Are Lebanon and Israel Headed for War?

Experts fear Mideast tensions are so high that a small incident could spark war.

February 12, 2010, 9:20 AM

BEIRUT, Feb. 15, 2010— -- To the casual observer, people on the streets of Beirut show no fear of war. But talk to many Lebanese today, and you'll soon find war is very much on their minds.

All the people ABC News spoke to say conflict with Israel is looming. It's just a matter of when.

Neither side wants to be guilty of starting the next war, but people in Lebanon say tension is now so high the smallest incident may provide the trigger.

And the next round of hostilities, they warn, will be much broader and more terrible than the last war when Hezbollah battled the Israeli army in 2006.

There are old scores to settle. Hezbollah wants to avenge the assassination of its military mastermind Imad Mugniyeh. Last Friday marked the second anniversary of his mysterious car bombing death in Damascus. Hezbollah also claims Israel still occupies a sliver of Lebanese territory in the south. It is ideologically opposed to Israel's very existence.

The Israelis fear Hezbollah's growing arsenal of long range rockets. They fear for their biggest cities and strategic targets. They see Hezbollah and Syria as Iran's proxies, liable to attack from the north if Israel strikes Iran's nuclear sites. Hezbollah fought the once feared Israeli Defense Force to a standstill in 2006. The Jewish state's reputation and deterrence was severely dented. The Israelis have unfinished business.

Hezbollah today has somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 missiles, many more than in 2006, and many capable of hitting targets deep inside Israel. The U.N. patrols the south near the Israeli border so Hezbollah has moved north and into the Bekaa valley. Almost the entire local male population of fighting age has been through military training. Hezbollah leaders talk of military "surprises." No one we spoke to knows what they might be.

Many people speak of Hezbollah changing tactics, even of infiltrating northern Israel. There's talk of plans to take hundreds of Israeli civilians hostage.

Harsh Israeli Response Expected

Everyone ABC News spoke to expects a brutal Israeli response if war breaks out. Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government. So, Israel says, all of Lebanon will be responsible for a Hezbollah attack. To reassert military deterrence Israel must achieve a tangible victory.

And they believe there is substance to Syria's tough talk too. On the road between Damascus and Beirut, residents tell of unusual military activity, all night construction work, army flat bed trucks moving around with their lights switched off.

Defense analysts report the retraining of the Syrian army. Out of armored brigades burdened with Soviet era tanks, and into small commando units armed with hi-tech anti tank rockets used to such deadly effect by Hezbollah fighters in 2006.

Syrian President Bashar Assadis also showing new confidence. Once thought unlikely to stay the course, he has now seen three different Israeli prime ministers. Some say he believes he can survive a war and it may even speed the recovery of his beloved Golan Heights, occupied by his enemy since 1967.

Israeli, Syrian and Lebanese leaders have all pitched in with some dangerously intemperate language. Hezbollah's leader Hasan Nasrallah keeps promising to change the face of the region. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem spoke of his country striking deep into Israeli territory. His Israeli counterpart Avigdor Liebermanpromised that Syria would lose the next war and that the ruling Assad regime would be deposed.

Then there is Iran and its president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, under increasing pressure over his country's clandestine nuclear project and who has made barely veiled threats against Israel.

Whether they are western diplomats or analysts from well funded think tanks, Lebanese newspaper editors or writers with close links to Hezbollah, all say they hear the drums of war starting to beat.

A deadlocked peace process between Israel and the Palestinians doesn't help either. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right wing coalition has resisted U.S. pressure to freeze settlement building. President Obama's hectic domestic agenda, say our Lebanese sources, means his focus will be elsewhere.

In Israel Netanyahu started a recent cabinet meeting by calling for peace with Syria but warning Israel knows how to respond to threats.

And this weekend while the unusually warm temperatures and blue skies led many to the beaches of both Tel Aviv and Beirut Lebanese forces warned Israeli warplanes out of their airspace with anti-aircraft guns. A sound the people of Beirut may have to grow used to.