Attacking Gaza, Israel Worries About Lebanon

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Hussein Malla / AP

A protester in Beirut waves a Palestinian flag during a demonstration to protest Israel's attacks against the Gaza Strip.

As Israel continues its air offensive against Hamas in the Gaza strip, one unsettling specter has emerged from the recent past: the failed campaign to crush the Lebanese militants of Hizballah in July 2006. Lebanon was clearly on the minds of Israel's military planners. Even as Hamas targets were pounded in Gaza, Israeli jets flew low-level saber-rattling sorties over southern Lebanon, a warning to militants not to launch reprisal attacks along Israel's volatile northern border. (See pictures from Israel's 2006 war in Lebanon.)

For now, the Shi'ite Hizballah appears to be confining its protests to fiery rhetoric and street demonstrations. In a widely watched televised address Sunday night, Hizballah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah directed his anger more toward Arab governments, Egypt in particular, for complicity in the onslaught against Hamas than toward Israel itself. "Some Arab regimes ... are helping by all means to impose the conditions of surrender on the resistors of the American-Zionist project," he said. "The 2006 July war occurred under Arab approval, even Arab request... They told the Israelis to get rid of Hizballah. They are doing the same thing in Gaza, they are asking the Israelis to destroy Hamas and the resistors." (See pictures of Israel's Deadly Assault on Gaza.)

The black-turbaned cleric added that Israeli military movements along the border with Lebanon could be a "defensive measure," but warned that "the enemy, with Arab collaboration, the financial crisis and the transition period in the United States, might take advantage of the situation to launch an attack on Lebanon." He added: "We are not concerned nor afraid... We are ready to face any attack on our country." (See pictures from inside Hizballah.)

The Lebanon-Israel border long has served as a locus of Arab retaliation against Israel during periods of heightened violence. But since the 2006 war between Hizballah and Israel, the border has remained calm with the Shi'a militants concentrating their efforts on a military build-up for what they believe is an inevitable future encounter with their Israeli foes. "I think Hizballah has to keep it quiet along the border. The rules have changed since 2006," says Timur Goksel, a university lecturer in Beirut who served from 1979 to 2003 with the United Nations peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, known as UNIFIL.

But there is no shortage of other players in Lebanon who could disrupt the tense stability along the frontier. Some of Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps are home to al-Qaeda-inspired militant groups who are suspected of having launched rockets into Israel on two occasions since the end of the 2006 war. On Sunday, the mood in Ain al-Hilweh, the largest and most lawless of the camps, located outside the southern port city of Sidon, was one of fury and mourning. "All that the Israelis are doing, these massacres, killings and bombings, is creating a new generation of suicide bombers," says Mounir Moqdah, a veteran warlord with the Fatah faction of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He and his rivals in Hamas agreed, however, that military action against Israel from south Lebanon would not serve the Palestinian cause. "At this time, we will not retaliate from south Lebanon," says Abu Ahmad Fadel Taha, the leader of Hamas in Ain al-Hilweh. "We are counting for now on the support of the Arab people to stand beside us in our ordeal."

Still, the prospect of rogue attacks along the border has spurred the Lebanese army to cancel all leave and step up patrols in south Lebanon alongside UNIFIL peacekeepers. The heightened security measures occurred after eight Katyusha rockets were discovered by a farmer on Thursday in a valley two miles north of the border with Israel. The rockets, a mix of 120mm and 107mm calibers, were fitted with timers and set for launching late on Thursday night. Lebanese security sources suspect the presence of the rockets was intended as a "message" to Israel rather than an actual attack. They note that the rockets were old and were propped against items of furniture, rather than fitted inside tubed launchers, which would have rendered them highly inaccurate.

Lebanon long has been a graveyard for Israeli military ambitions. The 2006 war helped ruin the political career of Ehud Olmert, the outgoing Israeli Prime Minister. But with less than two months before leaving office, Olmert and his cabinet appear to have absorbed some of the lessons of the bungled attempt to destroy Hizballah in 2006. In that conflict two and a half years ago, Hizballah defied Israel's aerial onslaught to maintain relentless barrages of rockets into northern Israel. Olmert found himself bogged down in an unwinnable conflict.

This time, however, the Israeli government is earning praise in the Israeli media for its handling of the assault against Hamas. In particular, analysts cite the months of intelligence gathering and high level of secrecy in planning the air strikes. The timing of the first raids on Saturday appears to have caught Hamas by surprise, accounting for the high number of casualties among the militants.

That perceived early success is benefiting two of the leading candidates for the premiership in the upcoming Israeli election scheduled for early February. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were trailing in the polls behind their hawkish Likud rival, Benjamin Netanyahu. But the aerial assault against Hamas has given a lift to Barak and Livni, at Netanyahu's expense.

Still, the rival candidates would do well to recall the outcome of an earlier military offensive waged during an Israeli election campaign. In April 1996, then Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres was floundering in a stiff electoral battle with the very same Netanyahu. Peres, who initially was considered a certainty to win the election, found his dovish reputation was working against him amid a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings and deadly Hizballah attacks against Israeli troops then occupying south Lebanon. In an attempt to create a tough-guy image, he ordered an air and artillery blitz against Hizballah in Lebanon, an operation dubbed Grapes of Wrath. However, Grapes of Wrath turned into a political disaster for Peres when a week into the assault Israeli artillery gunners shelled a UNIFIL base in south Lebanon killing over 100 Lebanese civilians sheltering there. The operation fizzled out a week later in a U.S.-brokered cease-fire that gave further cover to Hizballah's war against Israeli troops occupying south Lebanon. Pilloried for the failure of the operation, Peres lost to Netanyahu in the election a month later.

See pictures of life under Hamas in Gaza.

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