Rocket attack raises fear of hostilities on second front

RESIDENTS of the northern Israeli town of Nahariyaa woke yesterday to one of their country’s worst nightmares — rockets from Lebanon, and a possible second front in a battle that has raged for two weeks in Gaza.

No group claimed responsibility for the two Katyusha rockets that injured two Israelis. But the most likely suspects were small Palestinian factions in south Lebanon known to possess Katyushas.

The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which fought a 34-day war with Israel in 2006, denied it was behind the attack.

But it has been suspected in the past of using allied radical groups to irritate Israel with a lower risk of retaliation.

Quiet returned to the border after a brief retaliation by Israeli artillery. But the point is that while Israel may be tied up in an offensive in the Gaza Strip in the south aimed at halting rocket fire from Hamas, millions more Israelis are vulnerable from its northern border.

Israel now faces threats from two Islamic organisations with close ties to Iran. Hamas rockets threaten about one million Israelis in the south, and the country’s military believes Hezbollah’s rockets can hit most of the remaining six million people in the state.

“We’re all a bit traumatised at the moment,” said Sarit Arieli, 44, in Nahariya. She was standing outside the nursing home it hit several hours later. But she added: “I think we’re stronger than them.”

The rockets were fired from territory under Hezbollah’s de facto control. But Hezbollah — which ignited the devastating war in the summer of 2006 that left swaths of Lebanon in ruins — has said it does not want to drag the country into another conflict.

Backed by Iran and Syria, Hezbollah likely wants to avoid damaging its newfound standing as a credible player on the political stage.

After showing its military strength against Israel in 2006 and again in May last year against its Lebanese rivals — when it took control of large parts of Beirut — Hezbollah is now a partner in Lebanon’s government with a veto on all decisions. Its leaders have since been making do with fiery speeches.

One of the small radical groups in Lebanon allied with Hezbollah, the Syrian-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, had warned it might open other fronts against Israel if the Gaza offensive continues.

It has refused to deny or confirm if it was behind the attack. But spokesman Anwar Raja in Syria seemed to voice support, saying it was “a natural outcome... of the Israeli aggression.”

Lebanon has the most to lose from a new war, having only recently begun recovering from the ravages of the last one.

Lebanese prime minister Fuad Saniora said yesterday the rocket fire “is the work of parties who stand to lose from the continued stability in Lebanon.”

Israel, too, does not appear to be eager for a second fight. “Even though we have the ability to respond with great force, the response needs to be carefully considered and responsible,” cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit said. “We don’t need to play into their hands.”

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