As suggested by us earlier, an Israeli groundincursion has now taken place and is rapidly moving southwards today.
We expect therefore that in particular the fighting around Gaza City will intensify over the next few days, with on the other hand Palestinian rocket fire to continue at the same rate for at least several more days to come.
While the conflict might last for another few weeks, we expect that Israel will be willing to accept a ceasefire as long it follow the lines of combat reached in the Gaza Strip.
As the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launched an expected ground incursion into Gaza on Jan. 3, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak furthermore told the Israeli people in a live TV broadcast that Israel would have to endure a “heavy price” in this military campaign. Barak also raised the possibility of another front opening up, this one on Israel’s northern frontier with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Barak said, “We hope that the northern front will remain calm, but we are prepared for any possibility.”
Yet neither Hezbollah, nor Israel is looking for a fight right now. Israel, focused on paralyzing Hamas, does not want to spread its forces thin by confronting Hezbollah. Meanwhile, Hezbollah is content with limiting its support to Hamas to helping maintain the Palestinian group’s supply lines and commanding several Hamas units in Gaza City. A debate has been taking place inside Hezbollah, however, regarding how much more Hezbollah should be doing in this Gaza crisis. More radical elements are arguing that another confrontation with Israel is inevitable, and that the group would be better off battling Israel in a two-front war.
In fact it appears that Hezbollah’s patrons in Iran are making sure such a scenario does not occur. To this end, Said Jalili, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, visited Damascus and Beirut on Jan. 2-3. During his visit, he met with Hamas’ exiled leadership in Damascus, Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and Ahmad Jibril, chief of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). According to a Stratfor source whose information has not been verified, Jalili made it abundantly clear in his meetings that Iran would not authorize Hezbollah to get any more involved in Israel’s war with Hamas.
Iran’s apparent need to restrain Hezbollah from provoking Israel represents a very different picture from 2006, when Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers in Lebanon were believed to have played a direct role in escalating the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah into an all-out war. At that time, Iran was looking to flex its muscles and demonstrate to the United States, Israel and its Sunni Arab rivals that it had Shiite militant proxies under its control that could unleash chaos at Tehran’s will unless certain Iranian demands were met on key issues, like Iraq.
Tehran has proved its point, and in the current scenario Iran does not have much to gain from an Israeli-Hezbollah war. Not only would Hezbollah run the risk of becoming crippled this time around by a better prepared Israel Defense Forces, but Iran is also at a delicate negotiating stage with the incoming U.S. administration. Iran’s main focus is on consolidating the gains it has made thus far in expanding Shiite power in Iraq; having its primary militant proxy in the Levant come under fire would thus do little to further Iranian interests at this time.
But Iran is not only worried about Hezbollah popping a shot across the border. Jalili, according to the source, al so sought to ensure that Hezbollah and the PFLP-GC prevent radical Sunni militants milling about in Lebanon from launching a rocket attack on northern Israel. The Iranians apparently are concerned that these Sunni militants, the bulk of whom are either on the payroll of Syrian or Saudi intelligence, could attempt to drag Hezbollah into an all-out war with Israel. There are reportedly hundreds of Sunni sleeper cells in southern Lebanon, most of which are in the Palestinian refugee camps of Rashidiyye and Burj al-Shimali, with others sprinkled throughout several Sunni villages in the deep south.
While thus the probability of hostilities breaking out on Israel’s northern frontier remains low, there is still a chance for militants outside Iran’s and Hezbollah’s command to open up a new front. Iran does not appear to be taking any chances, but neither is Israel. If an attack is launched from the north, the Israelis will not hesitate to respond.