Are Hezbollah and Israel edging closer to war?

7 min read
15 January, 2024

The Israeli airstrike that killed senior Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut's southern suburbs of Dahiyeh, a Hezbollah stronghold, on 2 January, marked a new escalation in the confrontation between the Iran-backed Shia group and Israel amid the war in Gaza.

The event not only marked the first Israeli attack in the Lebanese capital since the 2006 war but also highlighted the intelligence and military capabilities of Israel inside Lebanon and some laxity on the part of Hezbollah's security system.

As if that weren't enough, Israel on 8 January killed Wissam al-Tawil, the commander in Hezbollah's secretive Radwan Force deployed along the border with Israel, in his hometown of Khirbet Slem, about 10 kilometres from the border.

The killings of these key figures in Hamas and Hezbollah, along with the assassination of Sayyed Razi Mousavi, a senior adviser in Iran's Revolutionary Guards, outside Damascus on 25 December, seem part of a shift in Israel’s approach to confront the ‘axis of resistance’.

"Israel's interest in embarking on a full-scale war with Hezbollah depends on several factors"

However, this may trigger an escalation between Hezbollah and Israel, with fears that the conflict at the southern Lebanese border could turn into an all-out war.

The day after the Hamas attack in Israel on 7 October, which killed about 1,200 Israeli civilians and soldiers, Hezbollah began a military campaign against Israel to deter its military operations in Gaza, which have so far killed more than 23,000 Palestinians, engaging in a tit-for-tat confrontation at varying intensity.

However, the risk of a full-blown war between Hezbollah and Israel following the assassinations of al-Arouri and al-Tawil is more real than ever. Statements from Israeli officials have done little to assuage these fears, with Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant recently telling the Wall Street Journal that what is happening in Gaza can be "copy-pasted" in Beirut.

In turn, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah had earlier warned that "the response is inevitably coming” following al-Arouri’s killing.

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Nicholas Blanford, an expert on Hezbollah and a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, told The New Arab that part of the group’s response has already taken place.

On 6 January, Hezbollah launched 62 missiles at Mount Meron's Air Control Center near the Lebanese border, resulting in damage. Additionally, Hezbollah later deployed explosive drones near Safed, an Israeli military base about 25 kilometres from the border. 

"It's tit for tat. Hezbollah is targeting only military targets, not civilian areas," Blanford said. 

However, according to the analyst, another possible response from Hezbollah could involve strengthening its own security systems. While in the 1990s Hezbollah had around 3,000 to 5,000 fighters and was impenetrable by the Israelis, their rapid expansion after the 2006 war has made them more vulnerable due to the group’s increased size and decreased control.

Some Israeli factions advocate for a decisive strike against Hezbollah. [Getty]

"As the Israelis were able to track down and kill a very senior Hezbollah commander using a new tactic to throw Hezbollah off balance, Hezbollah is probably tightening their security and communication measures to prevent the Israelis from locating and killing more of their members," Blanford said.

However, Israel's interest in embarking on a full-scale war with Hezbollah depends on several factors.

International pressure on Israel due to its military operations in Gaza would intensify if it engaged in a full-scale war with Hezbollah.

Asher Kaufman, director of the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame (Indiana, United States), told TNA that Israel also faces pressure concerning the 96,000 Israelis displaced from the northern border due to the conflict with Hezbollah. The Israeli government also recognises the unprecedented nature of a full-scale war with Hezbollah.

"Massive civilian population casualties on both sides of the border could spark a war between the two sides"

"A war against Hezbollah could be destructive for Israel, given Hezbollah's military strength, which can target infrastructures and civilians, leading the Israeli government to face pressure over its northern border crisis," he said.

Hezbollah also faces domestic issues. Blanford highlighted that most Lebanese, including the Shia community, oppose a war, especially for the sake of Hamas and Gaza.

"Hezbollah knows that. This is why its actions along the Blue Line, but to a limited extent, aim to normalise the level of the conflict. For Israel to provoke Hezbollah into a major attack leading to full-scale war, actions would need to be severe. However, Israel's current actions are normal given the south Lebanon battlefield circumstances," he said.

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In this context, both the United States and Iran can influence the tension between Hezbollah and Israel. On one side, the US is trying to exert pressure on Israel to avoid escalation with Hezbollah.

On the other, as Blanford suggests, Iran doesn't want Hezbollah to engage in a full-scale war because it considers the Lebanese group as a valuable deterrence asset. Furthermore, as Kaufman argues, an all-out war scenario might draw Iran into a full confrontation with Israel and potentially with the US.

However, assessing the threshold that could lead to a full-scale war between Israel and Hezbollah amid this faltering situation may be complex.

Kaufman suggests that massive civilian population casualties on both sides of the border could spark a war between the two sides. But in an all-out war scenario, it would be challenging for the Israeli military to deal with two fronts.

Israeli armoured vehicles are deployed in a kibbutz in the northern region of Kiryat Shmona near the border with Lebanon on 30 October 2023. [Getty]

"The IDF is tired after three months of engagement in the South due to many casualties and wounded. On the one hand, there is very strong morale among the units in Israel in support of continued military engagement. On the other hand, the IDF is challenged by the war from the perspective of casualties and results," he said. 

Blanford highlighted the complexities of predicting a full-scale war between Israel and Hezbollah. He emphasised that the current situation in Gaza would pale in comparison to the potential intensity of such a conflict.

For instance, if Hezbollah were to launch ballistic missiles at Tel Aviv, Israel would inevitably retaliate. Similarly, a comprehensive Israeli offensive against Hezbollah, extending beyond South Lebanon, would trigger a strategic response from Hezbollah, escalating into a full-scale war.

"Iran doesn't want Hezbollah to engage in a full-scale war because it considers the Lebanese group as a valuable deterrence asset"

While Israel's actions reflect tactical considerations, some Israeli factions advocate for a decisive strike against Hezbollah despite potentially lacking a deep understanding of Lebanon and Hezbollah's complexities.

However, the Israeli military seems hesitant, recognising the profound implications a war with Hezbollah would have on both their operations in Lebanon and the Israeli home front, anticipating unprecedented challenges.

"There are many levels of escalation before you reach that kind of threshold moment," Kaufman said. 

Hezbollah's recent actions along the Blue Line have been unprecedented over the last three months, primarily targeting Israeli border positions militarily rather than launching frequent deep attacks into Israel.

While they operate within specific limits, there's room for tactical escalation before triggering a full-scale Israeli response. There has been a gradual intensification, initially, as Blanford highlighted, Hezbollah primarily attacked in the afternoon, but now they strike both morning and afternoon. In response, Israel has expanded its retaliatory measures, extending shelling deeper into Lebanon and conducting individual strikes north of the Litani River. 

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Meanwhile, Lebanon is doing its part to avoid an all-out war in the country that would be devastating for the population.

While Lebanon recently filed a third UN complaint against Israel for violations since 7 October, accusing Israel of breaking UN Resolution 1701, on 8 January, Foreign Minister Abdullah Bou Habib declared Lebanon's readiness to "fully" implement the resolution, which was instrumental in ending the 2006 Lebanon war and calls for a complete cessation of hostilities between Lebanon and Israel, which are still technically at war.

Yet, full compliance would also require disarming all armed groups in Lebanon, notably Hezbollah, which is unlikely to comply.

This commitment comes after the visit of the European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in Beirut, which also hosted the recent visit of US Special Envoy Amos Hochstein in a bid to ease Lebanon-Israel border tensions and also discussed the possibility of talks to establish the land border between Israel and Lebanon following his mediation of a 2022 maritime border agreement.

Dario Sabaghi is a freelance journalist interested in human rights.

Follow him on Twitter: @DarioSabaghi