The Unlikelihood of a Hezbollah-Israel War

As Israel turns to punish the Gaza Strip and its people for the Hamas attack on October 7, speculation arises as to whether the “Al-Aqsa Flood” operation will lead to a war between the Zionist state and Hezbollah and its allied Palestinian militias on Lebanese soil. Indeed, for a few days now, tensions have risen on the Lebanese-Israeli border and occasional skirmishes have been reported in which Hezbollah, Palestinian, and Israeli personnel have been killed or injured. But whatever the circumstances and conditions, it is unlikely that a conflagration on the Lebanese-Israeli border will take place, for Israeli and Hezbollah-Lebanese reasons.

Israel Unlikely to Wage War on Hezbollah Now

Despite the tensions and the general pugilistic mood among Israeli politicians and military leaders, Israel does not seem eager to start a major conflagration with Hezbollah and its Palestinian allies. Circumstances may obviously change, including blatant provocations from the Party of God and Palestinian factions such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas, but for the time being, the new ‘war cabinet’ in Israel most likely does not intend to be distracted from military operations against the Gaza Strip. Indeed, to deal with the aftermath of the October 7 Hamas attack, Israel sees that it must devote an all-government and resources effort to erase the effects of the embarrassing failure to anticipate the assault and repel it. It is likely that Israel will mount a major ground invasion of the strip, for which hundreds of thousands of reservists were called and for whose success Israel’s war machine is preparing with a scorched earth retaliatory bombing campaign that has so far killed over 1,400 Palestinians, including 447 children and 248 women, and injured more than 6,000 others. To help in the destructive campaign, Israel has leveled entire neighborhoods, cut off water, food, power, and fuel supplies, and even prevented humanitarian aid from entering the territory.

Additionally, a war on the northern front needs full concentration, meticulous planning, and flawless execution, lest there be a repeat of the exhausting and fruitless war with Hezbollah in 2006. What Israelis call the “Second Lebanon War” (the first was fought in 1982) lasted for 34 days, destroyed Lebanon’s infrastructure and caused major damage in northern Israel, and helped Hezbollah become the dominant political and military force in the country. It also transformed the party into the large thorn in the side that today challenges Israeli supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean and constitutes what Israeli planners consider to be a threat to the country. Today, Hezbollah is a major military force that exceeds Hamas’s capabilities and is armed to the teeth, with thousands of well-trained fighters, and a seemingly endless supply of weapons from Iran, including more than 100,000 missiles of varying efficacy and sophistication. An Israel that is busy in Gaza is unlikely to want to be distracted by a war with Hezbollah that may not be a swift campaign and may not reap the desired results.

Perhaps this is why the Biden administration saw that it is necessary to commit a major naval force to the eastern Mediterranean as a signal to Hezbollah, Iran, and others not to open another front on Israel. While it remains doubtful that American soldiers and equipment will be used directly to deter Hamas’s friends in Lebanon and Syria, another base for possible anti-Israel military operations, the presence of the Gerald Ford aircraft carrier and its strike group is enough to at least sew doubt about the wisdom or efficacy of opening said front. In other words, the ill-advised American move, that deprived the United States of the already thin veneer of impartiality regarding Israel and Palestine, gave the Zionist state the necessary respite to conquer Hamas and destroy its Gaza base without worrying about a war on its northern border.

Hezbollah Will Avoid War

Hezbollah has not fully shied away from facing Israeli forces on the Lebanon-Israel border. There have been skirmishes in which it has lost fighters and inflicted casualties on Israeli troops across the so-called Blue Line (of United Nations troops separating the two sides). On October 8, Hezbollah bombarded Israeli positions in disputed territory on the border. And Palestinian militants infiltrated northern Israel from Lebanon on the morning of October 9, only to be confronted by Israeli forces. Israel has also bombed some areas in southern Lebanon, causing many to leave their villages. Perhaps the most dangerous possibility for the eruption of an active confrontation came on October 11 when Israeli forces reported that numerous drones had entered its territory from Lebanon, only to announce later that the purported sighting was either a human error or a malfunction.

Hezbollah has actually pledged to Lebanese government officials not to enter a war against Israel, although circumstances and conditions may change to the degree that it finds itself forced to join such an effort, at least to help alleviate the pressure on Hamas. Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited Beirut on October 12 and met with the party’s General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah, as well as with caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and caretaker Foreign Minister Abdalla Abu Habib. But upon arrival, he declared that Iran-friendly militias keep their options open on opening another front against Israel if the Gaza bloodshed continues. His visit followed meetings in Beirut between the American Ambassador Dorothea Shea and Lebanese officials, including Hezbollah ally, head of the AMAL Movement, and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, in which she minced no words cautioning against the possibility.

In reality, there are at least three reasons that make Hezbollah’s participation remote, although not completely impossible. First and foremost, a war with Israel will most assuredly end with the destruction of whatever still works of Lebanon’s infrastructure. Israeli leaders for decades and just recently have threatened to return Lebanon to the “stone age” if such a possibility is realized. At a time of an almost complete collapse of the Lebanese state and its institutions, and the country’s economy and social structure, a war with Israel will only multiply the suffering of the Lebanese people who already blame the party for preventing the election of a new president and the proper functioning of its democratic system, flawed as it is. Besides, as the dominant political and military force in the country, Hezbollah is interested in preserving the privileges it has secured for itself and for its Shia community in the country and in the state’s institutions. Such privileges can easily be lost or destroyed since the whole edifice of the Lebanese state is likely to collapse.

Second, Hezbollah can no longer count on the endorsement of its strategy by large and important political factions in Lebanon, as was the case in 2006 when its main ally was the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of former President Michel Aoun. Today, the FPM is almost but a shadow of what it used to be, and its present leader, parliamentarian Gebran Bassil—Aoun’s son-in-law—is not on good terms with the party. The FPM’s Christian replacement, the Lebanese Forces Party, is Hezbollah’s most powerful and organized political foe. Only a few days ago, its leader, Samir Geagea, announced that his party is trying very hard to prevent a conflagration on the southern border with Israel. He was seconded by another political heavyweight, former leader of the Progressive Socialist Party and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who wished that Hezbollah would not be pulled into the war. Added to this opposition to Hezbollah’s joining a war against Israel by political leaders is the reality that 2023 is very different from 2006 when Lebanese homes were opened to receive the Shia who were displaced from the south due to Israeli bombardment of their towns and villages. Lebanon’s dire economic conditions and the antipathy toward Hezbollah will likely make any such displaced unwelcome in many areas of the country. This will reflect badly and dangerously on Hezbollah that has touted itself as the protector of the Shia community in Lebanon.

Third and finally, Lebanon under Hezbollah’s influence cannot practically expect to receive the financial support from the Gulf Arab countries for rebuilding what a war may destroy. In 2006, the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council provided billions in reconstruction money that went to rehabilitate and rebuild destroyed neighborhood and towns in the south and the capital Beirut, especially the city’s southern suburbs where part of Hezbollah’s Shia hardcore constituency lives. But since 2014, and paralleling tensions between Iran and GCC countries—especially because of the war in Yemen and the Islamic Republic’s sway over Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon—the party’s Nasrallah spared no criticism of Saudi Arabia in his speeches, souring the kingdom’s rulers and other GCC states relations with Lebanon. Indeed, Nasrallah’s criticism of Gulf states and Lebanese leaders’ refusal to abide by International Monetary Fund demands for economic reforms have been main elements in Lebanon’s economic collapse. In other words, Hezbollah knows that no Gulf country will rush to help rebuild Lebanon if a war with Israel comes to pass.

Conditions and circumstances of what is transpiring in Gaza today might take a turn in the direction of Israel deciding to take Hezbollah on in a devastating preemptive war or the party choosing to aid Hamas in resisting the full Israeli assault on it. But such possibilities remain remote; Israel would be foolish to open another front that will occupy a good portion of its military capabilities and distract it from pursuing a war of revenge on Hamas, and Hezbollah would threaten its position as a dominant political and military faction in Lebanon. For now, Israel’s northern front will remain generally quiet as its military machine continues its genocidal campaign against the Gaza Strip.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Gabriele Pedrini