Friday, Feb. 29, Egypt’s intelligence minister Omar Suleiman canceled his visit to Israel because of estimates in Cairo that hectic preparations current in Israel and the Gaza Strip augur a steep escalation of cross-border violence.
DEBKAfile’s military sources report: Officials in Cairo expect Israel redouble its air bombardment and armored raids against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, and Hamas to intensify and broaden the scope of its missile and rocket attacks on Israeli towns and villages.
Both sides are convinced that a further ratcheting-up of the war will generate indirect truce talks through a third party.
The US has meanwhile posted naval and marine vessels opposite the shores of Israel and Lebanon in case the fighting spreads to a second front. DEBKAfile’s Washington sources quote US and Israeli military sources as skeptical of the chances that prime minister Ehud Olmert and defense minister Ehud Barak will secure a ceasefire. The Gaza conflagration is more likely, they believe, to stir Hizballah to ignite a fresh assault from South Lebanon.
These sources point to four significant developments to watch for:
1. Hizballah is adamant about avenging the death of its military commander Imad Mughniyeh by border strikes against Israel and terrorist attacks inside the country. This Iranian front group is also committed to helping Hamas. The end of the 40 days of mourning for Mughniyeh on March 22-23 is anxiously awaited.
2. Israel is braced for this eventuality and in mid-preparation for its army to turn the tables on a Hizballah assault and carry the war into Lebanon.
US intelligence sources note that last week, the IDF deployed Patriot missile defense batteries around Haifa in case Hizballah unleashes a rocket offensive on the North as in 2005.
Our sources also report that local authorities and private security firms responsible for public safety in northern Israel were instructed to inspect bomb shelters and ascertain they were ready for use by March 10.
3. The quarrel between Saudi King Abdullah and Syrian president Bashar Assad, which is nearing boiling point, threatens to be fought out in Lebanon, their main bone of contention. Both are sending quantities of arms and ammo to the Lebanese militias under their respective wings.
4. This week, Abdullah persuaded Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s Abdullah to boycott the forthcoming Arab League summit in Damascus. Assad is unlikely to take this slap in the face lying down. There are indications he is ready to stir up Palestinian terrorist groups for attacks on Saudi, American and Israeli interests in the region.
Standing close by for immediate action off the troubled Mediterranean shores of Lebanon, Israel and Gaza is the USS Cole guided missile destroyer opposite Lebanon. It was joined Monday by the USS Nassau amphibious warship and its strike group of six vessels carrying 2,800 marines, flight crews and sailors. US naval sources report that a third group will join them shortly.
DEBKAfile’s military sources report the Nassau is accompanied by the amphibious transport dock ship USS Nashville , the guided missile destroyers USS Ross and USS Bulkeley and the fast nuclear strike submarine USS Albany SSN 753.
While cruising off the Lebanese coast, this formidable US naval force is close enough to the shores of Israel and Gaza to respond to developing emergencies.