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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 July 2006, 16:50 GMT 17:50 UK
Q&A: Middle East crisis
The Middle East has been plunged again into an escalating crisis. The BBC News website's Tarik Kafala looks at the key issues.

How did the current crisis start?

The Hezbollah raid into Israel, in which eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two were captured, was a stunning and provocative attack.

Lebanese soldier near Beirut's international airport
Lebanon has seen the first Israeli land incursion since 2000
Some have argued that Hezbollah wanted to test new Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is an unknown quantity as far as military crises go.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said that the soldiers were captured to pressure Israel to release the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in its jails.

The raid was clearly a gesture of solidarity towards the Palestinian militants in Gaza who have been holding an Israeli soldier since 25 June.

Hezbollah may also have had an eye on its own situation in Lebanon where there has been increasing pressure for it to disarm.

How has Israel reacted?

The result of the raid is that Israel is fighting on two fronts. Israeli officials have cast the Hezbollah raid as an act of war and responded with air strikes, shelling and a sea blockade, threatening operations that will "turn back the clock in Lebanon by 20 years".

The immediate aim seems to be, as in Gaza, to build up massive pressure on the Lebanese government and the Lebanese population. Civilian casualties in Lebanon have been high and the damage to civilian infrastructure wide-ranging.

Thousands of foreigners have fled the country and there are increasing fears of a humanitarian catastrophe.

The Israeli strikes on targets other than Hezbollah installations are at least in part punitive - power installations, roads and the international airport have been hit.

What can the Lebanese government do about the situation?

Ordinary Lebanese civilians have been the main victims of the current crisis in terms of deaths and injuries.

Thousands have become internal refugees, seeking safety in areas that are not being bombed by Israel.

The country is dealing with a massive Israeli bombing campaign and a number of small land incursions. Since 2000, when Israel ended a 22-year occupation of the south, clashes on the border have been small affairs.

Israel has made it absolutely clear that it holds the Lebanese government responsible for the kidnapping of its soldiers by Hezbollah.

Many analysts see this as unfair.

Even though Hezbollah is operating from Lebanese territory and the militant group has two ministers in the Lebanese government, central government is almost powerless to influence the militant group.

It is the Hezbollah militia that is deployed in southern Lebanon, not the Lebanese army.

The group is also very popular in Lebanon and highly respected for its political activities, social services and its military record against Israel.

Most Lebanese may believe that Hezbollah's capture of the two Israeli soldiers is deeply irresponsible. There is anger that the country is again being pitched towards war, but this is unlikely to translate into widespread anger towards Hezbollah.

Is there any way out of this crisis?

Israeli officials have insisted that there will be no direct negotiation with Hezbollah or Hamas over the return of its soldiers, and no Palestinian prisoner releases.

In the past, Israel has negotiated with Hezbollah and released hundreds of prisoners, but Israeli officials are now talking about a changed situation and new rules.

In both Gaza and Lebanon, the Israeli military appears to be using the opportunity afforded by the crisis to damage Hezbollah and Hamas as military organisations. A few days into the crisis, Israel demanded the disarming of Hezbollah and deployment of the Lebanese army to the southern border with Israel as pre-conditions for a ceasefire.

All sides are for now taking hardline positions, but it's difficult to see how the Israelis are going to get their soldiers back without some kind of ceasefire followed by negotiations that will almost certainly involve prisoner releases.

Will the conflict spread?

We're not yet at the stage of a regional conflict.

Much will depend on whether Israel extends its military operations to take in Syria and Iran, Hezbollah's sponsors and supporters. Officials have already laid much of the blame for the escalating crisis on Damascus and Tehran.

Iran and Syria are also the states that can influence Hezbollah more than anyone else.

Inevitably the role of the US, in restraining Israel and pushing the various parties towards some kind of ceasefire may at some later date be crucial.

The first signs of an international diplomatic intervention emerged when the UN's Kofi Annan and British PM Tony Blair called for the deployment of an international force in Lebanon.

But this may be some way off, if it gets off the ground at all.

It's widely believed that Washington has given the Israelis a window in which to continue its bombardment of Lebanon and degrade Hezbollah's military capability.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice might be headed to the Middle East at the end of the week. Should this go ahead, it might signal that Washington is ready to put its weight behind attempts to achieve a ceasefire.

Meanwhile, questions surrounding the disarmament of Hezbollah, as demanded by the UN Security Council, have been pushed way into the background for now. As are Mr Olmert's big plans for disengaging from parts of the West Bank.

Are war crimes being committed in the current conflict?

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour has said that war crimes could have been committed in the current conflict.

She said international law stressed the need to protect civilians, and insisted that there was an obligation on all parties to respect the "principle of proportionality".

She was even-handed and did not name particular leaders, but suggested that some leaders might be considered personally responsible for the alleged war crimes.

"Indiscriminate shelling of cities constitutes a foreseeable and unacceptable targeting of civilians. Similarly, the bombardment of sites with alleged military significance, but resulting invariably in the killing of innocent civilians, is unjustifiable," she said.

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