Israel looks warily to the Lebanon border

'Iran may use Hizbullah to try to save Hamas from collapse.'

Lebanon war 224.88 (photo credit: AP )
Lebanon war 224.88
(photo credit: AP )
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Monday that Israel was keeping a watchful eye on the northern border out of concern that Hizbullah would try to attack while the IDF is preoccupied with Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. "We are prepared, ready and following everything that happens," Barak said. The IDF is also concerned that Hizbullah will use Palestinian proxies to launch rockets into Israel in the coming days to heat up another front for Israel as it operates against Hamas. Defense officials said the IDF operation in Gaza was also having an effect on Iran, which was concerned that Hamas, its proxy in Gaza, was on the verge of collapse. As a result, the officials said, it was possible that Iran would order Hizbullah to attack Israel in order to try to save Hamas from a complete breakdown in Gaza by forcing Israel to move forces to the North. "We haven't witnessed any increased tensions at this border," Andrea Tenenti, deputy spokesman of the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in Naqoura, said Monday. And Lebanese officials say they do not foresee Hizbullah entangling itself in conflict with Israel at this time. Hizbullah and other parties participating in Lebanon's national unity government "insist on refusing to drag the country into new strife with Israel," Information Minister Tarek Mitri told reporters on Monday. "We didn't receive any indication from Hizbullah that they would risk dragging Lebanon into such strife." MP Saad Hariri, head of the Western-backed Future parliamentary bloc, agreed. "We are seeing what is happening in Gaza and I am sure that Hizbullah will not take any wrong steps this time," he told reporters. Hizbullah, which Israeli officials say has become stronger since it fought its 2006 war with Israel, has made a pledge not to get involved in this conflict or draw Lebanon into it, said Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow at the London-based Chatham House and a Lebanon expert. In fact, Hizbullah probably believes that there is no need to attack Israel, he said. "It looks like Israel has enough trouble as it is, and there is no way (Israel) can come out of this saying it was a success," Shehadi said after Israel launched the ground phase of its operation on Saturday. Meanwhile, Israeli military commanders have said that a central goal of their current ground operation is to strengthen Israel's deterrence to their enemies in the region, including Hamas and Hizbullah. "If they want to go for another round, they have to take into consideration the consequences," said one senior commander, who was not permitted to be identified. Some media reports have pointed to an increased number of daily military patrols as proof of increased tensions between Israel and Lebanon. But Tenenti said that UNIFIL increased the number of its daily patrols with the Lebanese Armed Forces on December 24, when the Lebanese military discovered eight rockets equipped with timers pointed at Israel. The decision to increase UNIFIL's patrols had nothing to do with Israel's military operation launched two days later, but rather with the international organization's goal to monitor the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701, he said. The resolution, which helped end the Second Lebanon war, calls for monitoring a cessation of hostilities, aiding the Lebanese Forces in returning to work in southern Lebanon after a 30 year-absence, and keeping the area safe from illegal weapons and activities. On Monday, Lebanese president Michel Suleiman suggested Israel was responsible for the eight rockets found in southern Lebanon, saying that he fears "it is an Israeli attack to implicate Lebanon," according to the NOW Lebanon news site. UNIFIL is still investigating the incident. Meanwhile, a top Iranian official held talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad, Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal and Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Abdullah Shallah in Damascus on Saturday on the escalating situation in Gaza, the Iranian press reported. "The swift halt in Israel's crimes in Gaza" and "stopping the siege of Gaza" were the focus of discussions with Iran's Supreme National Council, Saeed Jalili, an Iranian official told the Mehr News Agency, according to the Tehran Times. Assad and Jalili's discussion focused on "the implications of the continued Israeli aggression on the security and stability of the region," according to Syrian press reports. They also addressed "practical measures to compel Israel to immediately halt its massacres against the Palestinian people and ways to open the crossings and to break the siege imposed on the Strip." Iran supports Hizbullah with arms and money and while it supports Hamas with money and military training. The Associated Press contributed to this report.