Hezbollah Threat: Lebanon Watches Gaza Fight

With Israel's ground attack, fears grow of conflict spreading to Lebanon border.

ByABC News
January 3, 2009, 9:47 PM

Jan. 5, 2009— -- More than a week into Operation Cast Lead, with what began as Israeli airstrikes on Gaza escalating into a ground war, Israel's border to the north remains quiet.

That frontier erupted in 2006, when another Israeli operation in Gaza, one to recover captured soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit, escalated as a Hezbollah cross-border raid turned into a messy monthlong war.

The consensus in Lebanon has been that this time around, Hezbollah won't join the fight with operations in northern Israel.

"The main question was whether there was going to be a hot front here. It seems pretty clear that won't happen, and that's a relief," said Paul Salem, the Beirut-based head of the Carnegie Middle East Center.

But the second stage of Cast Lead, launched Saturday, renews the chance of Hezbollah coming into a broader conflict.

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a political science professor close to Hezbollah, says the group sees the ground invasion as a new phase in the fighting and in its potential involvement. On Sunday, local media reported that Hezbollah militants have been put on "high alert."

"We shouldn't overestimate Hezbollah's restraint. ... At this stage, if Hezbollah is provoked in any way, even a small incident, it could give Hezbollah the justification and pretext to enter the conflict," Saad-Ghorayeb said.

Some analysts see Hezbollah holding back, in part to maintain its political advantage at home. Though Hezbollah has its critics in Lebanon -- above all, its rivals in the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition -- Hezbollah now leads a broad-based coalition that is politically well positioned for this year's Lebanese elections.

Hezbollah, a terrorist group in the eyes of America, Israel and much of the West, could -- together with its allies -- win a majority of seats in parliament.

"At this point it's neck and neck, but they are a dominant force in Lebanon," Salem said. If Hezbollah launched an attack on Israel now, it would risk undermining its cross-sectarian support.