What does Israel's attack on Rafah mean for the Lebanese front?

What does Israel's attack on Rafah mean for the Lebanese front?
Israel's operation in Rafah could either lead to a major escalation in Lebanon or a resolution to the cross-border fighting that has taken place since October.
5 min read
09 May, 2024
Israel has said that it would turn its attention to the Lebanese front after the issue of Rafah is settled. [Getty]

On Monday, 6 May, Israeli tanks crossed into the southern Gaza city of Rafah and seized control of the Palestinian side of the strip’s crossing with Egypt. Rafah, the only Gazan city Israel has not yet invaded and home to 1.2 displaced Palestinians, is supposedly the last phase of Israel's military operation in Gaza, which has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, mainly women and children.

Rights groups have warned that an attack on Gaza would lead to a humanitarian disaster, and civilians have nowhere left to flee, despite Israel's demands that they evacuate Rafah. Israel has also cut off the flow of aid to Gaza, exacerbating what the UN has called a "full-blown" famine.

At the same time, fighting between Hezbollah and Israel has been escalating since Monday. Hezbollah killed two Israeli soldiers with explosive drones in the northern Israeli town of Metula on Monday. On Tuesday, Israel carried out a series of airstrikes, including ten alone, on the Lebanese border town of Aita al-Shaab.

A potential invasion of Rafah not only portends enormous humanitarian consequences but also could shake the dynamics which has so far dictated seven months of fighting between Hezbollah and Israel.

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What are Hezbollah's red lines?

Hezbollah's announcement that it was entering the fray with Hamas into a war with Israel was delivered via missiles it launched at northern Israel on 8 October. Hezbollah said its attack was done "in solidarity" with Hamas's surprise attack on Israeli military bases and civilian settlements within and around the Gaza envelopment a day prior, which killed 1,200 Israelis.

Since then, Hezbollah has made it clear that its attacks on Israel are designed to draw military resources away from Gaza and not meant to provoke a full-scale war with Israel.

Hezbollah has claimed that it has drawn a third of Israel's army to its northern border, which otherwise might have been focused on its war on Gaza.

The escalation in the last few days, then, could be linked to Hezbollah's role as a "supporting front," meant to draw Israel's attention away from Rafah in an attempt to raise the cost of a possible escalation.

"Hezbollah's position and the escalation on its front has always been linked to the front in Gaza. In the first place, it was named as a supporting front for Hamas in Gaza," retired Lebanese Brigadier General Charles Abi Nader told The New Arab.

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Brig. Gen. Abi Nader also stressed that the escalation should be linked to Israel's killing of four civilians in the border town of Mais al-Jabal on Sunday. The killing of civilians has previously provoked severe retaliatory strikes from Hezbollah.

Still, Hezbollah and other Iran-linked groups in the so-called "Axis of Resistance" could have internal red lines that could prompt a more expansive military confrontation with Israel if an invasion of Rafah crossed those red lines.

"If there were development in Israel's operations in Gaza, we would see more pressure on the Lebanese front from Hezbollah and from the Iraqi and Yemen resistance; it will all escalate," Brig. Gen Abi Nader said.

Israel has said that an operation in Rafah would be aimed at destroying the last stronghold of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Whether that is true or whether Hezbollah and others believe that Hamas would not survive an invasion of Rafah is yet unclear.

"The question is whether Hezbollah and other members of the axis would treat a fuller invasion of Rafah as a genuine existential threat to Palestinian resistance in Gaza," Sam Heller, a fellow with The Century Foundation, told TNA.

Hezbollah has been clear that its military activities are meant to support Hamas but not drag Lebanon into a full-scale war, but potentially losing the Palestinian node of resistance would be a significant loss.

"Given that Palestine is the lodestar of the resistance axis, to have the prospect of armed resistance inside Palestine being effectively liquidated, I'm not sure how they would react to that," Heller said.

What if a ceasefire happens?

On Monday, Hamas announced that it had accepted a Qatari-Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire after seven months of fighting. Palestinians in Gaza took to the streets to celebrate, finally seeing a possible end to the hellish conditions they have endured since October.

Israel did not accept the ceasefire deal, saying it was a modified version of the proposal they had initially sent. The following day, Israeli tanks rolled into Rafah, crushing the celebratory mood overnight.

Negotiators from both sides have since been working to reach a ceasefire proposal, with significant US pressure exerted on Israel to reach a deal and not go through with an operation in Rafah.

If a ceasefire is reached, the status of the Hezbollah-Israel conflict will become much more straightforward.

Hezbollah has made it clear that once a ceasefire happens in Gaza, it will stop all attacks on Israel. When a ceasefire occurred in November, both Israel and Hezbollah paused fighting.

It is unclear, however, if Israel will be satisfied with a ceasefire on its northern front or will instead use the time to focus its full attention on Hezbollah.

"De-escalation is not a unilateral choice; it's a bilateral matter between Hezbollah and Israelis. A lull in operations by Hezbollah without more substantive agreements will be insufficient for the Israelis," Heller said.

Even if Hezbollah stops firing rockets at Israel, it will not create the security assurances necessary to ensure the return of Israel’s citizens who were displaced by fighting in northern Israel.

Israel has demanded that Hezbollah withdraw north of the Litani River, some 30 kilometres from the Israel-Lebanon border. Hezbollah has publicly refused to enter into negotiations while privately signalling that it would be open to some form of border demarcation between the two countries.

It seems unlikely, however, that Hezbollah will accede to Israeli demands that it withdraw.

Israel has repeatedly said that if no diplomatic solution to Hezbollah's presence on the border happens, it will impose a solution militarily.

Israel has suggested that if a Lebanon operation is to take place, it would take place after the issue of Rafah is settled so that it does not have to fight on two fronts.

The question of a war in Lebanon, whether after a Rafah operation or ceasefire in Gaza, seems to hinge on diplomatic effort. Until now, diplomatic efforts have borne little fruit.