Josef Federman

JERUSALEM: Israel has opened a new front in its attempts to halt weapons smuggling to Hezbollah, striking one of the groupís positions inside Lebanon for the first time since the sides fought a war eight years ago.

This weekís airstrike, meant to prevent the Islamic militant group from obtaining sophisticated missiles, is part of a risky policy that could easily backfire by triggering retaliation. But at a time when the Syrian opposition says Hezbollah has been striking major blows for President Bashar Assadís government in neighboring Syria by ambushing al-Qaida-linked fighters there, it shows the strategic importance for Israel of trying to break the Syria-Hezbollah axis.

While Israeli experts agree that Israel would never want to help al-Qaida, in this case Israel and the al-Qaida-linked fighters have as a common goal opposing Hezbollah and its alliance with the Syrian government. This puts them at least indirectly on the same side.

For now, the odds of a direct conflagration between Israel and Hezbollah appear low. The group has sent hundreds of fighters to Syria and is preoccupied with saving Assadís embattled regime. Syrian state media reported that army troops killed 175 rebels, many of them al-Qaida-linked fighters, near Damascus on Wednesday, but the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a prominent opposition group, said it was Hezbollah forces that carried out the dawn ambush.

Israel considers both Hezbollah and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front to be grave threats. With a lack of good choices, Israel has avoided taking sides in the Syrian war, and in the short term, is content watching the two sides beat each other up. But in the long run, officials have expressed concerns about the battlefield expertise that Hezbollah has gained. Officials also suspect that despite repeated Israeli airstrikes on suspected arms shipments, Hezbollah has managed to get its hands on many sophisticated weapons, ensuring that any future conflict with Israel will be far more intense than previous rounds of fighting.

Israel and Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shiite group committed to Israelís destruction, battled to a stalemate during a monthlong war in the summer of 2006.