Assessing the Latest Conflagrations between Israel and Hezbollah

Since last August, and within the span of about two weeks, Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah engaged two simultaneous fronts in Lebanon and Syria. While their rhetoric and action gave an impression that they were on the verge of war, both sides were basically attempting to dictate new rules of engagement—or rather, a revision of the status quo that has worked for both sides since the end of the July 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon. The United States, which traditionally has played a role in defusing these tensions on the Lebanese-Israeli border, not only remained disengaged but  also weighed in by imposing fresh sanctions on a Lebanese bank for allegedly aiding Hezbollah financially.

The timeline of the attacks between Israel and Hezbollah, which began on August 24, shows how Israel has been on the offensive against Iran in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. In an air strike, Israel killed two Hezbollah militants in Syria on August 24; in retaliation, Hezbollah launched a cross-border attack on an Israeli military outpost on September 1. Israeli drones flew over Hezbollah’s stronghold areas in Beirut and the south starting on August 25 and Hezbollah shot down one of these drones on September 9 near the border village of Ramia. In the middle of the tensions, the US Treasury Department sanctioned Jammal Trust Bank on August 29 for “providing financial services” to Hezbollah.

As part of a clear shift of regional strategy to deter Iran, Israel has pushed the envelope in dealing with Hezbollah but did not dramatically alter the rules of engagement.

As part of a clear shift of regional strategy to deter Iran, Israel has pushed the envelope in dealing with Hezbollah but did not dramatically alter the rules of engagement. Israel seems to look at Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and now Iraq as mutually connected fronts against Tehran, at the same time focusing on Iran’s nuclear activities as a priority as well as Hezbollah’s precision missile program, as stated by Israeli officials. The Netanyahu government seemed anxious about a potential Iranian retaliation and is dealing with any Iranian move as a direct threat. Meanwhile, Washington is taking a big gamble by enabling Israel to stand in for the United States in deterring the Islamic Republic, which is intensifying regional tensions. It is not clear whether  the Israeli campaign will wane in the next few weeks after the Israeli elections on September 17 or what kind of impact the potential meeting (or lack thereof) between Trump and his Iranian counterpart  Hassan Rouhani at the upcoming United Nations meeting in New York will have on Israel’s position.

Hezbollah’s retaliation on September 1 was an unusual and telegraphed attack, conveying before the fact the scope and location of this limited operation. Iran is obviously the primary benefactor of Hezbollah; Tehran decides the group’s war and peace decisions in Lebanon and beyond. For the Iranian regime, the highest priority now is to deal with the nuclear deal crisis with Washington and not to be distracted by a regional war with Israel. This telegraphed attack was rather an Iranian-inspired tactic as Tehran is aware that Israel is making provocations to thwart any US-Iran talks. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah seems to have departed from his speech last February when he justified the restraint to retaliate against Israeli attacks in Syria as “a political decision based on managing priorities in this phase, not based on military deficiency.” As Iran now appears to be in the driver’s seat on deciding how to react to Israel’s offensive campaign, Hezbollah’s new approach seems to convey two messages: 1) the retaliation against an Israeli attack on Hezbollah in Syria will be on the Lebanese-Israeli border rather than in Syria or the disputed Shebaa farms, which includes targets such as Israeli soldiers and settlements; and 2) Hezbollah will attempt to shoot down any Israeli drone that enters Lebanon. This means Hezbollah reinforced the decision that it has no interest in opening multiple fronts against Israel and will remain focused on the Lebanese front.

While war remains a possibility as a result of a potential miscalculation, current conditions are not conducive for war between Israel and Hezbollah. 

While war remains a possibility as a result of a potential miscalculation, current conditions are not conducive for war between Israel and Hezbollah. First and foremost, both sides are merely seeking to alter the rules of engagement rather than to trigger conflict. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not looking for a war that could cause him a setback in the Israeli elections on September 17 and it is not in Israel’s interest to open simultaneous fronts against Iran. Israel is content with the current status quo where it has the green light from Moscow and Washington to target Iranian assets in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq when it thinks there is enough intelligence to justify military strikes. In return, Hezbollah’s force is already stretched on multiple fronts while facing funding challenges and a difficult coalition to manage in the Lebanese government. Most importantly, Hezbollah’s base is not interested in repeating the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon and is already complaining about dead Hezbollah fighters from the Syrian war.

While Israel won points in this latest round against Hezbollah by killing two fighters in Syria and using drones to target the Shia group’s stronghold in Beirut, Hezbollah’s cross-border operation against targets on the Israeli side will be enough for the group to claim bragging rights. Nevertheless, Hezbollah’s limited operation and Israel’s restraint reflect a tacit understanding from both sides that war is not an option. For now, both sides will return to strengthening their routine deterrence as they remain committed and content with the status quo of United Nations Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 conflict between them.

Now that border tensions have dissipated, Israel and Hezbollah continue their attempts to frame what just happened as a way of defining the rules of engagement for the next round of tensions. This is evident in their rhetoric and what media outlets close to them are writing. Both sides have violated their routine rules of engagement since 2006 and are subsequently more cautious in any actions that might take place next. This does not mean Israel will stop targeting Hezbollah assets in Syria; however, it might be more hesitant in repeating the scenario of flying an Israeli drone over Hezbollah’s stronghold in the heart of Beirut. Hezbollah showed it can still strike Israeli soldiers across the border and during daylight, but its calculated attack was meant to be a message of deterrence rather than an offensive operation. These are the parameters and the lessons learned by both sides in this latest round of confrontation. Beyond that, Nasrallah and Netanyahu are continuing a propaganda war, which feeds their narratives and shores up their bases.

Now that border tensions have dissipated, Israel and Hezbollah continue their attempts to frame what just happened as a way of defining the rules of engagement for the next round of tensions.

In the case of a military conflict, Israel will use its air power advantage to attack Hezbollah and Lebanese targets to put pressure on the Lebanese government and public, the same tactic used in 2006. Hezbollah, in turn, will fire rockets against Israeli military targets and shell Israeli settlements near the border. Both sides have built new capabilities since 2006 and they will most likely employ them in any new war; these include Israel’s Iron Dome, which could partially stop some of Hezbollah’s missiles but also serve as a test for Hezbollah’s medium-range rockets that could potentially reach targets as far as away Tel Aviv. While any war will lead to destruction on both sides—with Lebanon mostly bearing the brunt because of Israel’s air power advantage—the scope and duration of any conflict would most likely be limited due to potential US and/or Russian intervention to de-escalate the situation.

However, one stark observation was the lack of US diplomatic involvement to defuse tensions on the Lebanese-Israeli border, despite the reported call between Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Russia has filled the US vacuum by facilitating the exchange of messages between Israel and Hezbollah, which might have helped the two enemies to find a way out of the potentially vicious cycle of violence. The American sanctions on the Lebanese bank came during these tensions, and this further weakened the Trump Administration’s ability to play a role by communicating with both the Israeli and Lebanese governments. Neither Israel nor Hezbollah issued maritime threats related to the disputed gas Block 9 off the Mediterranean, which means there was no attempt to affect the already stalled Lebanese-Israeli talks to draw these maritime borders.

While the latest round benefited both Netanyahu and Hezbollah politically before their bases, those whose influence might have been further weakened are the Lebanese government and the Trump Administration, especially in the latter’s ability to influence policymaking in Beirut.

Joe Macaron is a Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Joe and read his previous publications click here