Are Israel and Hezbollah heading towards full-scale war?

Lebanon Israel
7 min read
08 July, 2024

Since 8 October 2023, daily exchanges of fire between Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Israel have highlighted the ease with which Israel’s war on Gaza has expanded into other parts of the Middle East.

Hezbollah, an ally of Hamas, has been putting pressure on Israel by forcing the country’s military to divert resources from Gaza to counter the Lebanese group on its northern front.

This has highlighted the tightening unity of the so-called “axis of resistance” led by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

As of now, these clashes along Lebanon and Israel’s border have taken more than 496 lives in Lebanon and 26 in Israel. Most have been Hezbollah fighters and Israeli soldiers. But such confrontations have killed civilians too.

At the same time, these clashes across the border have led to the displacement of tens of thousands of people in both countries.

Muhammad Nimah Nasser's assassination

On 4 July, Lebanon’s Hezbollah fired a barrage of 200 rockets and drones at military positions in Israel.

This was the Lebanese organisation’s second retaliation to Israel’s killing of Hezbollah’s senior commander Muhammad Nimah Nasser (a.k.a. Hajj Abu Nimah) in southern Lebanon one day earlier, which marked the third high-ranking Hezbollah official killed by Israel amid cross-border fighting which broke out immediately after Israel began its war on Gaza nine months ago.

The first retaliation by Hezbollah to Nasser’s killing came the day of, when the group launched more than 100 rockets at its longstanding enemy to the south.

The attack against Israel on 4 July was one of the most intense waged by Hezbollah amid this period of escalating hostilities. In light of these developments, fears are growing about a full-scale war between Israel and Hezbollah.

To put it mildly, the stakes are high. Beyond the human suffering and property destruction in Lebanon and Israel, such a scenario could add many new layers of instability to the Middle East and have significant implications for global security.

The regional impact of Israel's war on Gaza
Is Israel gearing up for war with Hezbollah?
How Israel is raising the risk of a regional war with Iran
What do Houthi attacks in the Red Sea mean for global trade?

“Both sides are engaged in sending strategic messages to the other one, and the assassination of Mohammed Nimah Nasser is certainly a strategic message that Israel is sending to Hezbollah to show the extent to which it can dictate the course of events,” explained Dr Mehran Kamrava, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Qatar, in an interview with The New Arab.

“The assassination does, nevertheless, heighten the possibility of war as now Hezbollah feels it has to respond with an attack of similar significance,” he added.

The killing of Nasser highlights a continuation of Israel’s desire to assassinate high-ranking military figures in Hezbollah. Nonetheless, experts believe this latest assassination will not have any real impact on Hezbollah’s capacity to stand strong against Israel.

Israeli Military Fires Towards Hezbollah Targets In South Lebanon
Clashes along Lebanon and Israel's border have taken more than 496 lives in Lebanon and 26 in Israel. [Getty]

“Israeli commandoes have targeted dozens of Hezbollah military officers, and this latest assassination of a key commander is certainly a blow to the so-called Party of God. An estimated 400 to 500 militiamen have been assassinated during the past eight months, mostly in car bombs and drone attacks, which resulted in Hezbollah retaliations on Israeli military facilities along the borders between the two countries,” Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Centre in Riyadh, told TNA.

“These casualties illustrate the level of confrontations that have been recorded since 8 October 2023 and that are likely to continue until a diplomatic solution is agreed to. Still, Hezbollah is not short of military personnel and will easily replace Muhammad Nimah Nasser, its latest martyr. The militia fields an army estimated to have 50 to 60,000 units, which are well led by trained officers. To believe otherwise is to underestimate its intrinsic strengths,” he added.

War is not inevitable

Such widespread concerns about an all-out Israel-Hezbollah war are valid. Yet, that does not mean that such a scenario is inevitable. The main reason has to do with the fact that both sides understand how such a full-scale war would result in high levels of death and destruction on both sides.

Michael Young, a senior editor at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, understands the escalating rhetoric to be more an indication of Israel and Hezbollah’s shared interest in avoiding war rather than anything else.

“Each side is raising the rhetoric to basically try to portray itself as unwilling to make fundamental concessions in any negotiations. So, is [a full-scale war] inevitable? Of course not,” Young told TNA.

“What I’m surprised by in the last…nine months is that both sides have stuck to the rules of engagement as opposed to wanting to break out of the rules of engagement. Okay, they have crossed certain red lines, but they have done so in a way to reinforce their deterrence posture. But by and large, they have respected the red lines,” he added.

"At the moment, there remains room for officials to successfully de-escalate and bring about some form of a diplomatic solution that prevents such hostilities from spiralling into a full-scale war"

“When you’re raising the ante like this, the main purpose seems to be [to engage] in some kind of pre-negotiations behaviour. That’s how I see it. Hence my conclusion that war is not inevitable. As I said, if they’ve spent nine months avoiding war, then why suddenly from one day to the next does war become inevitable? I’m not sure. I don’t think Gaza is enough of an explanation to explain that,” said Young.

Dr Kéchichian believes that the likelihood of such a full-scale Israel-Hezbollah war is “relatively small”. This is due to both political and military factors.

“On the domestic front, [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is at odds with his coalition, and while recent opinion polls favour his policies, a large segment of the population is opposed to him. On the military front, a war in Southern Lebanon will not resemble the barbaric assaults in the Gaza Strip. [Hezbollah] is a real army, heavily equipped with lethal weapons, and determined to launch attacks deep in Israel,” he told TNA.

Live Story

Israelis are aware that Hezbollah will “act harder than many believe” in any such war and there are also the views held by the international community which has witnessed Israel “conducting genocidal attacks against a largely civilian population” in Gaza since October, said Kéchichian. The “overwhelming international revulsion” at Israel’s conduct would only grow louder if Netanyahu’s government wages such a war against the most powerful Lebanese faction.

“A war is not inevitable, and chances are good that it will be avoided in southern Lebanon,” he told TNA.

Dr Kamrava shares this view that talk of an all-out Israel-Hezbollah war being inevitable is misguided. He points to three main factors that mitigate this inevitability. First, in 1992 and 2006 Hezbollah already demonstrated its ability to make Israel suffer immensely in a conflict and today the Lebanese organisation is “immeasurably stronger”.

Second, Hezbollah’s recently released drone footage demonstrates its “ability to penetrate Israeli defences and recording videos of sensitive Israeli positions”. Third, reports of the Israelis running low on ammunition tell us that “there is little appetite in the Israeli army for another endless war”.

In the final analysis, Dr Kamrava concludes that “the chances of a new Israel-Hezbollah war are high, but the war is far from a certainty at this point”.

At the moment, there remains room for officials to successfully de-escalate and bring about some form of a diplomatic solution that prevents such hostilities from spiralling into a full-scale war that would probably bring in a host of state and non-state actors from across the Middle East.

Although the Biden administration has failed to restrain Israel’s criminal conduct since 7 October, this security crisis in southern Lebanon and northern Israel represents an opportunity for Washington to use its leverage to pull back the Israelis before Tel Aviv might foolishly decide to wage all-out war against an Arab force that is far superior to Hamas in Gaza.

The White House would be wise to seize this opportunity before it risks becoming too late.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero