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Fear of Israel-Hezbollah conflict has Mideast jittery, but leaders, analysts say war unlikely
MIDEAST ISRAEL HEZB 5592024
Hezbollah supporters fix the party flag on top of their rocket models in Bourj Qalawi near the southern port city of Tyre, Lebanon in this July 10, 2007 file photo. With Iranian backing, Hezbollah guerrillas have dramatically increased their rocket range and now threaten most of Israel, senior Israeli defense officials said Wednesday, March 26, 2008. - photo by Associated Press
    BEIRUT, Lebanon — Recent attacks and retaliation threats have the Mideast on edge about the possibility of another war between Israel and Hezbollah, even though officials on both sides say they don’t expect any eruption of major fighting soon.
    The issue lurks behind the scenes as Arab leaders head to a weekend summit in next-door Syria, whose relations with Lebanon and support for the Shiite Muslim militants of Hezbollah have raised regional tensions.
    ‘‘I think it’s just posturing,’’ said Timur Goksel, a former U.N. peacekeeping official who is a longtime observer of the Hezbollah-Israel conflict in southern Lebanon.
    War speculation heated up after the Feb. 12 assassination of the top Hezbollah military commander, Imad Mughniyeh. The fears heightened when a Palestinian gunman, linked by some Israeli officials to Hezbollah, killed eight Jewish seminary students in Jerusalem on March 6.
    Adding to the jitters, U.S. warships recently deployed off Lebanon and Saudi Arabia advised its citizens to leave Lebanon. Washington said it sent the ships to stabilize the region. The Saudis gave no reason for their warning, but it came two days after the naval deployment.
    Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, threatened Israel with ‘‘open war’’ after Mughniyeh’s assassination. Despite that, Hezbollah leaders say they have prepared for war but will not initiate a fight.
    While the Israeli government denies any role in the slaying, Hezbollah blames Israel and Nasrallah vowed again this week to avenge his death.
    ‘‘We will choose the time, place and manner of punishment,’’ he told supporters Monday. But he called an Israeli attack on Hezbollah unlikely soon, saying their inconclusive war in the summer of 2006 taught Israel that combat ‘‘is no longer a picnic.’’
    Israeli defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have warned that war could erupt if Hezbollah staged a large-scale attack to avenge Mughniyeh’s killing.
    Yet Israel also appears to be playing down the chance of war. Its annual intelligence report this month estimated a low risk of war on Israel’s borders this year. The assessment did say that if war erupted, it would likely come on the border with southern Lebanon — Hezbollah’s stronghold.
    ‘‘I think for the time being the Hezbollah are busy with the Hezbollah crisis,’’ and not willing to go to war, said Israeli analyst Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
    He was referring to Hezbollah’s bitter political power struggle with the Western- and Saudi-backed government in Lebanon.
    Goksel also doubts a conflict will come soon. ‘‘I don’t think there is serious intention from both sides’’ to start a war, he said, but added that a major incident with casualties could change that.
    Some politicians say a war is unlikely now because both sides are on alert, and they know the costs of the Israelis’ aerial firepower and Hezbollah’s arsenal of rockets that can strike into Israel. The 2006 war killed up to 1,200 people in Lebanon and 159 in Israel.
    The war fears have prompted some families in southern Lebanon to consider alternative safe places in case of war.
    Mohammed Hijazi, in the village of Dibbine in Lebanon’s south, and his wife had their bags packed at one point, assuming war was imminent. But they have unpacked and now say they will stay even if war does break out.
    ‘‘If, God forbid, something happens, I have no place to go to,’’ he said. ‘‘Will Beirut be safer than here?’’
    ———
    Associated Press writers Aron Heller in Jerusalem and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.