January 12, 2009 | The Middle East Times
A Third Lebanon War?
While the Gaza war enters its third week, the question of a second front remains very accurate. Even though lots of experts have asserted that Hezbollah would not enter the war at this point, some troubling elements are questioning this assertion. Just last week northern Israel was hit by a few Katushya rockets just like in the summer 2006. The paternity of this act remains a question but it proves Hezbollah's ambivalence when it comes to facing off with Israel again.
The most logical culprit for last Thursday's attacks on Israel is the Syrian-backed Palestinian extremist group PFLP-GC. Ahmed Jibril, its leader, is based in Damascus and was behind the June 2007 Katushya rockets – modified in Iran – attacks against Israel.
The PFLP-GC has allegedly prepared more than 80 rockets of this type to bomb Israel.
Even if Jibril's group is behind this latest attack, there is no way he did not get the nod from Hezbollah. In fact, nothing happens in southern Lebanon without the knowledge and blessing of Hezbollah. What does Hezbollah have in mind? Is it testing the waters? Is Hezbollah using PFLP's action as a dry run to see how UNIFIL forces and Israel would react?
Possibly. When it comes to UNIFIL, the conclusion is that it is to say the least not very efficient in preventing attacks against Israel. Regarding Israel, Hezbollah could see that the Hebrew state did not wait long to retaliate: that might be food for thought.
Interestingly this incident follows the discovery by the Lebanese army of eight Katushya rockets aimed at Israel and ready to be fired. These rockets were found about one mile away from the UNIFIL headquarters and about two miles from the Israeli border. Also on Friday, the Lebanese army found another cache with 34 rockets and a launcher.
What does Hezbollah intend to do at this point?
Interestingly, Hezbollah was quick to claim its innocence regarding Thursday's attack and assured the Lebanese government that it will not enter into a new conflict with Israel. It seems that the Siniora government and the anti-Syrian pro-Western March 14 alliance believe Hezbollah. But they should be reminded that just before Hezbollah triggered the summer 2006 war with Israel, it had promised the government it would not do anything that could ruin the very lucrative summer tourist season. So believing Hezbollah might be an error.
At the same time, the March 14 alliance is troubled by the communiqué published by the Lebanese army on Thursday describing the Katyusha launches and the Israeli mortar fire retaliation as being “simultaneous.” Indeed by twisting the truth are Hezbollah allies preparing the ground for an offensive?
Last but not least, on the domestic level, numerous experts explain that Hezbollah has no interest to trigger a war with Israel before the very important legislative elections of June. But this argument might also be moot. In fact, the Lebanese weekly Al-Shiraa reported that Hezbollah MP Hussein Hajj Hassan allegedly told close aides that these elections would not take place. So much for the various reasons why Hezbollah will not attack Israel.
In fact, Hezbollah has quickly reinforced its positions, in particular in the south of the Bekaa valley where it has allegedly dug tunnels to stock Zalzal type missiles that were transported to the area. Also Iranian experts have allegedly equipped type “Mersad-1” drones that Iran supplied to Hezbollah, that carrying large quantities of explosives, could be used against Israeli tanks, in case of an armed conflict.
Also Hezbollah has completely replenished its rockets inventory and has now more than 45,000 rockets. Obviously these rockets are not going to gather dust long and at some point Hezbollah is going to use them against Israel.
Because of UNIFIL's presence, Hezbollah has allegedly come up with two plans to neutralize the UNIFIL forces in case of a new conflict with Israel. The first one entails Hezbollah storming the UNIFIL posts in a peaceful manner with large waves of civilians. The second is a full-out war in case of a UNIFIL retaliation. Hezbollah units have been recently training with anti-tank missiles to handle the Leclerc tanks of the UNIFIL forces. Nonetheless, Hezbollah thinks that in case of a war with Israel, UNIFIL would remain on the sidelines.
But the real decision-maker, when it comes to the timing of a Hezbollah attack on Israel, sits in Tehran. Iran is weighing what cards to play next. In light of this, last week both Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran's parliament and Saed Jalili, Iran's national security council's secretary, met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and Palestinian Islamic Jihad leaders in Damascus. The next few weeks will tell us if it was decided that whether Hezbollah would intervene to help Hamas or not.
Olivier Giutta is a Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.