of al-Naameh. No casualties have been reported on either side.

IDF spokesman Peter Lerner said the strike was aimed at the PFLP-GC, though the Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility for the attack, to "[send] a clear message to terrorist organizations & Lebanon government.”

Before their first coffee, Israelis heard that the PFLP-GC was warning them of imminent retaliation.

And by lunchtime, in an apparently unrelated but unnerving attack, two massive blasts had shaken the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, killing scores of worshipers at two central mosques.

It has been a summer of turmoil in the Eastern Mediterranean, with previously unimaginable events occurring at a rapid pace. For many, it is difficult simply to keep track.

In just the past week, Egypt's former president for 30 years, the deposed Hosni Mubarak, was unexpectedly released from a two-year incarceration amid something approaching anarchy in Egypt, and untold hundreds of Syrian civilians were killed in an alleged nerve gas attack by the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad.

For many Israelis and also Palestinians, at the geographic center of these events yet bit players in the regional turmoil, the effect is one of cognitive whiplash.

Initial speculation that Israel's air force may have targeted Tripoli quickly subsided as it became clear that the massacre of worshipers was the result of twin car bombs in another incident of growing sectarian discord — and may, in fact, have come as a response to Thursday's rocket attack on Israel.

Tripoli is Lebanon's Sunni capital. The Sunni minority, which reaches just under a third of Lebanon's population, has been under increasing pressure due to Hezbollah's involvement in supporting the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war and the spread of violence into Lebanon.

Israeli military analysts theorized that Thursday's rocket attack may have been an attempt by Sunni radicals to exact revenge on Hezbollah by goading Israel into a military reprisal against Hezbollah, which virtually rules the south of Lebanon.

The vortex of new and old extremist groups now warring among themselves on Israel's northern border, united only in their hatred for the Jewish state, is causing growing malaise for Israel's leaders and military strategists, who recognize the danger developing next door but have only limited avenues to influence the outcome. As Ha'aretz military analyst Zvi Bar'el asks in a Friday column, who is Israel now to blame when attacked by rockets and missiles?