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Friday, January 9, 2009

Second front in Gaza war not likely out of deference to Obama

TEL AVIV — Israel's intelligence community does not expect Iran to approve a Hizbullah offensive against the Jewish state.

Officials said the intelligence community has assessed that Hizbullah, with an arsenal of 42,000 missiles and rockets, would be restrained from sustained rocket attacks on Israel. They said the Teheran regime wanted to maintain quiet in both Iraq and Lebanon in a gesture to incoming U.S. President-elect Barack Obama.

"There might be an incident here or there, but right now Iran is being very cautious and is holding on tightly to Hizbullah," an official said. On Jan. 8, at least three Katyusha rockets were fired from Lebanon into Israel. Two Israelis were injured and the Israeli military responded with artillery fire into southern Lebanon.

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No group in Lebanon claimed responsibility. Hizbullah, which controls southern Lebanon, denied any link to the rocket attack. On Jan. 7, Hizbullah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah warned Israel of renewed confrontation.

"Had Hizbullah wanted to prevent the rocket attack on the Western Galilee, it would have done so," Israeli military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai said. "It is difficult to imagine that the organizations that fired the Katyushas -- apparently Palestinian groups or radical Islamists — could have transferred their rockets to the area, positioned them and fired them toward Israel without Hizbullah's knowledge."

Officials said the intelligence community assessed that Hizbullah was permitted by Iran to arrange the rocket attack to demonstrate solidarity with the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip. They said Israel would not escalate in Lebanon, and did not expect additional rocket strikes from its northern neighbor.

"Even though we have the ability to respond with great force, the response needs to be carefully considered and responsible," Israeli Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit said. "We don't need to play into their hands."

Officials said Iran has maintained restraint amid the Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip. They said although Iran has been advising Hamas on weapons and tactics, Teheran has taken a low public profile during the conflict.

"Iran wants to score points with [U.S. President-elect Barack] Obama, and this is an excellent opportunity to show that it is a responsible regional player," the official said.

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