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Israel in Conflict on Multiple Fronts

Israel is embroiled in a multiple front conflict with terror groups that is reverberating throughout the Middle East.

The conflict between Israel and Islamist militants that began in the Gaza Strip late last month leaped northward just days ago to Lebanon. Two independent terror groups - - Hamas and Hezbollah - - are now fighting Israel on separate fronts.

In both cases, conflict began with the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. And in both cases, Israel's response has been strong. The pressing question now, most analysts say, is whether the spreading conflict can be contained and eventually quelled, or whether it will engulf more of the volatile Middle East.

Hamas and Hezbollah Battle Israel

With the July 12th kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah along the Israeli border with Lebanon, some observers questioned whether that action was coordinated with the first kidnapping on June 25th at a Gaza border checkpoint.

Long-time U.S. diplomat Philip Wilcox, now the President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, says it more likely was a matter of opportunity than deliberate planning.

"It's logical that Hamas and Hezbollah, which both have unresolved territorial conflicts with the Israelis, that Hezbollah has used Israel's distress in Gaza to create another military front on the [Israeli -] Lebanon border," says Wilcox.

Hamas was formed in 1987 during an uprising by Palestinians against Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Hezbollah was formed in 1982 in response to Israel's assault on and occupation of southern Lebanon. Since then, both terror groups have repeatedly attacked Israel and refused to recognize it as a legitimate state.

In recent times, both Hamas and Hezbollah have entered politics as a means of influencing governments and their policies. Hezbollah has won seats in Lebanon's parliament and, in January, Hamas became the majority party in the Palestinian parliament.

The kidnapping of an Israeli soldier on June 25th triggered Israel's incursion into Gaza against Hamas. But Henry Siegman at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York says that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's campaign against Hamas began with the Palestinian elections in January.

Olmert's Strategy

"The declared policy of the Olmert government was to undermine the Hamas [Palestinian] government. And the assumption, apparently, was that if you punish the Palestinian people in Gaza sufficiently, they will withdraw their support for Hamas. And Hamas will come crashing down," says Siegman.

The Israeli pressure campaign against Hamas began with the withholding of tax revenues that fund the Palestinian government. In June, after the first kidnapping, Israel stepped up the pressure with its military operations in Gaza, where it knocked out a power plant that provides much of that area's electricity. The power outage also affected Gaza's water supply. The Israeli incursion has created other problems in Gaza such as food and fuel shortages.

Saleh Sakka, the Gaza representative for the humanitarian aid group American Near East Refugee Aid, says Israel's strategy has been successful to some degree, but at the same time, it has also increased Palestinian outrage.

"People are saying it looks like they're paying the price for voting for Hamas in the January elections. And because of that, people have started to think, 'Was that a good choice?' If they knew this result [i.e., the damage caused by Israel's incursion into Gaza] they wouldn't have given Hamas their support. But there are
other people who feel very frustrated about being punished and would give Hamas the same support if the elections were held again," says Sakka.

Many analysts say there is another reason why the Israeli operations in Gaza and Lebanon have been so strong. One of them is David Makovsky, with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who says Prime Minister Olmert has something crucial to prove to his constituents.

"Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, feels that he's the new guy on the block. And here's Hamas and Hezbollah testing him. And he wants to demonstrate to a skeptical Israeli public that he's worthy of being Ariel Sharon's successor," says Makovsky.

As the Gaza operation continues, Hezbollah's kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers added a multinational dimension to the conflict. Israel has launched a number of airstrikes against targets in Lebanon, including Beirut's airport and buildings connected to Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah.

Hezbollah and Iran

Henry Siegman at the Council on Foreign Relations says Hezbollah clearly is assisted by regional states hostile to Israel. "Of course, there are other forces here - - particularly Iran. There has been a suggestion that Syria is implicated as well. Both Iran and Syria have made it possible for Hezbollah to arm itself and to establish those installations they have along the border [between Lebanon and Israel]," says Siegman.

Many analysts describe Hezbollah as a proxy for Iran. And the United States and several other nations have warned Iran and Syria to stay out of Israel's conflict with Hezbollah and Hamas, saying there would be serious consequences for assisting the two terror groups.

Amid the smoke and rubble of this conflict is another concern - - whether there will be something to salvage in the decades-old attempt to forge peace between Israel and its neighbors.

Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies says past efforts, including the "Roadmap for Peace," are being discarded as Israel determines its own course of action.

"The peace process we followed is dead. This idea that the Arabs would pressure the Americans, that the Americans would [then] pressure the Israelis [and] the Israelis would make concessions to the Palestinians - - that long, tortured diplomacy is over. It's [now] completely the [Israeli] unilateral way rather than the old ways of multilateral diplomacy," says Ajami.

The conflict between Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah is not over. And the violence is reverberating throughout the Middle East. Many diplomats and analysts warn that additional actions by any of the warring parties could create a broader conflict throughout the region.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.