Lebanese Gunman 298 88.
(photo credit: AP)
While most eyes have been turned to the Gaza Strip in recent weeks, where Israel is busy combating Palestinian Kassam rocket fire, Military Intelligence and the IDF's Northern Command have also been keeping an eye on Lebanon, with growing concern that violence there will spill over across the border.
Since fighting broke out in the Nahr al-Bared camp, located on the outskirts of the north Lebanon port city of Tripoli, at least 80 soldiers, Fatah al-Islam rebels and civilians have been killed. Until this past weekend, the violence appeared to be limited to the refugee camp, where the Lebanese army - backed by military equipment airlifted to Beirut from the United States - was poised to raid the closed neighborhood.
But with news reports quoting Lebanese President Emile Lahoud as blaming Israel for the violence, the IDF is justifiably concerned that in an effort to halt the clashes with the Lebanese Armed Forces, Fatah al-Islam will turn its guns to the south.
"Even if Israel is not involved right now, instability is not good for us in the long run," said a Defense Ministry official who is closely following the developments in Lebanon.
While Hizbullah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah announced over the weekend that he planned to stay out of the conflict, Israel fears that his organization will join the fray by firing rockets into Israel and taking advantage of the Lebanese army's preoccupation with fighting Fatah al-Islam. Hizbullah has been rebuilding its infrastructure in south Lebanon and according to some reports has recently started a massive recruitment campaign in search of guerrilla fighters.
"If the Lebanese army can't deal with this relatively small and isolated group, how does it think it will be able to confront Hizbullah - a much larger and powerful group - when the day comes," said Dr. Eitan Azani, deputy director of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at IDC, Herzliya.
Associated with al-Qaida, the Palestinian terror group Fatah al-Islam also has UNIFIL extremely concerned. Al-Qaida has attacked Israel from within Lebanon in the past. In December 2005, an al-Qaida cell in south Lebanon fired Katyusha rockets at Kiryat Shmona.
In December, Brig.-Gen. Yossi Baidatz, head of Military Intelligence's Research Division, told the cabinet there were increasing signs that al-Qaida elements were setting up a presence in Lebanon and planning attacks against UNIFIL. Baidatz said that the French, Italian, and Spanish contingents were at particular risk.
According to Azani, the current clashes in Lebanon should also be of concern for Israel since they indicate the growing presence of al-Qaida in neighboring countries. Azani said the violence drew Lebanon even closer to a civil war that it already was on the brink of, as demonstrated by the mass rallies organized by Hizbullah following the Second Lebanon War.