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    Middle East
     Jan 10, 2009
Rockets strikes reveal new foe in Lebanon
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - Speaking in Beirut on January 7, the Muslim Ashura holidays, Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah told supporters, "We have to act as though all possibilities are real and open [against Israel] and we must always be ready for any eventuality."

Twenty-four hours later, Nasrallah's words seemed to become reality when rockets were launched from South Lebanon into Israel, near the town of Nahariya, threatening to open another front to the Israeli war on Gaza.

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, stationed on the


borders between Israel and Hezbollah, declared a state of emergency, while the pro-US government of Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora condemned the attack but fell short of blaming Hezbollah. For its part, Hezbollah denied having ordered the Ketyusha attack.

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) responded with fire into South Lebanon, drowning an Israeli statement on Wednesday, which said that Israel would send a senior official to Egypt to discuss a ceasefire in Gaza.

A Hamas delegation had already arrived in Cairo, and mediation efforts are expected to be lead by Omar Suleiman, the chief of Egyptian intelligence. International pressure for a ceasefire had been intensified after Israel struck at an United Nations for Relief and Work Agency in the Far East (UNRWA) school in Gaza earlier in the week, killing 46 people. Israel claimed that rockets had been fired from the school, a statement denied by John Gin, the director of Gaza operations for the UNRWA.

Reportedly, US Secretary of States Condoleezza Rice is "constantly on the phone" with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and earlier at the United Nations, several Arab delegates had been trying to push for a an immediate ceasefire. This would put the US in an uneasy situation since it does not want to pressure Israel with a binding resolution, yet would find it diplomatically very difficult to veto a ceasefire.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has also intensified his efforts at bringing a ceasefire to Gaza, and so has Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Breaking his silence for the first time since war broke out 13 days ago, president-elect Barack Obama said that he was "deeply concerned" over the loss of life on both sides and would "engage immediately" in the Middle East after coming to power on January 20.

To date, the conflict has led to the killing of over 700 Palestinians, including 218 children and 90 women. Over 3,000 Palestinians have been wounded and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights says that 130 children, under the age of 16, have been killed.

Israel says that 130 fighters from Hamas have been killed, including its senior commander Nizar Rayan, although Hamas denies such a high death toll. The IDF also says that Ayman Siam, Hamas' commander of artillery, has also fallen in combat. All mediating efforts were on the verge of evaporating into thin air when the rocket exchange started with Lebanon on Thursday morning.

Attention shifted on Thursday, however, from Gaza and Hamas, to Hezbollah and Nasrallah. Hezbollah clearly did not fire the rockets. If it did, it would have been the first to boast of having done so, hailing it as a champion feat as it has done so often since the Palestinian uprising started in September 2000. Hezbollah's al-Manar TV would have praised the attack and repeated it over and over with sub-titles in Hebrew to scare the IDF.

Additionally, when Hezbollah strikes - as was the case in 2006 - it hits targets and creates plenty of damage. These attacks were amateur, to say the least, not the style of Hezbollah. During his numerous appearances since the Gaza war began in December, Nasrallah warned that Israel might try provoking Hezbollah into another confrontation while it wages war on the Palestinians. He called on his troops to be prepared for war, but never hinted that he wanted war or would be taking any military action against Israel. Instead, he has repeatedly called on his followers to demonstrate peacefully in support of Gaza.

So, if Nasrallah did not fire the rockets, who did?

Some Arabs claim that Israel fabricated the attack to justify striking against Hezbollah. That is difficult to believe, since the IDF already has too much on its hands and cannot fight on two fronts - despite assurances from Israeli officials that they can simultaneously battle Hamas and Hezbollah.

A more reasonable argument is that Saudi Arabia doctored the attack, through its own proxies in South Lebanon, to incriminate Hezbollah and provoke Israel into striking at the Islamic group. Saudi Arabia, after all, was not pleased with the results of the Lebanon war of 2006, since it failed to break - or even weaken - Hezbollah, which it sees as an extension of Iranian influence in the Arab world.

Coinciding with the latest tension in Lebanon was the emergence of a rival group to Hezbollah on January 7 called the Arab Islamic Resistance - believed to be linked to Saudi Arabia. It was founded by Sayyed Mohammad Husseini, a Shi'ite, who boasts of being an Arab (and ostensibly opposed to Hezbollah's Iranian connections) committed to fighting Israel "with an Arab agenda", rather than a Persian one.

He is head of the Arab Islamic Council, founded two years ago with clear objectives of challenging Hezbollah in Lebanon. The new resistance organization, which is marketing itself as a alternative to Nasrallah, claims to have 3,000 fighters. The organization's launch was first announced on the Saudi channel, al-Arabiyya, and Sayyed Husseini claims to have received 1,500 membership applications "from the Arab Gulf".

Husseini told al-Arabiyya that his militia "has enough weapons to please friends and frighten enemies", boasting of an "exclusive weapon" called "The Arab Rocket".

Sending a strong message to Hezbollah, he added, "Our resistance will be Arab Islamic, founded to defend Arab nations. Its roots are Arab. So are its objectives and decision-making." The training of his troops was wrapped up three months ago, he added, and the Arab Islamic Resistance "aims at striking against anyone who threatens the Arab world". He naturally denied having received money from the Saudis, noting that financing came from "private individuals and not any particular state".

Last October, Husseini's Arab Islamic Council founded a TV channel to challenge Hezbollah's official al-Manar, called, al-Ourouba (Arabism). Speaking at the launch, Husseini had said, "The Lebanese reject any kind of guardianship from outside. The Lebanese are part of this nation and they pledge allegiance to Lebanon, and not any other outsider [in reference to Iran]."

Saudi Arabia's project in Lebanon is not new, having been aggressively pursued since mid-2008 when Riyadh opened channels with mid-level Shi'ites, opposed to Nasrallah's popularity in the Lebanese street. One of them had been Sheikh Subhi al-Tofeili, the ex-secretary general of Hezbollah, who had been completely sidelined from political life since the rise of Nasrallah in early 1990s.

These people, through Saudi money, seem to differentiate between Saudi and Iranian patronage. To date, however, rival Shi'ite groups have repeatedly failed at scoring any points in Lebanon, and certainly have not challenged Nasrallah's popularity.
It is very probable, however, that they were the ones who fired the rockets into northern Israel, to create a pretext for a new round of bloody war, between Hezbollah and the IDF.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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