War with Israel or caution: What will Hezbollah do next?
In the initial aftermath of Hamas’ unprecedented operation from Gaza against Israel on the morning of 7 October, dubbed al-Aqsa Flood, Mohammed Deif, head of Hamas’ al-Qassam Brigades, called on other countries and armed groups to join the fight against Israel.
“The time has come for the termination of occupation, and we ask the Islamic and Arab nations to move towards the borders of Palestine,” Deif said.
Despite the call to arms, Hezbollah, for the most part, has made few indications that it is willing to join the fighting.
“The leadership of the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon is closely following the significant developments on the Palestinian scene, monitoring the field conditions with utmost interest,” Hezbollah said in a statement after the start of the war on Saturday.
“They are in direct contact with the leadership of the Palestinian Resistance both domestically and abroad, constantly evaluating the events and the progress of operations.”
"Once it's on, it's very hard to control. The situation is extremely dangerous. Even though neither side wants to get into full-scale war, they could easily trip into one"
Even as Hezbollah and Israel traded mortars and missiles the following day, Hachem Safieddine, head of Hezbollah’s Executive Council and presumed successor following the death of the group’s current leader Hassan Nasrallah, called the attack a “greeting” for the Palestinians fighting and a “message” to Israel.
Since then, Hezbollah and Palestinian factions in south Lebanon have traded occasional fire with Israel daily, but it has, so far, fallen short of an escalation into full-scale war.
According to Nicholas Blanford, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center, these brief flare-ups along the border are Hezbollah’s strategy throughout the conflict as it puts pressure on Israel without the added mass destruction and violence that comes with war.
“What they are planning to do is to maintain a tempo of violence along the Blue Line that remains below a certain threshold. If that threshold was breached, in other words, Israel would feel compelled to say ‘You know what, to hell with it. We’re going to have to open up a second front against Hezbollah’,” Blanford told The New Arab.
“Below that threshold, there is a whole multitude of options open to Hezbollah from stuff like Sunday in the Shebaa Farms to helping organise, perhaps, the Palestinians to cross the border.”
A limited response
Since 8 October, there have been daily flare-ups along the Lebanese-Israeli border in which either Hezbollah or Palestinian factions have traded fire with Israel.
But even these clashes have been limited in scale and come far short of leading to a full-on war – even as residents of southern Lebanon fear the possibility of things escalating further, as they did in the build-up to the July 2006 war.
The war between Hamas and Israel puts Hezbollah in a difficult position because they need to do something to support their allies, but, at the same time, neither Iran nor Hezbollah views starting a war as being in their best interests.
“Hezbollah is the most effective external asset for Iran and I don’t see the Iranians wanting to waste Hezbollah in a futile war with Israel for the sake of Hamas in Gaza. They need to retain Hezbollah for the rainy day when someone decides to launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities or try to remove the regime,” Blanford explained.
However, he added, Hezbollah “can’t just sit there twiddling their thumbs,” especially after all the talk about the unification of the fronts against Israel.
This has meant that Hezbollah has had to ensure that it plays some role in the war but keep any fighting condensed, so as to not push things too far.
Even when the Quds Brigade of Islamic Jihad took part in fierce fighting with Israel on 9 October, including several of its members crossing the border, it did not lead to an escalation.
A major reason for the lack of escalation is the tight control that Hezbollah exerts over Lebanon’s south.
"With it looking increasingly likely that Israel is planning a ground incursion into Gaza, it can ill afford to open a second front in the north - especially with an enemy that is significantly better equipped and prepared"
While Hezbollah might help Palestinian fighters cross the border or launch rocket barrages, Hezbollah also ensures that any attacks carried out are within tight parameters so Israel does not feel like it needs to respond with greater force.
Kassem Kassir, an analyst close to Hezbollah, agreed that Hezbollah is taking on more of a supporting role in this war and, while the Party of God may carry out its own operations or assist in others, it is more to show that they support Hamas in its endeavours.
“So far, things are within the framework of reaction and emphasis on solidarity with the Palestinian people, and the party announced its support for the Palestinian people and that it is coordinating with the leaders of the resistance and carried out operations against the sites of the Shebaa Farms, and there are daily developments,” Kassir told The New Arab.
A war on multiple fronts?
Israel, for its part, would also like to avoid a war with Hezbollah.
With it looking increasingly likely that Israel is planning a ground incursion into Gaza, it can ill afford to open a second front in the north - especially with an enemy that is significantly better equipped and prepared than Hamas.
“The Israelis definitely don’t want to get involved in a second front with Hezbollah right now because if they were going to [confront] Hezbollah, the only way they can do it properly is sending ground forces into Lebanon and I don’t see how the Israeli army can send a huge ground force into Gaza at the same time as Lebanon. The casualties will be immense amongst the Israeli ranks. So they would be quite strenuous not to go full-out with Hezbollah,” Blanford stated.
Because of this, the vast majority of Israel’s retaliatory strikes have struck open fields or areas around border villages, even when its personnel have been directly targeted, like on the morning of 11 October when Hezbollah targeted an Israeli base in response to three of its members getting killed in clashes days before.
In doing so, Israel is able to demonstrate that it will respond to aggression all the while avoiding doing anything that would push Hezbollah to partake in deadlier attacks.
However, this does not mean that this deadly game of tit-for-tat attacks could not get out of hand.
Going too far
Even though neither Hezbollah nor Israel want a war, there is the very real risk that either of them could unintentionally escalate the situation to the point where the occasional trading of fire becomes constant.
This could be affected by events on the ground in Gaza.
In the event that Israel does launch a ground campaign into Gaza, Hezbollah could up the ante by launching - or sponsoring - deadlier attacks which, in turn, could prompt Israel to do the same.
“So far, developments have been within the framework of solidarity with the Palestinian people, but the situation is open to all possibilities, and this is linked to what is happening in Gaza,” Kassir explained.
Even if Hezbollah does threaten to escalate in the event of an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza, that does not necessarily mean that there will be rockets launched from Lebanon targeting Israel.
"So far, developments have been within the framework of solidarity with the Palestinian people, but the situation is open to all possibilities, and this is linked to what is happening in Gaza"
“If the Israelis do a large-scale ground incursion into Gaza, Hezbollah can say ‘Right, we’re joining the fight.’ But that doesn’t mean they’re launching M600 missiles with 500kg warheads straight into Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. They can raise the level of escalation but still keep it short of all-out war,” Blanford said.
Blanford added that there are so many different gradients of escalation that could be employed in this scenario that it is hard to predict what might actually happen.
“Once it’s on, it’s very hard to control. The situation is extremely dangerous. Even though neither side wants to get into full-scale war, they could easily trip into one,” Blanford stated.
Nicholas Frakes is a journalist and photojournalist based in Lebanon reporting on the Middle East.
Follow him on Twitter: @nicfrakesjourno