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Tensions in Lebanon, Gaza and Iran put Israel on alert

Political instability in Lebanon, increased tensions arising from rocket attacks by militant groups in Gaza and the continuing threat of a nuclear-armed Iran have put Israel on a new state of alert.

A Hezbollah flag is seen on the Lebanese side of the border with Israel

Israel's neighborhood is becoming increasingly unstable

Lebanon's current crisis is expected to deepen should the UN investigator probing the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri charge members of the militant Shiite Hezbollah with the ex-premier's murder.

Daniel Bellemare, the Hague-based Special Tribunal for Lebanon's (STL) senior prosecutor, was expected to present the indictments to a pre-trial judge on either Monday or Tuesday, almost a week after Hezbollah forced the collapse of Lebanon's unity government.

Eleven ministers from Hezbollah and its allies withdrew from the government last week, providing the minimum number of resignations to automatically dissolve the 30-member cabinet, in protest at Prime Minister Saad Hariri's unwillingness to discredit the STL's investigation into his father's death. Hezbollah claims the STL is part of a plot led by the US and Israel against it.

Efforts to form a new government were postponed Monday until next week to allow negotiation efforts more time to succeed, with the leaders of Syria, Qatar and Turkey involved in the mediation process.

Despite efforts to solve the crisis, the increasing instability in Lebanon has put Israel on alert. The prospect of Hezbollah taking control of the country on Israel's northern border has raised fears of a radicalization of its neighbor and the prospect of Hezbollah's sponsors - Iran and Syria - gaining an even stronger foothold in Lebanon.

Israel watching Lebanese developments closely

Israeli soldiers sit on top of their tank near the site of an exchange of fire between Israeli and Lebanese troops along the border between Israel and Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010.

Both sides are said to want to avoid war but fears remain

While Israel has condemned Hezbollah's actions, it has stressed that it perceives the situation as "an internal Lebanese issue" and is "clearly opposed to any escalation" along the northern border, suggesting a reluctance to intervene militarily. Israeli officials were quoted in a number of national newspapers last week as saying that they were confident Hezbollah would refrain from using the crisis as an excuse to start a new confrontation with Israel.

The two sides fought a devastating war in Lebanon during the summer of 2006 which left more than 1,200 people dead.

However, a number of regional analysts believe that Israel would not tolerate a Hezbollah-led government in Lebanon, with some claiming that it could lead to military strikes.

"Any Hezbollah-led government would face almost certain war with Israel," Doreen Khoury, program manager at the Middle East Office of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, told Deutsche Welle. "One scare scenario predicts that a Hezbollah-led government would be at war with Israel within weeks as Israel would most likely launch a pre-emptive attack."

"While it is unlikely at the moment that Hezbollah will take over, they could become stronger and bolder in Lebanon - and if they become better equipped then we can expect to see Israel become less tolerant," Yossi Mekelberg, an international relations lecturer at Regents College London and Middle East expert at Chatham House, told Deutsche Welle.

The instability in Lebanon comes at a time when Israel is also facing increased tensions along its border with Gaza after a period of increased rocket fire led to Arab leaders attempting to rein in rogue militant factions who they accused of risking a major new Israeli invasion.

Spate of rocket attacks put Hamas in the crosshairs

Since the turn of the year, scores of rockets have been fired into the Jewish state, prompting retaliatory air strikes and raising fears of another massive operation along the lines of the 2008-9 war which killed over 1,400 people.

A masked Palestinian gunman from the militant Islamic group Hamas stands guard during a funeral for a Hamas member killed during a gunbattle with Israeli troops el-Bourrej, south of Gaza City, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2002.

Hamas attempted to stop other militants attacking Israel

Gaza's Hamas leaders deployed troops along the border with Israel last week in an attempt to shore up a "national consensus" truce and prevent members of Islamic Jihad launching attacks on Southern Israel. Hamas has largely respected the ceasefire agreed after the 22-day Israeli military offensive two years ago but smaller militant groups such as Islamic Jihad have continued to target Israel.

However, as the ruling power in Gaza, Israel holds Hamas responsible for all attacks and as such has not only targeted Islamic Jihad but also Hamas bases in Gaza.

"The political dynamics within the Israeli government could push Netanyahu toward a military response should rocket attacks continue from Gaza," Kristian Ulrichsen, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told Deutsche Welle.

"Cooler and more rational heads might argue that previous offensives show that military approaches do not provide long-term sustainable solutions, but the political contours within the Netanyahu government are now very different."

Israel also perceives that a threat to its security continues to emanate from Iran. The Islamic Republic is not only a main sponsor - along with Syria - of Hezbollah in Lebanon but is also seen as a growing nuclear risk.

Iran seen as Israel main strategic threat

The flags of Israel and Iran behind an Iranian missile test

Israeli officials are divided on how to deal with a nuclear Iran

At times, during the on-going crisis over Iran's disputed nuclear program, which Israel and the West believes is used as a cover to build an atomic bomb, Israel has threatened to preemptively strike Iranian nuclear facilities if it believes it is close to achieving a weapons capacity.

In recent months, however, the Netanyahu government has become more circumspect on resorting to force against Iran despite divisions in the defense department over what, if any, action to take against Tehran. Israel's politicians appear to have accepted that huge tactical and diplomatic problems would arise from attacking Iran while some military officials maintain that preemptive strikes should remain on the table.

"There is no division over the fact that Iran is a threat, only about how to react to it," Mekelberg said. "What is becoming clear is that Israel knows that there would be no international support for a strike on Iran and that the US would be against it. However, it still remains the last resort."

With the prospect of a destabilized Lebanon on one border, increased militant activity from Gaza on another and the perceived threat - either directly or by proxy - coming from Iran, Israel faces insecurity on three fronts, says Mekelberg.

"It's possible that Hezbollah and Hamas could attack but Iran seems a distant possibility. Israel needs to approach these current problems politically and diplomatically - but when necessary, it will flex its muscles."

Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge

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