The frontline on the Lebanese-Israeli border continues to witness the real skirmishes of an undeclared war between Israel and Hezbollah. Reciprocal attacks between Israel and Hezbollah and its allies that have killed some 90 individuals on both sides of the border by November 13 (80 in Lebanon, 10 in Israel) have kept the exchanges roughly within the rules of engagement set forth in the ceasefire agreement following the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war—no attacks deep inside either country and no targeting of civilian areas, among others. Still, the Israeli army and Hezbollah and its allies have both struck villages and settlements across the border, causing death, destruction, and the displacement of some 200,000 in Israel and 26,000 in Lebanon.
In two public appearances on November 3 and November 11, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah made it patently clear that his party is not interested in widening the ongoing Israel-Hamas war to become a regional conflict. Cognizant that his countrymen, Israel, the United States, his Palestinian allies in Lebanon, and other factions in the so-called “axis of resistance” were hanging on every word, he stated in his second speech that Hezbollah does not determine whether it will enter a conflagration against Israel but will wait to respond to the dictates of the battlefield. One thing remained unclear, adding to Hezbollah’s ambiguous position since the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7: which battlefield did Nasrallah mean, that in Gaza where Hamas is still resisting Israel’s onslaught or the one on the Lebanon-Israel border?
From what is becoming increasingly obvious—Iran’s insistence that allies in the axis of resistance are free to make their own decisions about whether or not to join the war, Israel’s likely failure to eradicate Hamas, the unsustainability of Israel’s war footing, among others—Nasrallah is limiting his response to developments on Lebanon’s southern border. If Israeli attacks increase or go beyond the limits of the 2006 rules of engagement, the Party of God might feel obligated to respond in kind against a bank of targets it has identified over the years. These range from military bases and installations to transportation hubs and routes, to power stations, to seaports and airports, and others, and Hezbollah is sure to cause serious damage and to at least disrupt public life as Israelis have known it for decades.
To be sure, warning Israel of the party’s potential response to an escalation, Nasrallah minced no words that his organization today has qualitatively and quantitively newer and more potent and destructive weapons than it did in 2006, specifically highlighting Katyusha rockets, long-range missiles, and suicide drones. Indeed, since October 8 when the Israel-Lebanon border began to feel the impact of the Israel-Hamas conflagration, Hezbollah has shown that it can be a serious challenge to Israel’s military prowess. Additionally, in Nasrallah’s November 3 speech, the Secretary-General discounted the danger from American ships in the Mediterranean Sea if the United States were to enter the fray in defense of Israel, and mentioned that his party has improved its anti-ship capabilities, probably with the Russia-made Yakhont missile system.
But despite the bravado and evident self-confidence, Hezbollah remains cautious about entering a war against Israel at this time. It is not hard to imagine that the party’s leaders think it likely that Israel will launch an attack on it when, and indeed if, it is done with its war on Hamas. For now, they rightly think that Israel is too busy to undertake such a war, despite its declared and actual readiness to strike targets in southern Lebanon, at least to show that it is not just taking Hezbollah’s attacks lying down. What Hezbollah’s leaders fear most, however, is the Biden administration’s being gradually and (un)intentionally sucked into a potential conflagration that is likely to widen into a destructive regionwide catastrophic conflict that draws in Iran and all of its proxies in the Middle East.
When evaluating Hezbollah’s decision-making, it is logical to surmise that Nasrallah’s restraint so far is mainly due to an understanding that combines, first, the fact that Israel will be busy for quite some time dealing with Hamas and, second, the hope that cooler heads in the Biden administration will prevail and prevent the United States from an assured calamity. Perhaps in that regard Nasrallah was encouraged by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III’s warning to his Israeli counterpart, Yoav Gallant, about a war with Hezbollah. The warning came after Gallant announced that Israel is capable of doing to Beirut what it has been doing to Gaza; a confirmation of Israeli intentions that did not necessarily need an Israeli official to repeat.
If these considerations were not enough for Hezbollah to try to avoid a full and open war with Israel, Lebanon’s disastrous social, economic, and political conditions are serious cautionary notes for the party in this regard. Last October 31st was the first unhappy anniversary of the presidential vacuum after the expiry of the term of President Michel Aoun. To be sure, it is hard to imagine any serious discussions on the issue between Lebanon’s politicians as the country wonders if a war with Israel is imminent. Incidentally, this political stalemate is currently being exacerbated by the approaching retirement in January of the Commander of the Lebanese Army, General Joseph Aoun (no relation), and the inability to appoint his replacement. No person in his or her right mind would commit Lebanon to a war with Israel as the army is approaching this crucial milestone.
Finally, this reluctance by Hezbollah to widen the theater in which Israel operates is raising two important questions that may ultimately impact the party’s influence and reputation as a central player in the “axis of resistance.” The first is related to its declared position of keeping Israel busy in the north so that it does not devote all its military might to Gaza. As is obvious, Israel does not seem to be bothered and is pursuing its brutal and murderous campaign on the enclave, so far killing more than 11,000 Gazans. The second is how can Hezbollah deter Israel from attacking its positions in Syria which has been a theater of operations against the party for quite some time. The last of such attacks took place on November 17 when Israeli missiles hit the party’s and its allies’ installations near Damascus. In the meantime, and as Nasrallah announced, Hezbollah will continue to wait until Israel decides when time will be opportune to widen its war against its formidable enemy in the north.
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.