10 January 2009

* Rockets out from Lebanon?

Three artillery rockets launched from southern Lebanon landed in northern Israel on Dec. 29 -- far from the ongoing fighting in Gaza -- raising the possibility of a two-front war for the Jewish state. At the moment, however, this attack appears to have been an isolated event, rather than what it initially appeared that it might have been: a deliberate and coordinated attack by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

Presently, Hezbollah is not interested in entangling itself in a conflict with Israel. If it wanted to provoke a showdown with Israel, Hezbollah's opening move would have been far more broad and sustained than three rockets. Additionally, Israel has warned that it is prepared for a struggle on its northern border -- even though it would be most effective politically and operationally, from Israel's perspective, if Israel Defense Forces (IDF) could continue to focus its efforts on Hamas. But the possibility still remains that more rockets could be launched from southern Lebanon while Operation Cast Lead is under way.

In southern Israel, reports estimate Palestinian rocket fire on Jan. 8 at roughly a dozen artillery rockets as of the time of this writing. Though more rockets could still be launched, that figure is less than half of the number seen in the early days of the ground invasion, when there were reports of approximately 30 rockets per day. On Jan. 7, Hamas reportedly launched 25 rockets. Additionally, Palestinian reports continue to come in of Israeli tanks operating near Khan Younis and elsewhere in central Gaza, although these reports remain unverified. The IDF is still conducting operations around Gaza City.

The Israeli air force also launched airstrikes on the homes of Hamas commanders Yasser Natat in Rafah and Mohammed Sanuar in Khan Younis. Natat commands Hamas rocket forces from Rafah, and Sanuar is the commander of Hamas forces in Khan Younis. Although the fates of Natat and Sanuar are unknown, the Israeli air force is continuing to carry out such strikes, suggesting that meaningful, actionable intelligence on targeting Hamas' key operational leadership might still be flowing.

Meanwhile, there have been reports of systematic bombing along the Gaza-Egypt border near the Sinai Peninsula. Though targets were struck in this area from the very beginning, collapsing smuggling tunnels and preventing new ones from being dug continues to be a concern for Israel.

One development we have been watching for is any sign of Hamas' use of anti-armor weapons, and such weapons reportedly were used Jan. 8 in the killing an officer of the Kfir Infantry Brigade in Neztarim. The precise type of weapon and the tactical circumstances are unclear at present. The weapon might have been used against an armored vehicle and successfully penetrated the armor, but it is too early to verify such claims. Hezbollah has been known to use late-model Russian anti-armor weapons like the AT-13 and RPG-29 to engage dismounted Israeli infantrymen in the past, although anti-tank weapons are not as effective in this role. Both the AT-13 and RPG-29 are capable of launching sophisticated thermobaric anti-personnel rounds, though this also would be an extremely advanced capability for Hamas to have acquired.


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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.