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Why Hezbollah is sitting on 40,000 rockets and missiles and sitting out the Gaza conflict

A flurry of violence hit Gaza Tuesday as Israel bombed a Gaza bank and targeted the homes of militants. Hamas responded with more than 100 rockets. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

Mohammed Zaatari / AP file

Hezbollah supporters fix the party's flag on top of their rockets near the southern port city of Tyre, Lebanon, in this July 2007 photo.

ANALYSIS

For a week, Israel and Hamas have engaged in a war in and around Gaza, one in which thousands of rockets and bombs have been expended, scores have died, and tens of thousands have been forced to take cover. But to the north in Lebanon, Hezbollah, the Islamic militia that rained destruction on Israel in a 2006 war, held its fire. Why?

The consensus among U.S. government analysts and academic experts is that Hezbollah, which has controlled the Lebanese government for more than four years, believes discretion is the better part of valor. As it has in the past, as in Israel's Cast Lead Operation against Hamas at the end of 2008, Hezbollah decided against creating a diversion that would have helped its like-minded but only sometime ally.

Roger Cressey, NBC News analyst and former deputy counterterrorism director for the National Security Council, notes that Hezbollah is now essentially the government in Lebanon and has different responsibilities, different agendas. "There has never been a correlation between events in Gaza and Hezbollah's strategic decision-making," says Cressey.

That doesn't mean Hezbollah wants to make peace with Israel, just that it's biding its time, and more importantly that, in the words of more than one analyst, "it has no dog in this fight."


"Hezbollah is now the party in control of the Lebanese government," Dr. Robert Danin, Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow, told journalists in a conference call Tuesday. "That has a way of moderating one's behavior. If they attacked Israel, they know they would be taking the state of Lebanon to war."

Danin said Israel has made the distinction known to Hezbollah.

So Hezbollah is working off its own timetable, say analysts. The group has several equities it must be concerned about: Its political position in Lebanon, where as noted it is part of the governing party; the stability of one of its biggest protectors, the Assad regime in Damascus; and uncertainty over the political future in Iran, which has been its main protector and weapons supplier.

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is attempting to bring about a ceasefire, or to prevent Israel from invading Gaza while convincing Egypt's president to pressure Hamas to stop firing rockets. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

"Hezbollah's focus is elsewhere," added Danin. "Its relationship with Iran, its relationship with the Assad regime ... Hezbollah is in a very vulnerable position. Without Syria, it would lose its lifeline to Iran."

If a Sunni government emerges in Syria, it would make Hezbollah's control of Lebanon even more complicated, even tenuous.  "It is ironic that with instability in Jordan and trouble in Gaza, Israel's border with Lebanon is its most stable," Danin said.

In short, say analysts, the bar is set high for Hezbollah to get directly involved in the Gazan conflict ... with one exception: Hezbollah might move if it felt its arsenal of more than 40,000 rockets and missiles was threatened.

Both Israel and Hezbollah have to know that the success of the Iron Dome anti-rocket and missile system could, in the long term, dilute the value of that stockpile and could make Israel more confident in pursuing the Lebanese group.  

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That is unlikely happen for a while. Danin explained that Iron Dome, which has been so successful in knocking down Hamas rockets, is not designed to take out the long-range rockets and missiles in the Hezbollah arsenal. However, Israel does have a follow-on system, known as Magic Wand, based on the same basic technology, which could be effective against Hezbollah's rockets and missiles. Problem is that it won't be ready until 2015.

"Iron Dome would not have the same kind of effectiveness against Hezbollah's arsenal," added Danin. But that arsenal were used against Israel, "Hezbollah knows it would pay a high price."

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What about unleashing the Islamic Jihad Organization rather than rockets and missiles? "No reason to unleash the IJO in support of events in Gaza," said Cressey. It wouldn't be very effective and "they know they will pay a significant price."

There are other reasons for Hezbollah not to take such risky action, say both Danin and Cressey. As Cressey points out, Hamas is Palestinian, while Hezbollah is Lebanese.  So their missions are different, even if their animosity toward Israel is the same. 

Bottom line on Hezbollah for Cressey: “They will only take only action if it's in their organization's strategic interest, and events in Gaza do not apply."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has undertaken the difficult task of helping to shepherd a possible ceasefire. Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, meanwhile, is playing a key role as an intermediary with Hamas, a group labeled by the U.S. as a terrorist organization. NBC's Stephanie Gosk reports.

 

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