By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM, Jan 21 – Israel accused Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah guerrillas on Wednesday of trying to escalate a months-old surge in Palestinian street violence by recruiting militants in the Israeli-occupied West Bank to carry out suicide bombings.
Though they have seldom exchanged fire since their 2006 war in Lebanon, Hezbollah and Israel are locked in a covert conflict, with the guerrillas blaming Israeli air strikes for the killing of two of their commanders in Syria last year.
Israeli police said in a statement that Hezbollah was hoping to “ride the wave” of stabbings, car-rammings and shootings mounted by often young and leaderless Palestinians against Israelis since October, and had remotely set up a five-man cell in the West Bank town of Tulkarm.
The cell leader, Mahmoud Zaaloul, was contacted and instructed by Jawwad Nasrallah, son of Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, via e-mail, police said after the five detainees were indicted in an Israeli military court.
The cell had been wired $5,000 to begin their activities and was instructed to recruit suicide bombers and prepare explosive belts, monitor Israeli military activities in their area and buy weapons, the police statement said.
It was not immediately clear how the accused, two of whom were previously jailed by Israel, would plead in the case.
Hezbollah usually does not respond to such charges and its officials in Beirut were not immediately available for comment.
Since Oct. 1 when the upsurge in Palestinian violence began, 25 Israelis and a U.S. citizen have been killed. At least 148 Palestinians have been killed, 94 of whom Israel has described as assailants. Most of the others died during violent protests.
Israeli authorities worry that the bloodshed, fuelled in part by Muslim anger at perceived Jewish encroachment at a contested Jerusalem shrine as well as by a deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and Islamist militant calls for Israel’s destruction, could spill over into more organised armed attacks.
There were frequent Palestinian suicide bombings against Israel during a 2000-2005 revolt but they have been rare since.
Israeli police said the alleged Tulkarm cell marked the latest attempt by a Hezbollah foreign operations branch, Unit 133, to set up Palestinian cells in recent years – efforts which, the statement added, had been so far unsuccessful.
Though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accuse each other of responsibility for the current violence, their forces have been quietly cooperating on West Bank security.
In a departure from the official Palestinian reticence on these ties, one of Abbas’s senior security chiefs, Major General Majid Faraj, was quoted by the U.S. journal Defense News on Wednesday as saying Palestinian forces had foiled 200 attacks on Israelis and arrested around 100 Palestinians since October.