assessments

Israel, Lebanon: The Conflict in Gaza and a Possible Northern Front

5 MINS READJan 3, 2009 | 23:18 GMT
ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel is prepared should a northern front with Hezbollah open up. Barak spoke the same day Israeli ground forces entered the Gaza Strip. While neither Hezbollah nor Israel is overly eager for a rematch from their summer 2006 conflict just yet, one could emerge should a more aggressive Hezbollah faction win out in an internal debate among the Lebanese Shiite group.
As the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launched an expected ground incursion into Gaza on Jan. 3, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the Israeli people in a live TV broadcast that Israel would have to endure a "heavy price" in this military campaign. Barak also raised the possibility of another front opening up, this one on Israel's northern frontier with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Barak said, "We hope that the northern front will remain calm, but we are prepared for any possibility." While neither Hezbollah nor Israel is gunning for another military confrontation in Lebanon, Barak's warning has substance. Israel is already well-aware of Hezbollah's involvement in the current Gaza affair. According to a source connected to Hezbollah, about 150 Hezbollah military advisers and fighters are in Gaza City prepared to lead Hamas units against the IDF in case the Israelis attempt to storm the city. As of now, Hezbollah appears unsure whether Israel intends to go full force into Gaza City. If Israel aims just to destroy Hamas' ability to launch rockets into southern Israel, the IDF probably will not accept the heavy casualties inherent in venturing into Gaza City, where Hezbollah-led Hamas units can unleash a major suicide bombing campaign against the invading forces. But with the IDF continuing to call up reservists numbering in the "tens of thousands," Hezbollah and Hamas cannot be sure that Israel does not intend to inflict greater destruction on Hamas by attempting to uproot the group's stronghold in Gaza City. Israel, with the help of Egypt, is attempting to cut off Hamas' supply lines through this Gaza operation. Israel already has bombed several smuggling routes and placed a naval blockade on the Gaza coast. Meanwhile, an Egyptian security source revealed that Egyptian intelligence officers recently arrested a Hezbollah arms smuggling ring consisting of one Lebanese Shi'i and two Palestinians living in Lebanon. This was one of many Hezbollah smuggling rings that travel regularly between Sudan and Cairo and the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. From Sinai, Hamas has built extensive underground tunnels into Gaza to smuggle in weapons and supplies. According to the same source, Hezbollah purchases arms for Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad from Sudan, where the arms market is thriving. The arms are then smuggled into Sinai with the help of sympathetic Egyptian security officers. Once in Sinai, Hezbollah smugglers rely heavily on the help of disgruntled Bedouins, especially the Gawarnas, who also traffic drugs. Hezbollah rewards the Bedouins with light arms, cash and Lebanese hashish, which the Bedouins sell in the Egyptian black market. Iran allegedly pays the full cost of this arms procurement and of payoffs for the Egyptian security officers and the Bedouins. The source also says that Hamas continues to get handsome contributions from wealthy Gulf Arabs, who prefer to donate money indirectly. Some of the Gulf Arabs transfer funds to Hamas by giving their Palestinian employees money in the form of salary increases and bonuses. The Palestinian laborers then transfer the funds to Gaza, where the money ultimately finds its way to Hamas coffers. While Hezbollah has contributed a great deal to Hamas' armor, training and supplies, there is a debate raging inside the organization over how much more or less Hezbollah should interfere in Hamas' fight in Gaza against the Israelis. One faction, which includes Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, opposes any escalation and believes Hezbollah already is doing all it can to assist Hamas. This faction believes Israel is waiting for Hezbollah to provoke a fight. This would allow the IDF to respond massively in Lebanon, giving Israel the opportunity to make up for the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah military confrontation, which gave Hezbollah a rare symbolic victory over the Jewish state. A more hawkish faction of Hezbollah, however, argues that an Israeli offensive against Hezbollah is inevitable, so it is better to open a second front against Israel now — forcing the Jewish state into a two-front war. This debate is still playing out, but Hezbollah has heard Barak's warning: Israel is not looking to open another front in the north while it is battling Hamas in Gaza, but will (according to Israeli security sources) target high-value Hezbollah targets in Lebanon if provoked. Though Hezbollah has been preparing long and hard for a rematch with the Israelis in southern Lebanon, it cannot be assured that it would survive a fight in which Israel is likely to throw its full force into dismantling Hezbollah's military arm. Just as important, Hezbollah cannot be assured of Syrian cooperation in another fight against Israel, especially as the Syrian regime is already pursuing complex negotiations with Israel that would involve Damascus turning on its militant proxies. Under these circumstances, Hezbollah is more likely to lay low and provide more indirect assistance to Hamas in this fight. That said, Israel is not taking any chances, and will prepare for the possibility that the more hawkish Hezbollah faction wins out.

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