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Israel faces a strategic moment

Israel’s retaliation against Lebanon on Wednesday effectively opened up a second front in their fight against Islamic militants and marked the most decisive strategic moment for Israel in several years. NBC's Richard Engel analyzes the dilemma facing Israel.
/ Source: NBC News

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel’s retaliation against Lebanon with warplanes, tanks, and gunboats on Wednesday in response to the capture of two soldiers effectively opened up a second front in its fight against Islamic militants and marked the most decisive strategic moment for Israel in several years — perhaps since 2002 and the culmination of the armed intifada.

What Israel did then was to make a strategic decision to change its approach and reoccupy large sections of the West Bank to reinforce its own security. Right now we are seeing Israel again forced to make a strategic decision.

The government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is being forced to decide whether the decision to withdraw from Lebanon and to withdraw from Gaza were the right ones. So far it seems that Israel has not been happy with the results.

And while the Islamic militants in Gaza, Hamas, and in Lebanon, Hezbollah, may believe that they’ve finally backed Israel into a corner, the reality of Israel’s superior firepower may quickly shatter any confidence they may have gained from their recent successes.

Best laid plans turned on their head
Almost a year ago, Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip. Now, just over two weeks ago, Hamas militants crossed over the border from Gaza and captured an Israeli soldier.

The Israeli approach so far has been that this is unacceptable and it has responded by sending in tanks and air strikes. One of the air strikes on Wednesday killed 18 Palestinians in Gaza — including nine members of one family. That was the decision about Gaza.

Now Israel is being faced with another decision — whether its choice to pull out of southern Lebanon, while fighting an active conflict with Hezbollah there, was the right one.

There were border skirmishes in the past, but now eight Israeli soldiers have been killed, two have been taken hostage, and major air strikes are under way in southern Lebanon. Army reinforcements are being called up and people along Israel’s northern borders are being sent down into shelters — so there has been a tremendous escalation — both in the north and the south.

Facing decisions again
Israel is again facing the same choices it faced in Gaza: Does it go back in? Does it re-occupy an area in southern Lebanon that it held — uncomfortably — for 18 years? Does it want to do that? 

There is also the fear that this could spill over into an international conflict. Hezbollah is backed by Syria, and Iran. Israel has already said that the home address for these attacks is not necessarily only in Lebanon, but in Damascus and Tehran as well. That could potentially be a serious escalation.

Already, we’ve had the Syrian government come out in support of the Hezbollah action and there have already been suggestions that things could escalate quickly to involve Syria and Iran. 

This is a potentially de-stabilizing situation, the likes of which we haven’t seen in this part of the Middle East for several years. And of course, it’s all inter-related.

Confident, but shells still falling
Here is an anecdote that I think illustrates many of the issues at hand.

On Wednesday, I was sitting with Mahmoud Zahar, the Foreign Minister of the Palestinian Authority. He is a Hamas leader who Israel officials are know to have talked about as a possible assassination target.

We were sitting together watching a speech by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, on Arabic television.

Now Zahar, the person I’m sitting with, is part of the organization holding one Israeli soldier hostage, and the person I’m watching on the television — Nasrallah — now has two Israeli soldiers held hostage.

Nasrallah was sitting back while he was giving his speech addressing the world and he was laughing — he was very relaxed and very comfortable.

Zahar, to my left, had the same kind of demeanor. He was very relaxed, laughing, and very comfortable.

Both Hamas and Hezbollah feel like they have Israel squeezed — from the north and from the south — and they are very happy with it. They feel like now, through their joint actions and solidarity, they can pressure Israel into giving up prisoners, which is their demand.

But, then the reality of the moment snuck in. As I was interviewing Zahar there was Israeli shelling here in the Gaza Strip.

As we were talking and he was telling me about how this latest kidnapping was such an honorable act and that Israel should not respond militarily, but rather with negotiations, the windows of the building were rattling as Israeli shells were falling into Gaza.

So there is a very real military side of this and a very real escalation that this could develop into a much larger crisis in the Middle East.