Alexa

Hezbollah watches for now as Israel hits Hamas

 Tens of thousands of Lebanese Hezbollah supporters protest in the southern suburb of Dahiyeh, Lebanon, Monday, Dec. 29, 2008. People stood in pouring...
 A Palestinian flag flutters in the wind, as people protest in the southern suburb of Dahiyeh, Lebanon, Monday, Dec. 29, 2008. Tens of thousands of Le...
 Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addresses crowds through a large screen during a  protest in the southern suburb of Dahiyeh, Lebanon, Monday, Dec. ...
 Lebanese, front, and Israeli soldiers, background, are seen patrolling the common border, in the southern village of Kfar Kila, Lebanon, Monday, Dec....
 A woman shouts anti-Israeli slogans as protesters carry pictures of President George W. Bush, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with in A...
 Lebanese soldiers patrol the border with Israel in the southern village of Kfar Kila, Lebanon, Monday, Dec. 29, 2008. (AP Photo/Lutfallah Daher)

APTOPIX Mideast Lebanon Israel Palestinians

Tens of thousands of Lebanese Hezbollah supporters protest in the southern suburb of Dahiyeh, Lebanon, Monday, Dec. 29, 2008. People stood in pouring...

Mideast Lebanon Israel Palestinians

A Palestinian flag flutters in the wind, as people protest in the southern suburb of Dahiyeh, Lebanon, Monday, Dec. 29, 2008. Tens of thousands of Le...

Mideast Lebanon Israel Palestinians

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addresses crowds through a large screen during a protest in the southern suburb of Dahiyeh, Lebanon, Monday, Dec. ...

Mideast Lebanon Israel

Lebanese, front, and Israeli soldiers, background, are seen patrolling the common border, in the southern village of Kfar Kila, Lebanon, Monday, Dec....

Mideast Lebanon Israel Palestinians

A woman shouts anti-Israeli slogans as protesters carry pictures of President George W. Bush, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with in A...

Mideast Lebanon Israel

Lebanese soldiers patrol the border with Israel in the southern village of Kfar Kila, Lebanon, Monday, Dec. 29, 2008. (AP Photo/Lutfallah Daher)

Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah guerrilla group, widely seen as the Arab world's most effective military force against Israel, is holding its fire for now as Israeli warplanes pummel Palestinian ally Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Hezbollah possesses a formidable arsenal of rockets and missiles that bloodied Israel during a monthlong war between them in 2006. But now the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Shiite Muslim militant group faces domestic constraints on reopening a fight against Israel.
In particular, the massive retaliation Israel has threatened to unleash in case of any renewed rocket bombardment could hurt the growing political power Hezbollah has gained in Lebanon since 2006, if it is seen by Lebanese as drawing the country into another devastating war.
For now, Hezbollah has instead played a propaganda role, calling for protests in Lebanon and across the Middle East to pressure Arab governments to act against Israel.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah drew tens of thousands waving Palestinian, Hezbollah and Lebanese flags in his south Beirut stronghold on Monday. In his second speech in two days, he said Israel's Gaza offensive will ultimately fail. On Sunday, he called on Egyptians to rise up to force their government to open border crossings with Gaza and help end the siege of the Palestinian territory.
Nasrallah put his men on alert in southern Lebanon in case Israel attacks, said he was ready to fight back if provoked, and promised not to abandon Hamas, an Islamic Sunni group also backed by Iran and Syria. But he made no threat to open fire on northern Israel in order to relieve Gaza, an act that most certainly would provoke another war with Israel.
"It is clear they (Hezbollah) cannot afford entering a full-scale war with Israel, which would be devastating for Lebanon and for their own people, who haven't completely rebuilt from the last war," said Paul Salem, Beirut-based director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, an arm of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The 2006 war was sparked when Hezbollah guerrillas snatched two Israel soldiers from northern Israel. Israel unleashed a massive bombardment of southern Lebanon and other parts of the country. Hezbollah fired thousands of rockets into Israel.
Israel's assault devastated much of southern Lebanon, and more than 1,000 Lebanese and about 160 Israelis were killed.
But since then, Hezbollah has gained significant political power by joining a national unity government with its pro-U.S. domestic rivals. The country has seen an unusually long stretch of relative calm and prosperity since the deal for the government was reached in May _ and many Lebanese fear anything that could disturb the stability.
Hezbollah's strategy now is to mobilize the Arab masses, particularly in Egypt, while counting on Hamas holding out until Israel is forced by outside pressure to end the offensive. Popular demonstrations against the Israeli offensive can embarrass pro-U.S. Arab governments, while Hamas' survival ensures the strength of the anti-U.S. bloc in the region.
Hezbollah expert Amal Saad-Ghorayeb describes the conflict as an "existential" one between those opposed to U.S. and Israeli policy _ namely Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran _ and the so-called pro-U.S. Arab states.
A Hamas defeat will weaken the alliance backing it and "the moderate axis will reign supreme," but if Hamas survives the onslaught, it would be a major victory for its backers, said Saad-Ghorayeb, author of the book "Hezbollah: Politics and Religion."
Salem says the Gaza fighting will do little to resolve the contentious issues facing peace, such as West Bank settlements, the fate of Arab east Jerusalem and the Syrian-Israeli track.
"The game is not Gaza. It is regional," Salem said. "In a way this is a war that is not going to solve anything. It will kill hundreds and thousands of people and we still remain where we are."
Since the 2006 war, Hezbollah has rebuilt its arsenal and claims to possess more than 30,000 rockets, with far greater range, sophistication and firepower than Hamas' mostly primitive rockets.
Israel has been enhancing its army's capabilities as it drew lessons from 2006. In October, Israel's top commander on the border with Lebanon, Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, said Israel will use "disproportionate force" if Hezbollah attacks Israel, adding that any village used to fire missiles against the Jewish state will be destroyed.
Hezbollah also has to reckon with Lebanese troops and a more robust U.N. peacekeeping force in the south near the border with Israel. Since 2006, thousands of Lebanese troops have deployed along with 13,000 U.N. peacekeepers in a border zone.