Rocket fire from Lebanon: a second front for Israel?

Hezbollah denies firing three rockets Thursday. Israeli officials blame Al Qaeda militants.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
Evacuation: Tili Arizon returned to the room damaged by rocket fire Thursday to retrieve some of her belongings. She's moving to another retirement home.

With the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza continuing to rage and truce talks still far from bearing fruit, a militant group in Lebanon raised the possibility of opening a new front in the war Thursday.

Three Katyusha rockets were fired from southern Lebanon, one of them hitting a nursing home in the northern city of Nahariya, Israel, injuring two people.

Israel responded immediately with five artillery shells, which a military spokesman said was "a pinpoint response at the source of fire."

Neither Israel nor Hezbollah in Lebanon want another war, say analysts. But that doesn't mean that Hezbollah – or its allies – won't launch small attacks on Israel or target Israeli aircraft over Lebanon, they say.

Israeli officials were reluctant to declare this the opening of another front, given that the rockets may have been fired by a pro-Palestinian militant group, but not by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Still, the devastating 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah – and by default, all of Lebanon – hangs like a specter over the current fighting and is serving as both a model and an obstacle to reaching a cease-fire with Hamas.

"The first assumption is that it's not Hezbollah, it's global jihadists, groups much more connected with Al Qaeda," says Col. (Res.) Miri Eisin, a spokesperson for the Israeli government. "We're talking about a group that doesn't care about Lebanon or its politics, but uses it as a base, the way other militants do with Afghanistan or Iraq."

"That's part of the challenge," she adds. "Distinguishing between isolated incidents and opening a second front." She points out that just 10 days ago, the Lebanese government dismantled eight rockets it found aimed at Israel, indicating its intent to keep up its commitments to stop rocket fire from its territory.

Lebanon launched an investigation into the rocket attack, an act that Prime Minister Fouad Siniora called a breach of a United Nations resolution that helped end the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon's militant Shiite Hezbollah.

In southern Lebanon, schools were closed and Lebanese troops searched vehicles at checkpoints and scoured remote valleys near the border with Israel.

Hezbollah and Palestinian groups denied responsibility for the rocket salvo. "When Hezbollah does something, it announces it and has no problem doing so," says Mohammed Fneish, minister of labor in Lebanon's national unity government who is also a Hezbollah lawmaker.

Suspicion has fallen on the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), which is based in Damascus, Syria, and is an ally of Hezbollah.

Hamzi Bishtawi, a PFLP-GC official in Beirut, says his group was not involved, but it supported the attack. "We do not condemn any action against Israel," he says. "We are always with the jihadists that attack Israel."

If Hezbollah didn't fire the rockets, did it supply them? After decades of conflict, there is no shortage of Katyusha-style rockets in Lebanon. The identity of the perpetrators could indicate whether Hezbollah was aware of the rocket attack beforehand and possibly gave it tacit blessing. Some Palestinian militant groups, such as the PFLP-GC, are allies of Hezbollah and would be unlikely to launch an attack on Israel without at least obtaining prior approval from Hezbollah and Syria.

On the other hand, Al Qaeda-style Sunni groups, as Israeli officials note, are suspected of firing rockets into Israel in the past from southern Lebanon. Those militants have little regard for the Shiite Hezbollah and are more likely to act unilaterally.

Yet most analysts say that the rocket barrage does not presage the opening of a new front between Israel and Hezbollah. But there may be more rocket attacks.

"This is not surprising," says Timur Goksel, who for two decades served with the United Nations peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, known as UNIFIL. "It's possible we will see more attacks like this in the days ahead. The Lebanese Army and UNIFIL will have their hands full."

So far, Hezbollah has restricted its support for its Palestinian ally Hamas to speeches and demonstrations in Beirut.

In June, Lebanon goes to the polls in what is expected to be a tense and closely fought parliamentary election. An electoral win for Hezbollah and its allies against the Western-backed parliamentary majority bloc will give it greater leverage to hold onto its weapons and continue the struggle against Israel. Triggering a potentially devastating fresh war with Israel for the sake of Hamas in Gaza will not be welcomed by its Shiite constituents, let alone other Lebanese, which is a compelling reason for Hezbollah to limit its actions.

But if Hamas looks to be facing defeat, spelling the end of anti-Israel resistance from Gaza and the West Bank, it is possible that Hezbollah will come to its assistance from Lebanon. "There is no way that Hezbollah can allow Hamas to be destroyed. Hezbollah would have to intervene," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, an expert on the Shiite group.

Instead of firing rockets into Israel, Hezbollah probably would tailor its actions against Israel to seek legitimacy in the eyes of Lebanese and world opinion. One possibility is to attempt to shoot down Israeli jets that breach Lebanese airspace on a nearly daily basis in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.

The downing of an Israeli aircraft would be considered a "red line" by Israel. But Hezbollah could argue that its action was a legitimate defense of Lebanese sovereignty rather than an act of aggression against Israel, analysts say.

In Nahariya, Thursday afternoon, Chava Carmeli said it was a miracle that all 27 of the people who live in the three-story elder-care facility that she manages were downstairs in the dining room, about to eat breakfast, when the Katyusha rocket pierced through the roof at 7:40 a.m.

The rocket shattered walls, ceilings, windows, and pipes in most of the bedrooms upstairs before landing in the kitchen. There, plates of about-to-be-served hummus and labneh – a staple in Middle Eastern breakfasts – sat covered with shards of glass and flakes of plaster.

Now, the building sits with holes wide-open to the sky and is eerily empty of residents, who were soon evacuated to other senior-citizen homes in the area. "If they hadn't all come down to the dining room for breakfast, we would have lost tens of them," says Ms. Carmeli, still shaking from the experience and checking for updates on one of her residents, who was in surgery in a nearby hospital. "We thought that if there were another missile attack, the siren would warn us and we'd be able to move everyone into the shelters."

But the attack came without warning, something Israelis here came to rely on during the Lebanon war in 2006.

Despite that, Miriam Cohen, an 86-year-old Holocaust survivor who lives across the street, felt the familiar crash of the Katyusha while she was baking for the upcoming Sabbath. She knew exactly what she had to do. She turned the oven off, turned the radio on, and made for the shelter in the house they've been in for 50 years.

"I already don't run so fast," she explains about making her way to the shelter – a protected steel room inside their house. "We're already experts in this routine," she says with a wry smile. Then, her eyes pool with tears. "We don't see any hope that this will end."

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