As Lebanon reels from seemingly unsolvable political, economic, social, and security crises, an exchange of rocket and artillery fire on August 6th between Hezbollah and Israel threatened to ignite another war almost exactly 15 years after the 2006 conflict between them ended, practically in a draw. Following Israeli air and artillery strikes against Lebanon, which were a response to so far unattributed attacks on Israel, Hezbollah bombed Shebaa Farms at the base of Mount Harmon (the party and many Lebanese consider the farms Israeli occupied territory). The exchanges followed heightened tensions in the Arabian Gulf region after mysterious attacks on Iranian- and Israeli-owned or operated ships over the last few years, one of which resulted in the death of two sailors on July 29th.
While there is no love lost between Hezbollah and Israel, the party’s side of the exchange could be understood as a message that it may not sit idly by if Gulf tensions were to come to blows. As is well known, Hezbollah is an essential strategic pillar of the so-called axis of resistance in the Middle East and any decisions pertaining to domestic Lebanese issues or relations with the outside world depend on a high degree of coordination with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Thus, the party would be hard pressed not to respond forcefully to an Israeli attack on Iran that both Hezbollah and Iranian leaders would see as sanctioned by the United States.
Hezbollah—most assuredly in coordination with Iran—appears to have chosen to send only a message of warning. Its secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, announced in a speech on August 7th that his fighters’ rockets were directed to open areas in the Shebaa Farms, in essence seeking de-escalation. In turn, and contrary to its criminal conduct during military operations, Israel showed restraint and its response inflicted little harm, despite heavy artillery barrages and air attacks that burned brush but avoided casualties. In essence, both parties wanted merely to protect their public image without causing a wider conflict; but neither was, or is, able to guarantee that tensions in the future would not result in bloody noses, at best, or a region-wide conflagration, at worst.
For Hezbollah, domestic and regional concerns make entering a war with Israel extremely dangerous and perhaps suicidal, for it and for Lebanon. The nightmarish existence that characterizes the country today makes such a possibility catastrophic. Lebanon has no resources to sustain any assault, especially that for some time, Israeli military and political leaders have said they would not distinguish between Hezbollah and the Lebanese state, institutions, and infrastructure. Following the latest exchange of fire, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett assigned responsibility to the Lebanese government and state to control military activities on its territory. Israel’s defense minister, Benny Gantz, warned Hezbollah and the Lebanese army not to “test Israel.” Hezbollah is well aware that Israel has no qualms about exacting a heavy toll on Lebanon as a whole, employing military assaults that would not be any different from its attack on the Gaza Strip in May of this year.
It was thus no wonder that villagers in the town of Shwaya near the Lebanese-Israeli border took matters into their own hands and intercepted a Hezbollah truck mounted with a rocket launcher that had been used in the attack on Shebaa Farms. The truck and its crew were transiting through the town after they had launched their rockets from a nearby area. The villagers feared that Israel would retaliate against their homes and property; they refused to free the vehicle or its operators until the Lebanese army arrived, confiscated the launcher, and arrested the fighters. (A few hours later, the army releasedi the crew and returned the rocket launcher to Hezbollah.)
In addition to taking into account the apprehensions regarding Israeli retaliation by Lebanese living near the border as well as facing Lebanon’s current trying conditions, Hezbollah has to contend with a number of challenges that prevent it from committing to an open-ended confrontation with Israel. First, the general support it has received from many segments of Lebanese society over the years appears to be eroding because of its alliance with President Michel Aoun, who has been the main obstacle in forming a new Lebanese government that can arrest the country’s downward slide. Indeed, many question why Hezbollah—the most powerful political actor in the country—does not pressure its ally, the president, to facilitate that mission. Today, a third prime minister-designate, Najib Miqati, appears unable to surmount Aoun’s conditions despite widespread domestic and international demands for a new government.
Second, Lebanon’s multi-sectarian makeup has limited political cooperation between confessional leaders, which has affected the level of support Hezbollah is able to garner from the general population. No longer is Hezbollah seen by all as a national force dedicated to defending Lebanon against Israeli aggression; instead, it is perceived as a strong Shia faction bent on increasing that sect’s influence in the polity and securing public goods and largesse. Third, Hezbollah’s freedom of action is circumscribed by a cease-fire agreement in 2006 and United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which strengthened the presence of UN troops on the border with Israel.
Hezbollah’s regional considerations also prevent it from a military venture with Israel. As a strategic partner in Iran’s foreign policy and preferences, the party is aware of the sensitivity of Tehran’s negotiations with the United States regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Today, as Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, takes charge of the delicate and complicated negotiations, neither Hezbollah nor Israel would do well to test the waters—or to muddy them. In fact, the United States is reported to have cautioned Israel against escalating the situation with Hezbollah in order to give the Vienna talks a chance to succeed.
To be sure, avoiding the disruption of the nuclear talks while feeling the heat of the dire domestic conditions in Lebanon is an unmitigated combination of factors that prevents Hezbollah from seeking a military confrontation with Israel. What is uncertain, however, is the possibility that either Hezbollah or Israel might overreact to another incident like the exchanges of fire of the past week. If that threshold is crossed, Lebanon will be the weakest and most devastated victim in a war that would likely spread to other parts of the wider region.
i Source is in Arabic.