What's driving Israel's escalation in south Lebanon?

8 min read
21 February, 2024

On the evening of 14 February, an Israeli missile tore through Hussein Ahmad Berjawi’s home, reducing it to rubble and killing Hussein and six of his family members.

Hussein’s three-year-old grandson was pulled from the rubble, the young boy and his father the only survivors among those who had gathered together that evening.

It was the bloodiest civilian death toll from a single strike since the fighting between Hezbollah and Israel erupted on Lebanon’s southern border on 8 October.

Hussein and his family members were sitting down for dinner just above three Hezbollah fighters, who were meeting on the ground floor of the apartment building in Lebanon’s southern city of Nabatieh. The three fighters - including Hezbollah’s elite Radwan Force commander Ali al-Debs - were also killed in the Israeli attack.

"The [Nabatieh] attack is definitely an escalation. It crosses the red line geographically speaking - in the heart of one of the capitals of southern Lebanon - and in terms of killing civilians"

“The [Nabatieh] attack is definitely an escalation,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a Beirut-based fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center. “It crosses the red line geographically speaking - in the heart of one of the capitals of southern Lebanon - and in terms of killing civilians,” Hage Ali told The New Arab.

Earlier in the day on 14 February, Israeli warplanes carried out raids on several border towns. In the town of Souaneh, an Israeli airstrike killed mother Rawaa al-Muhammad, her two-year-old son, Amir, and her 13-year-old stepson, Hassan.

The deadly Israeli attacks came just hours after Hezbollah sent a barrage of rockets towards Israel’s town of Safed, also the location of its northern military command headquarters. The attack was also one of the most significant since the war’s onset, in which rockets travelled over 15 kilometres without interception by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system, and killed a 20-year-old female Israeli soldier and injured eight others.

Although no group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, the Amal Movement, a Shia political party and Hezbollah ally, is suspected to be behind it, Hage Ali noted.

Live Story

Over the past four months, Hezbollah and Israel have engaged in tit-for-tat fighting, which has escalated gradually, but has still held within the confines of a medium-intensity conflict, and has not yet exploded into an all-out war.

But after the 14 February attacks and the high number of civilian casualties that ensued, “the rules of engagement are all being rewritten”, Hezbollah expert Nicholas Blanford told TNA.

Israeli strikes on Monday hit Hezbollah weapons warehouses in Ghazieh, just south of Lebanon’s southern city of Saida. The strike – nearly 60km from the border - was one of Israel’s deepest since 8 October. At least 21 people were injured, including four children. 

Israel said the strikes were a retaliation for a drone Hezbollah launched into Lower Galilee, in northern Israel, earlier on Monday.

Another woman and her six-year-old daughter were killed in an Israeli airstrike on Wednesday in the southern Lebanese city of Majdal Zoun. 

Friends and relatives of the Berjawi family carry one of the coffins from the home of Mahmoud Ali Amer and Zeinab Berjawi, who was killed in an Israeli airstrike in Nabatieh in south Lebanon, to a cemetery on 17 February 2024. [Getty]

'Israelis hit first'

Israel has grown increasingly impatient and aggressive on its northern front as the border fighting has dragged on. “They’ve escalated and have taken more initiative than they were in the beginning,” Blanford said. “Very often the Israelis are hitting first.”

The Safed attack and death of the young Israeli soldier only further poked at Israelis’ nerves. Just a day before the incident in Safed, a 15-year-old boy and his mother were severely injured in a Hezbollah rocket attack on the Kiryat Shmona settlement in northern Israel.

A recent poll in Israel's Maariv newspaper indicated that 71 percent of Israelis believe Israel should conduct a large-scale military operation in Lebanon to deter Hezbollah.

Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant on 15 February warned of escalating attacks in Lebanon.

“We have progressed one degree, but this is one degree out of ten,” he said. “Our aircraft in the skies of Lebanon carry heavier bombs for further targets,” Gallant added, saying that the Israeli military could attack “a distance of 50 kilometres” to reach the Lebanese capital Beirut.

"After Israel's 14 February attacks and the high number of civilian casualties that ensued, the rules of engagement are all being rewritten"

Meanwhile, Blanford noted that Israel is now “taking less caution towards hitting civilian areas”. Although the majority of the 280 people killed in Lebanon since 8 October have been fighters, 41 civilians have died - 10 of those on 14 February, according to the latest tally by the Lebanese newspaper, L’Orient Today.

Lebanon submitted a complaint to the UN after the 14 February attack over Israel’s “deliberate and direct targeting of civilians in their houses”, which is “a violation of the international humanitarian law and a war crime”. The complaint added: “It is alarming that this escalation comes at a time when international efforts are intensifying, and diplomatic movements are to achieve de-escalation”.  

David Schenker, a fellow at the DC-based Washington Institute, said that “Israel is operating with less restraint”. He told TNA that Israel is under pressure to reach a solution on the Israel-Lebanon border, so the over 80,000 Israelis who were displaced from their homes in the north can return.

“Israel is trying to incentivise a new paradigm in the north,” he said, noting that Israel will no longer tolerate Hezbollah’s Radwan forces stationed near the border. “The Israelis will operate there [in south Lebanon] to secure their interests and raise the costs until they can get to some sort of agreement.”

Live Story

Hezbollah reined in?

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has vowed Israel “will pay in blood” for the killing of civilians. In his speech on 16 February, Nasrallah said the group’s “initial response” came by sending dozens of rockets and missiles towards Kiryat Shmona.

But Hezbollah will still have to tread lightly in its response - with the powerful Lebanese militant group and political party partially reined in by the desires of its largest backer, Iran.

“Hezbollah is still lacking the green light from Tehran to respond in a serious fashion,” Schenker said. “Iran wants to preserve Hezbollah’s capabilities to deter Israel from launching a strike against the Iranian nuclear programme.”

The Iran-backed militant group, reputed to be the world’s most heavily armed non-state actor, is estimated to have a hefty arsenal of some 130,000 rockets and missiles - which could reach far into Israel - and some 50,000 fighters, who have gained experience during Syria’s 13-year conflict. 

Smoke billows from the site of an Israeli airstrike on the southern Lebanese village of Khiam near the border with Israel on 21 February 2024. [Getty]

Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said during a press conference in Beirut on 10 February that war is “not the solution” and that “we absolutely never sought to expand it”. A recent Washington Post article also reported that Iran is “privately urging” Hezbollah and other armed groups to “exercise restraint”.

Schenker noted that following the 2006 war between Lebanon and Israel, Hezbollah took nearly six years to fully recover. “Hezbollah is a strategic asset [for Iran] and they don’t want to waste it on the Palestinians,” he stated.

Qassem Kassir, a Lebanese commentator close to Hezbollah, told TNA that, “Hezbollah does not want to ignite a wide-scale war, but it is ready”. He added that Hezbollah would “expand its military operations” in retaliation for Israeli attacks on 14 February.

Blanford, meanwhile, agrees that Hezbollah wants to maintain pressure at the border but “short of a full-scale war”.

The expert noted that at this stage Hezbollah could at maximum have one of its fighting units “slip across the border to raid an Israeli position”. He said a likely destination for a low-profile cross-border raid could be in the Israeli-occupied Shebaa farms.

“Hezbollah can pretty much, indefinitely carry on” the border fighting as it is today, Blanford said, noting that although they have suffered losses, most of the around 205 fighters killed have been new recruits. The pressure for escalation is “on the Israeli side”, he stated.

"Hezbollah does not want to ignite a wide-scale war, but it is ready"

Can diplomacy ward off an Israeli ground invasion?

Lebanon-Israel border negotiations, orchestrated by the US and other international actors, have been underway in a bid to cool the situation along the border. France has delivered a written proposal to Beirut, which suggested fighters from Hezbollah’s Radwan forces withdraw at least 10 kilometres from the border, along with any other military capabilities.

This would help ensure rockets would not reach villages in northern Israel and offers a more acceptable compromise for Hezbollah than a 30km withdrawal to the Litani River, as spelled out in the UN resolution that ended the war with Israel in 2006.

“Neither side wants to go into a major war... both sides are looking for an off-ramp,” Blanford said. “But they need to both have collective wins they can sell to their domestic audiences to show that it was all worthwhile,” he added. “So, it’s not an easy diplomatic solution, but it is possible.”

He also said that the Israelis “will probably understand that diplomacy would have more chance of coming to an equitable solution than staging an invasion of south Lebanon”.

Live Story

Blanford noted that if Israel invaded Lebanon they would be taking “a massive risk”, considering the over 17 years Hezbollah has spent preparing for an invasion, the topography of the south that gives the defender the advantage, and the ease with which Hezbollah could return and re-equip at the border post-invasion.

Schenker said that although a ground invasion is not the “predominant view” in the Israeli government, a war with Hezbollah is increasingly being viewed as “inevitable”. But he noted that Israel is unlikely to initiate a war with Hezbollah until it achieves its objectives in Gaza, when its troops are less preoccupied on the country’s southern front.

However, the longer the fighting drags on at the Israel-Lebanon border “the greater the probability for mistakes”, Hage Ali said. Nasrallah has pledged to continue fighting at the Lebanese border as long as Israel continues its onslaught into Gaza - which Israel’s prime minister Netanyahu is drawing out for his own political gain

On Saturday, 17 February, hundreds joined a funeral procession for the victims of the Nabatieh airstrike. As the coffins, each wrapped in the Lebanese flag, were carried through the crowds of mourners, it evoked horrifying memories of past Israeli massacres in Lebanon - and stirred dangerous warnings of what the war in Lebanon could soon turn into.

Hanna Davis is a freelance journalist reporting on politics, foreign policy, and humanitarian affairs.

Follow her on Twitter: @hannadavis341