21 November 2023

The closer Israel gets to destroying Hamas, the more likely war with Hezbollah becomes

Bilal Y. Saab

He leads an army of more than 100,000 dedicated and battle-hardened fighters equipped with thousands of missiles, rockets, and armed drones that can hit targets deep inside Israel with pinpoint accuracy. He inspires and commands the loyalty of Iran-backed militias across the Arab world.

So when Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the Lebanese Hezbollah and the most powerful non-state actor in the world, says that he doesn’t wish to broaden the war in Gaza to help his Palestinian ally Hamas, the region should breathe a sigh of relief – because his words matter.

But Nasrallah’s intentions alone are hardly sufficient to prevent regional escalation. Israel’s willingness to avoid another catastrophic war with Hezbollah, like the one in 2006, is critical, too. Yet it is not known what the Israeli war cabinet is thinking or what it wants to do.

There are those in the Israeli government, including Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who want to more aggressively punish Hezbollah for its shelling of Israeli military positions along the border.

More ambitiously, they also see an opportunity to neutralize the threat to Israel’s northern front once and for all. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not reached that conclusion yet, but if Gallant and others threaten to resign over this issue, he might change his mind to ensure his political survival.

The concern in Washington about Israel’s intentions is so palpable that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had to phone Gallant and urge him to calm things down along the Israel–Lebanon border.

Earlier, during recent visits by President Joe Biden, Gallant shared with Secretary of State Antony Blinken his desire to strike Hezbollah pre-emptively, but he was overruled by his Israeli colleagues.

Inevitable war?

Within the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), many senior officers believe that a war in the north is inevitable, which raises the probability of a pre-emptive Israeli strike, leading to a forceful Hezbollah response.

The last thing President Biden wants during re-election season is a war between Israel and Hezbollah that could drag the US into the conflict and lead to a direct confrontation with Iran.

Not only will this be terrible strategically, but politically, too. Biden’s progressive constituency is already applying intense pressure on his administration to end the war in Gaza.

In an attempt to deter Hezbollah from launching deadlier attacks against northern Israel, Biden has ordered the deployment of a substantial amount of additional military assets to the Middle East, including an aircraft carrier, warships, a nuclear-powered vessel, attack helicopters, fighter jets, and 5,000 sailors.

Heightened tensions, expanding conflict

Hezbollah’s commitment not to escalate is not set in stone. Nasrallah was clear about this in his latest speeches on 3 and 11 November, and there’s no reason to believe he was bluffing.

His red line is the destruction of Hamas as a military organization. The closer Israel gets to achieving that objective, the more likely it is that Nasrallah will order his troops to dial up their attacks against Israel and widen the war.

Israel and Hezbollah’s intentions aside, the tensions along the Israel-Lebanon border are already high. 10 Israeli soldiers and civilians have been killed, as have 70 Hezbollah fighters and 10 Lebanese civilians, as a result of the shelling.

The depth and sophistication of the attacks by both parties are increasing, too. The perimeter of confrontation has broadened from a single mile to 25 miles in a matter of weeks.

Israel has struck hard from the air while Hezbollah has used anti-tank missiles to damage Israeli outposts as well as armed drones to target the city of Eilat, which is 350 miles away. Gallant told Austin that ‘Hezbollah is playing with fire’. The same could be said about Israel.

Whether the current situation along the Israel–Lebanon border is sustainable is highly uncertain. Since 2006, both sides have respected unwritten rules of engagement where certain levels of confrontation within well-defined geographical areas were acceptable. Today, those rules are slowly but surely vanishing. Hezbollah’s attack on Eilat from Syria is proof of that.

Miscalculation and escalation

The opportunities for miscalculation and accidents are endless. In 2006, neither Hezbollah nor Israel wanted a war, but they ended up clashing viciously in a conflict of 34 days. Israel severely damaged Lebanese civil infrastructure and displaced approximately one million Lebanese.

Hezbollah hit targets deep inside Israel and forced the evacuation of roughly half a million Israelis. The conflict led to the killing of 1,300 Lebanese and 165 Israelis. A new war will dwarf that of 2006 because of the much-improved military capabilities of Hezbollah and of the extreme right leanings of Israel’s ruling politicians.

Iran’s perspective

Tehran has an interest in preserving Hezbollah’s strategic deterrent against an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program and would rather not see its Lebanese ally get weakened or disarmed following a fight with Israel.

But Iran does not have strict control over Hezbollah. It wasn’t able to stop Hezbollah from fighting Israel in 2006.

Members of Iran’s proxy network – in Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain, Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon – maintain a sufficient degree of operational independence, especially during wartime. These actors have their own local calculations and preferences which are mostly consistent with Iran’s strategic wishes.

So when the US deploys more firepower to the Middle East to send a strong message to Iran to rein in Hezbollah, it’s not at all clear it will work.

Hezbollah can call its own shots, especially if it perceives that its own wellbeing is at risk. Furthermore, Hezbollah knows that Israeli leaders are perfectly capable of levelling Lebanon as a whole, like they did in 2006.

Hezbollah doesn’t believe that the US, despite its unparalleled combat power, is reckless enough to start bombing targets inside Lebanon should a war with Israel erupt.

The last time it did that was 40 years ago, and Hezbollah, in its embryonic form at the time, conducted a spectacular terrorist attack against the US marine barracks in Beirut on Oct. 23, 1983, killing 241 Americans. While there are no unprotected US military personnel in Lebanon today, Hezbollah’s tentacles can reach far beyond Lebanon.

It is absolutely critical that the US does everything it can to prevent another devastating war between Hezbollah and Israel. The stability of the entire Middle East is at stake. More effective US diplomacy to bring about a prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel could defuse things a little along the Israel–Lebanon border.

But this may not be enough. As long as Israel remains committed to destroying Hamas, Hezbollah will keep its finger on the trigger.

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