Leading Arab and Israeli officials are increasingly convinced that another major Arab-Israeli conflict will erupt within months, according to recent statements and background briefings.
"We are prepared for the possibility of another adventure or the demand of American policy that might push the IDF [the Israeli Defense Force] in that direction," declared Sheikh Naim Qassem, the deputy leader of the Hezbollah terror organization this week. “Adventure” is one of Hezbollah’s favorite terms to describe an Israeli pre-emptive strike, and while Qassem’s claims seem wild, they are taken seriously by Western analysts, including the director of Israeli military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin. Iran, Hezbollah and Syria, he believes, are preparing for war this summer.
Qassem is taken seriously in part because, after Hassan Nasrallah, he has been Hezbollah’s “Number 2” for more than a decade. Often his remarks telegraph the policy of Hezbollah and its Iranian overlords. Moreover, these statements dovetail with growing evidence of Hezbollah rearmament and its preparations for war on the ground.
IDF analysts say Hezbollah has already replenished stocks of arms, explosives and rockets lost during last summer’s war with Israel, when Hezbollah invaded Israel, killed several IDF soldiers and abducted two others, setting off several weeks of fighting. Israeli intelligence officials say the Lebanese-based and Iranian-run terror organization has brought in thousands of Katyusha and Grad rockets, like those fired at Israeli cities last summer. Even though Hezbollah fired about 5,000 mostly short-range rockets, it is believed to have replenished its short-range rocket arsenal, as well as the longer-range Zilzal and Fajr rockets (of mixed Syrian and Iranian manufacture), some of which were successfully destroyed by Israel.
In addition, Hezbollah has replenished its stocks of anti-tank munitions, apparently intended to stave off a deep-penetration Israeli assault to uproot well-entrenched Hezbollah gunners in cement-lined tunnel complexes throughout southern Lebanon. Israel is believed to have killed 500-700 of Hezbollah’s fighters last summer, wounding more than 1,000, perhaps disabling one-quarter of Hezbollah’s active fighting force of 5,000, which is roughly equivalent to an army division.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called this "victory." But other Israeli analysts say that Israel did not destroy Hezbollah’s war-making ability, nor did it do an effective job of defending its own civilian population. A recent tour by foot and car of the meandering Israeli-Lebanese border by this writer showed many worrisome signs. Despite claims to the contrary by the Olmert government, Hezbollah does not act as if it lost the war in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s presence is evident at numerous places along the fence near the point where two Israeli soldiers were kidnapped and several others were killed and wounded, igniting last summer’s war.
Although Hezbollah has not put armed men on the fence, its men and informers are deployed all along the area, even placing a Hezbollah flag on the frontier during a recent visit by Israel’s deputy prime minister Shimon Peres. The multi-national force tasked with maintaining the ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah is considered to be better than the old UNIFIL contingents, and it has stopped a few sparse arms shipments. But it is believed that many more have gotten through. As for Israel’s monitoring of the area, it has improved since last summer, but remains inadequate, as shown by the fact that only a few weeks ago an Israeli patrol found an arms cache stemming from Hezbollah’s kidnapping of Israeli soldiers on July 12, 2006.
An anti-tank rocket screen at an Israeli border base makes it clear that the Israelis are not fooled by the pastoral appearance of Lebanese villages, which harbor Hezbollah fighters with RPG launchers. A similar picture has developed on Israel’s southern frontier in Gaza, where Israel killed scores of Palestinian terrorists, from various factions, last summer, but where Iran has now organized Hamas terrorists into regular army formations of platoons, brigades and other divisions.
Military leaders are properly concerned. Israeli Southern Commander Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant and Yuval Diskin, head of the Shin Bet counter-terror organization, report that 30 tons of high-grade explosives—intended for car bombs and human bomber attacks—have been smuggled into Gaza. Galant and Diskin say Iranian personnel and Iranian-trained Palestinians are spearheading the terror activities as well as the building of fortress and tunnel complexes, like those in Lebanon, on the borders of Gaza.
“Fatah has become an Iranian organization,” declared Maj. Gen. Galant during a recent briefing, referring to the organization founded by Yasser Arafat and supposedly run by his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO Chairman and president of the Palestinian Authority. Brig. Gen. Shalom Harari, one of Israel’s top analysts of Palestinian affairs, said 40 percent of the various Palestinian organizations were directly funded by Iran. “There is a growing strategic alliance between Iran and the radical Palestinian forces in the territories,” noted General Harari during a recent briefing. “Iran is involved in supporting both the Islamic factions and Fatah, as well. Today, at least 40 percent of Fatah’s different fighting groups are also paid by Hezbollah and Iran. Hamas thinks it can build a new southern Lebanon in Gaza, and this is what it is busy doing.”
For its part, Israel is clearly preparing for the possibility of war, redoubling infantry and army maneuvers, as well as holding a nearly-unprecedented national civil defense exercise several weeks ago. IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazy has made it plain that Israel should be prepared to root out terror in Gaza and that he, personally, is unsatisfied with the results of last summer’s combat in Lebanon.
Many Israeli officials further note that Iran’s hand in Gaza and Lebanon is also connected to its nuclear ambitions. The Islamic Republic, they charge, stokes the fires on Israel’s borders in order to divert attentions from its atomic weapons programs. Some Israeli officials believe that Iran did not want the summer abduction and border skirmishes to develop into a full-fledged war for it took place earlier than Iran would have wanted.
Students of Middle East history know that brinkmanship of the kind now practiced by Iran, Hezbollah and assorted Palestinian terrorist factions often precipitates greater violence. In 1967, for example, Egyptian President Gamal Abdul-Nasser sent troops into the Sinai. Conceived as an act of saber-rattling to show support for Syria, which had initiated border skirmishes with Israel, it would explode into a full-scale regional war.
Another related and worrisome scenario envisions concern about war becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy: one side worries about attack, prepares for active defense, thereby spurring the first side to speed up its own war preparations. A related scenario is a limited border raid, abduction operation or show of strength that escalates out of control into major conflict, as happened in last summer’s conflict in Lebanon. In January of this year, Iran held a highly televised war exercise in the Garmsar region near Teheran in which it fired long-range Zilzal and Fajr-3 rockets. If recent history is any guide, it is a sign of worse to come.
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