Continuing Skirmishes but No Hezbollah-Israel War

Daily and intense skirmishes between Israeli forces and Hezbollah and its allies across the Blue Line—in reference to the border drawn by the United Nations following Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000—continue unabated but have so far not expanded into all-out war. This is not so for lack of reasons and conditions inherent in the current geopolitical moment, including an ongoing Israeli war on Gaza, Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea and US-British retaliation, Iraqi Shia militia assaults on US forces, and Iranian bombardment of targets in northern Iraq. Instead, it has been Hezbollah’s exercise of unusual discipline and caution in responding to Israeli provocations that has kept away both the specter of a larger conflict on the Lebanon-Israel border and the danger of an unpredictable regionwide conflagration.

The current state of affairs on the border has had its own serious repercussions, however. Since October 7, almost 200 people have been killed in Lebanon—more than 140 of whom were Hezbollah fighters and 20 were civilians (including three journalists)—and 15 were killed in Israel, nine of whom were soldiers. Worrisome has been Israel’s targeting of religious sites in southern Lebanon—including a 600-year-old monastery in Deir Mimas—and its use of prohibited munitions such as white phosphorous bombs that have seriously impacted civilians and caused numerous wildfires. Another 155,000 people on both sides of the border—80,000 in Israel and 75,000 in Lebanon—have been forced to leave their homes to escape the fighting. It is not likely that these can return to their homes and villages as long as the skirmishes continue.

Another worrisome development over the last two weeks has been both the increase in Israeli attacks in southern Lebanon and the qualitative change in targeting Hezbollah personnel and affiliates in southern Lebanon. Following the Israeli military’s announcement of the so-called “third phase” of the war on Gaza—targeted raids and special operations—Israel has stepped up the targeting of Hezbollah’s local leaders and commanders. Israel also assassinated Hamas’s second in command Saleh al-Arouri and a group of operatives in Beirut as well as high ranking Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders in Syria. If this targeting continues or if more senior Hezbollah leaders are killed, no one can guarantee if and how the party changes its reaction, which thus far has been concentrated mainly against military positions and assets in a narrow strip inside Israel.

Israel is demanding the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 of 2006 that stipulates, among other things, that Hezbollah withdraw its forces beyond the Litani River, 20 miles north of the Israeli border. Israeli leaders have threatened military force—indeed, to “copy paste” [Gaza] to Beirut, according to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant—to change the situation on the border in order to allow displaced Israelis to return to their homes there. While insisting on the need to implement 1701 may sound reasonable and is in line with UN resolutions, Israel is not likely to get a favorable response from Hezbollah without agreeing to end its ongoing slaughter in Gaza, as the party’s General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah has demanded. Besides, it is folly that Israel is insisting that Hezbollah adhere to 1701, knowing full well that many of the party’s fighters hail from the same villages and towns it wants the Party of God to leave so that its own displaced can return to their side of the border.

While unwilling to abandon its area of operations close to Israel, Hezbollah has on many occasions declared that it is not interested in widening the conflict with Israel to an all-out war, although it is ready to sustain the current tit-for-tat deadly exchange with Israeli forces. Whatever reactions the party has had to Israeli attacks on its personnel, Hamas’s Saleh al-Arouri, or the IRGC’s officials, they were relatively limited and measured responses that would not lead to a wider conflict or a regionwide conflagration. Still, it remains to be seen whether this degree of caution and care will be maintained if Israeli tactics in pursuing the party’s positions and personnel succeed to the point of threatening the measure of deterrence Hezbollah’s missiles and armaments have ensured over the last few years.

Two specific issues continue to influence the party’s sustained refusal to widen the conflict with Israel. First, Lebanon is still without a president some fifteen months after the expiry of the term of former President Michel Aoun. Tensions on the border with Israel have made it even more difficult to discuss the presidential elections, let alone elect a candidate acceptable to both the party and the wider body politic. But all political forces in Lebanon, Hezbollah included, are apprehensive about the possibility of a conflict with Israel without a legitimate chief executive. Hezbollah, specifically—because it has usurped foreign policy decision-making from the legitimate caretaker government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati—is worried that it will solely bear the responsibility for such a conflict and its expected devastating consequences.

Second, Hezbollah’s decision is inextricably linked to how it reflects on and impacts Iran—the general sponsor and supporter of the factions within the “axis of resistance.” It is no secret that the Iranian leadership was surprised by Hamas’s October attack on Israel and did not support it. Speaking weeks after the attack, Nasrallah praised it but said that it was a purely Palestinian operation “in terms of both decision and execution.” Indeed, the party’s current position on limiting its operations against Israel and not widening the conflict can be rationalized as serving one overarching purpose: limiting the damage from Hamas’s attack on the axis of resistance as much as possible. The same can be said of Iraq’s pro-Iran Shia militia attacks on US forces and Yemen’s Houthis’ aerial assaults on Israel since October and on maritime shipping in the Red Sea, although both are sustaining retaliatory strikes by the US and other forces.

It is difficult to fully understand Israel’s rationale of continuing its assaults on Hezbollah in southern Lebanon beyond addressing domestic political and popular pressures. Israel’s leaders want to maintain deterrence against the party and satisfy the declared need of returning the displaced to their homes near the Lebanese border. But it is easy to venture the speculation that Israel may not be capable of sustaining a full-fledged war with Hezbollah as it struggles in Gaza, no matter what its political and military leadership professes. On the other hand, Hezbollah so far seems to be ready to withstand Israeli attacks and respond in kind, all the while refusing to escalate its response for fear that it might spark a dreaded and widespread conflict, on the border with Israel and regionally. To be sure, from what is obvious on the Lebanon-Israel border, the overarching and decisive factor influencing the eruption of a war there appears to remain in Hezbollah’s hands.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Almanar