Thursday, January 08, 2009

Splitscreen War: Lebanon & Gaza

In my last blog entry, I noted the intriguing fact that no missiles had been fired from Lebanon. So much for that. I also observed earlier that all it would take is one awful set of images from a misguided rocket attack on a civilian target, and Israel would face the same international PR fiasco as it did on July 30, 2006, after it hit a UN refugee site in Qana, Lebanon. And that scenario unfolded 48 hours ago, when Israeli missiles hit a UN-run elementary school, killing 40 civilians. Let me also note that most of Israel's military deaths in this operation (now up to 7) are friendly fire casualties.

On the 13th day of Israel's war on Gaza, a second missile front opened on Israel's northern border. Even as diplomats gathered in Cairo to work on a possible conclusion to the nearly 2-week assault on Gaza and the Hamas rocket barrage on southern Israel, a set of 4 Katyusha rockets were fired from Lebanon into northern Israel this morning, opening up a 2nd front. In an apparent failure of Israel's early warning system, no sirens went off anywhere in the north before the Katyushas fell. One Katyusha hit an old-age home in Nahariya, with minor injuries. Israel initially responded with artillery fire into Lebanon, about 5 km north of the Lebanese-Israeli border. No IAF attacks on Lebanon -- at least not yet, but the Lebanese Army is being mobilized in the south for just such a contingency. Hizbollah has specifically disclaimed responsibility for the attack, even though Hizbollah's leader Shaykh Hasan Nasrallah delivers a nightly speech on Hizbollah TV threatening all sorts of bellicose responses to the Gaza situation. About a week ago, even as he was stating on al-Manar TV that Israel dare not enter Gaza with a land assault, the crawl underneath him reported Israel's entry into Gaza. It was an embarrasing moment for Nasrallah. For the last 5 days, Nasrallah has been caught in a difficult situation, boxed in between his threatening rhetoric and Hizbollah's inaction. It is indeed possible that some group not specifically under Nasrallah's control (like Fatah al-Islam) fired those 4 rockets, in an effort to express solidarity with Hamas. But it is also possible that this is the beginning of a 2nd front.

On Israeli TV, viewers for the first time were subjected to a splitscreen war: on the right side stood a reporter in Sederot, reporting on rockets from the south; on the left side stood a reporter in Nahariya, reporting on Katyushas from the north. Inevitably, the linkage between the unpopular war of 2006 and the still popular war of 2009 was visible for all to see.

This afternoon the 2nd daily humanitarian pause of 3 hours duration occurred, and while Israel is reported to have observed the pause, Hamas did fire into Israel during the pause. Israel immediately reengaged as soon as the pause expired.

With Israel indicating that it is considering bringing its assault on Hamas to an end, Israel's neighbors may be noting that Israel's leadership is beginning to lose its nerve, while Hamas seems to be signalling its steadfast dissatisfaction with the diplomatic package. With the opening of a new front, Israel's leadership is indeed facing a new "worser case scenario." How much longer the Israeli public will feel confident in its political leadership and military remains a significant and open question. How all of this will play out in the upcoming elections, now barely a month away, I will explore in an upcoming blog entry.

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