Israel's tolerance of Lebanon's Hizbullah organization may be coming to an end, raising the specter of a potentially devastating cross-border conflict between the two enemies.
The prospect of a US-led invasion of Iraq is raising concern that Israel may launch an offensive against the heavily armed guerrilla force poised along its northern border in an attempt to crush its implacable Shiite Muslim foe once and for all.
A Western diplomat in Beirut says that an Israeli assault against Hizbullah is becoming "a very likely scenario."
"If Hizbullah makes any mistakes when the Americans are in Iraq, it will give Israel a golden opportunity," the diplomat says.
Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hizbullah's deputy secretary-general, admits that the group is prepared for "all eventualities."
"It's very possible that Sharon will take advantage of a US attack on Iraq to push forward his plans for the Palestinians and Lebanon and we have to be very ready for that possibility," Sheikh Qassem says. "We know that a decision for an all-out attack can come at any moment. The enemy can open the battle, but they will have difficulty in closing it and controlling its consequences."
According to an Israeli army radio report cited by the Associated Press, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz warned Monday that if Hizbullah fires long-range missiles at Israel, Israel may be compelled to counterattack.
Although there have been no confirmed clashes between Hizbullah fighters and Israeli troops since August, tensions remain high along the border. Mysterious nighttime explosions in remote valleys along the southern border district tell the United Nations Interim Forces (UNIFIL) and local residents that Hizbullah is busy constructing new underground fortifications. According to well-placed sources in south Lebanon, the group is also installing a lighting system and rail tracks in a long-disused railway tunnel, but their purpose remains unclear.
Hizbullah is also widely suspected of stashing away a substantial arsenal of rockets, mortar shells, and antitank missiles in natural caves and specially built bunkers in south Lebanon.
Washington has demanded calm from Israel while preparations are under way for a war with Iraq. Its military might temporarily in check, Israel has been applying diplomatic and propaganda pressure on Hizbullah instead.
This month, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accused Al Qaeda of forming an alliance with Hizbullah to penetrate the Gaza Strip. Subsequent reports in the Israeli media claimed joint Hizbullah and Al Qaeda cells were planning attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets in Prague and the Czech Republic, and blamed the suicide bombing of a hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, last month on the two groups.
The allegations were strenuously denied by Hizbullah, Lebanese officials, and even Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, who flew to Beirut for urgent talks. But the weight of rhetoric against Hizbullah recently spurred Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's secretary-general, to warn for the first time that an attack on Lebanon was a possibility. "These Israeli claims could be to pave the road for an Israeli attack on Lebanon and Hizbullah during the expected American campaign against Iraq," he said in a speech. "It is said that the Americans have told the Israelis that even if the Iraqis attack Israel, Israel cannot attack Iraq. But in return they might give [Israel] the green light to hit something else."
Hizbullah refuses to discuss what it will do if the US attacks Iraq. Some Israeli military and political sources have said they expect Hizbullah to open a second front in support of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein if the US invades.
But analysts disagree. "Hizbullah will take a similar position to Iran, which is to essentially remain neutral," says Nizar Hamzeh, head of the political science department at the American University of Beirut.
Israel's options for dealing with Hizbullah appear limited. Assaults against Hizbullah positions in south Lebanon won't keep them from regrouping along the border once the offensive is over. Striking at Lebanese infrastructure, or at Syria, which backs Hizbullah's activities in south Lebanon, could lead to a war with unpredictable consequences.
With hawks in key military and political positions in Israel, and with Mr. Sharon expected to win in next month's general election, the chances of a conflict have grown, according to a European diplomat. "It's a disaster scenario," the diplomat says. "I can't see it working unless full force is used and somehow they get the Syrians to force Hizbullah to withdraw militarily.... I can't see how that scenario can work, though. But there are some in Israel that think it might work, and that's what's dangerous."
But Professor Hamzeh says the "balance of terror" represented by Hizbullah's rockets in south Lebanon would deter Israel from attacking. "The Israelis haven't been able to end Palestinian operations in the West Bank and Gaza, areas that they control. How will they be able to wipe out Hizbullah in Lebanon, over which they have no control?"