Smoke billows above Kfarchouba after clashes between Israel and Hizbullah, July 27, 2020. (Ali Dia/AFP via Getty Images)

After Israel, Hizbullah Clash at Border, Uncertainty Prevails

Coming days may see further incidents, experts say

Loud gunshots and small mushroom clouds erupted late Monday afternoon near the Lebanon-Israel border as the relatively quiet northern region of Israel was shaken by a rare skirmish between the Israeli military and Hizbullah.

According to Israeli officials, the incident began with an attempted infiltration by operatives of the Lebanese group – designated a terrorist organization by Israel, the US and the EU – into Israeli territory. In response, Israeli soldiers fired at the cell members, who were forced to turn back. Israel then retaliated, firing several artillery shells into Lebanese territory.

Hizbullah later denied these accusations, claiming Israeli troops were first to fire, unprovoked. There were no reports of casualties on either side.

The fighting comes amid rising tensions in northern Israel. Late last week, the army mobilized large forces toward the border, following growing threats made by Hizbullah members that the organization would soon avenge the death of one of its troops, who was killed in a recent airstrike in Syria attributed to the Israeli Air Force.

Whether the latest round of combat is also the final one, at least in the near future, is a question that remains unclear. While the common assumption among Israeli security officials is that Hizbullah is disinterested in a prolonged campaign and is preoccupied with Lebanon’s financial collapse and growing unrest, some believe another limited attack is imminent, arguing that the group cannot allow itself to lose face and let the events in Syria go unanswered.

“I think it’s far from over,” says Col. (res.) Ehud Evental, who served as head of the strategic planning unit at the Israeli Defense Ministry and as intelligence attaché in Washington.

“Hizbullah is in a real bind. On the one hand, they’re in a very difficult situation inside Lebanon and have no real appetite for a conflict with Israel right now. The public perceives the organization as largely responsible for the financial crisis – the currency’s collapse, the banks’ defaulting, poverty skyrocketing. It’s blamed not just because it’s a major part of the government but also because it is seen as the reason foreign aid isn’t reaching Lebanon, because it won’t give up its weapons and its status as an extra-governmental group.”

I think it’s far from over

“On the other hand,” Evental continues, “Hizbullah fears that showing weakness might hurt it politically within Lebanon – where demands for its reforms might grow – and also in its stance regarding Israel. If it doesn’t respond aggressively enough to its soldiers being killed in Syria, Israel might ramp up attacks against Iranian and Hizbullah targets in Syria and even in Lebanon itself.”

Stuck between these two impossible choices, the group, Evental believes, will attempt to launch another minor attack against Israeli military targets, but one that won’t threaten to draw the two countries into an all-out war.

“They could have used Monday’s incident as an off-ramp, saying they achieved their goal and leaving it at that,” he concludes. “But they didn’t. In fact, now for the first time, there is an official promise of retaliation by the organization, something that was only hinted at last week.”

They could have used Monday’s incident as an off-ramp, saying they achieved their goal and leaving it at that. But they didn’t.

Col. (res.) Anan Wahabi of Haifa University, a former chief instructor at the National Defense College, disagrees. “I don’t think the coming days will see any major skirmishes. The escalation won’t continue; it’ll be contained. That’s why Israel allowed the operatives to flee back to Lebanon.”

“The short answer is nobody knows,” says Neri Zilber, an adjunct fellow of the Washington Institute and Middle East analyst. “There are still questions about what actually happened, what were [the Hizbullah members] trying to accomplish? A small unit, trying to infiltrate in broad daylight near an IDF position. What were they actually trying to do?”

“[Hizbullah] denies the entire operation took place,” Zilber continues. “So it behooves Israel to release footage, which it definitely has, of what actually happened.”

“There is a lot of uncertainty regarding what happened,” agrees Evental. “Some details are missing, some haven’t been published. It’s still a bit of a mystery.”

There is a lot of uncertainty regarding what happened. Some details are missing, some haven’t been published. It’s still a bit of a mystery

By Monday evening, all was back to normal near Israel’s northern border and all travel restrictions in the area were lifted. Still, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz convened a rare joint press conference in which they warned Hizbullah of repeating such actions.

On Tuesday, Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab blamed Israel for violating his country’s sovereignty and provoking a “dangerous military escalation,” while also calling for “caution in the coming days.”

“While Lebanon is near collapse, the situation in Israel isn’t great either,” reminds Zilber. “Israel knows that there are certain rules to the game and that casualties on the other side will only increase tensions. What Israel wants from Lebanon is quiet, it has no interest in an escalation, let alone a war.”

While Lebanon is near collapse, the situation in Israel isn’t great either

Meanwhile, Wahabi advises to look at the much larger picture, as he sees it, and provides a startling assessment. “Israeli pressure in Syria and Iran’s inability to supply Hizbullah with sufficient financial assistance, coupled with the unprecedented political and social protests in Lebanon, are causing Hizbullah to lose its legitimization inside Lebanon, even among the Shi’ite community,” he says. “It’s dealing with a front it never faced. This house of cards it has elaborately built for years, this network of support, it’s all collapsing, thanks largely to the health and economic crises.”

“This of course exacerbates military tensions. But it’s a strategic issue, not a tactical one. There are tectonic shifts happening.”

Israeli pressure in Syria and Iran’s inability to supply Hizbullah with sufficient financial assistance, coupled with the unprecedented political and social protests in Lebanon, are causing Hizbullah to lose its legitimization inside Lebanon, even among the Shi’ite community. It’s dealing with a front it never faced. This house of cards it has elaborately built for years, this network of support, it’s all collapsing, thanks largely to the health and economic crises

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