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Viewed in isolation, the rockets fired from Gaza on Israel and the Israeli air strikes on the besieged territory over the past week are business as usual. By the same token, the unprecedented joint visit to Beirut by the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Syria could be seen simply as a move to stop the conflict between their Lebanese proxies turning nasty. And British Prime Minister David Cameron's pleas to Turkey to keep open its channels of communication with Israel's leaders are quotidian diplomatic common sense. Viewed in a wider context, each of those events is a signal of why many in the Middle East believe that despite the outward calm, the region may be on the brink of another catastrophic war.
A new report based on extensive conversations with regional decisionmakers released Monday by the International Crisis Group, the respected mediation organization of former diplomats, warns of the possibility of war. "The situation in the Levant is ... exceptionally quiet and uniquely dangerous, both for the same reason," the Crisis Group warns. "The buildup in military forces and threats of an all-out war that would spare neither civilians nor civilian infrastructure, together with the worrisome prospect of its regionalization, are effectively deterring all sides." But while Hizballah and its regional backers, Syria and Iran, believe that the buildup in the Shi'ite militia's arsenal and capabilities is deterring Israel from launching attacks on any of them, Israel views the acquisition by Hizballah of a missile arsenal capable of raining destruction on Israeli cities as an intolerable threat. "As Hizballah's firepower grows," the Crisis Group notes, "so too does Israel's desire to tackle the problem before it is too late ... What is holding the current architecture in place is also what could rapidly bring it down." (See rare pictures of Hizballah's youth movement.)
Should a new war break out, Israel is determined to strike a more devastating blow more quickly than it did during the last conflict, in which it failed in its objective of destroying Hizballah. It has publicly warned that it would destroy Lebanese civilian infrastructure, and that Syria, as Hizballah's armorer, would not be off-limits. But Hizballah believes its capacity to fire missiles into Tel Aviv is key to restraining Israel from returning to finish off the Shi'ite militia. And, of course, amid regional tensions over Iran's nuclear program, the self-styled "axis of resistance" — Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizballah — have deepened their alliance, raising the possibility of any one of those groups joining the fray should any of the others come under attack from Israel or the U.S. (See pictures of Israel's 2006 invasion of Lebanon.)