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Tensions on the Israel-Lebanon border are simmering. Could they boil over?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As the war between Hamas and Israel enters its third week, concerns are swirling that the conflict might spill over to other parts of the region. It's already reignited tensions between Israel and the Lebanese Islamist political party and militant group Hezbollah. This week saw a number of skirmishes between the two, trading rocket attacks and gunfire along Israel's northern border. So what is the risk that these simmering tensions will boil over? Well, for that, we've called Paul Salem. He's the president of the Middle East Institute in Washington and joins us now. Welcome.

PAUL SALEM: Thank you very much.

CHANG: So we've been reporting for several days about the fighting between Hamas and Israel. But can you just briefly explain for us - what are Hezbollah's specific interests in this current conflict?

SALEM: Well, Hamas is a group that's very close to Hezbollah and very close to the Qods Forces of Iran, which is Iran's foreign expeditionary forces. They receive training and funding from those sources. It's quite likely that Hezbollah knew of the preplanning and probably participated in training and planning with Hamas, and all of them sort of are part of this Iranian proxy force deployment that you have in Lebanon, in Syria, in Yemen, in Iraq and in Gaza as well. So they're part of what they call the axis of resistance. Hezbollah definitely sort of cheered on the Hamas attack on Israel. And since those attacks happened on October 7, they've kept the border between Israel and Lebanon rather tense, rather heated with exchanges of fire, several fighters and soldiers killed on both sides. But in the bigger picture, I doubt that Hezbollah will escalate to a full-scale second front unless they feel that Hamas is going under.

CHANG: But do you believe that if Israel does proceed with a ground invasion that Hezbollah will escalate the fighting and will get more involved in the conflict?

SALEM: No, I don't think necessarily that Hezbollah will immediately or, in the early stages, open a second front. You know, a ground invasion is part of what Hamas sought to provoke and something that it's preparing for and has prepared for. You know, if they do stage a ground invasion, it will be very, very difficult, very slow, building by building, block by block. And I think Hamas figures that it will not be a rapid or successful campaign. So I don't think Hezbollah will jump in in any early stages. If the invasion, however, proves very successful, as it were, and Hamas is really at risk of going under, then the risk of a second front becomes more real.

CHANG: Well, in the meantime, the U.S. has sent two aircraft carriers to the region to deter potential bad actors. Should the U.S. be doing more to bring down tensions in the region?

SALEM: Well, I think the U.S. is doing a lot largely behind the scenes. I think from what we're reading and hearing from sort of officials that the U.S. is kind of sharing with the Israelis a kind of a warning about how the U.S. overreacted to September 11 and got dragged into wars that, in hindsight, it shouldn't have gotten into. They're warning them, as we've heard, that clearly Hamas wants an invasion because that was clearly expected in the - you know, as a reaction to what they did. So warning the Israelis - don't automatically fall into that reaction, but think it through and maybe don't simply react in that way. And I think the U.S. is very well aware that public opinion in the Arab world has shifted dramatically. It's putting a lot of their allies in Egypt and the Gulf under a lot of pressure and Jordan as well. So the U.S. also has to deal with the fallout of this conflict and might be standing by at some point for a negotiation, some kind of pathway to end the conflict.

CHANG: That is Paul Salem, president and CEO of the Middle East Institute. Thank you very much for joining us today.

SALEM: Thank you for having me. And our thoughts are with all of those in this conflict.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL CAESAR SONG, "DO YOU LIKE ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Tinbete Ermyas
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.