Quiet returns to border after Sunday’s exchange of fire – though Shi’ite group might feel it has more things to avenge
It’s all quiet on Israel’s northern front – at least for now – after a tense few hours on the border with Lebanon. But the rhetoric is still high.
On Monday, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz delivered a stern message to Lebanon, warning that it must block “Hizbullah’s activity against Israel” or the entire Land of the Cedars risked being attacked. He was referring to the events of the day before, when the Shi’ite group and the Israel Defense Forces exchanged fire.
Hizbullah and Israel have differing views of what happened.
The former claims it killed or wounded a number of IDF soldiers in a military vehicle on a border road, while the latter says there were no casualties. The Israelis call the ensuing medical evacuation from the scene a ploy to make Hizbullah believe it achieved its stated goal of avenging an August 24 IDF strike against one of its positions in southern Syria. That attack killed two fighters.
“This is a kind of psychological warfare that [often] happens between Israel and Hizbullah,” Moshe Marzuk, a researcher in counter-terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya’s Institute for Policy and Strategy, told The Media Line.
Marzuk, a retired Israeli lieutenant colonel, argues that Hizbullah no longer has the popular backing to go to war with Israel that it once had in Lebanon and throughout the Arab world. In his opinion, this lack of support is to a great extent what is influencing its decision to try and avoid an all-out conflict.
“We know that Hizbullah cannot now drag Lebanon into an escalation and war without consulting with the whole country,” he explained.
Israel, he added, did not want a war either, although it had to show that it would retaliate if attacked.
Ali Rizk, a well-connected freelance journalist who has worked for numerous Middle Eastern outlets, told The Media Line that this round of fighting was over.
“It seems that the atmosphere is not escalatory,” he said. “This is evident… from the Israeli reaction to the attack….”
Like Marzuk, Rizk believes that neither side is interested in a direct military confrontation, with both sides feeling they achieved their goal.
“I think [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu’s response is the best proof that the Israeli side does not want to escalate. At the same time, Hizbullah’s response was limited and calculated, and indicates that it [too] does not want an escalation,” he said.
Rizk believes, however, that in Hizbullah’s view, it retaliated for only one particular incident out of many.
“Sunday’s attack by Hizbullah was a response to the killing of two of its fighters in Syria,” he said, and not, for example, to an alleged drone attack last week on a precision-missile manufacturing site in the group’s southern Beirut stronghold, which it blamed on Israel.
“That [alleged drone attack] was a serious operation against the group, and it was clear from [Hizbullah leader] Hassan Nasrallah’s speech [afterwards] that the party would have a strong response. They will work to bring down any Israeli drones entering Lebanese airspace.”
Sunday’s exchange of fire sparked immediate international reaction.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri contacted senior US and French officials, asking them to calm matters. The United Nations called for restraint, while the United States voiced concern over the “destabilizing role” of Iranian proxies in the region and said it “supports Israel’s right to self-defense,” according to a State Department official.
Marzuk said a decision on war or peace would not be up to the Lebanese group.
“We know that Hizbullah is taking orders from Iran, and Tehran’s situation today is sensitive,” he told The Media Line. “[Hizbullah] must consult with Iran first before responding to Israel.”
According to Rizk, Hizbullah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war makes it less eager to take on the Israeli military at the current time. What’s more, he says, a certain western leader is exhibiting a similar lack of enthusiasm for conflict.
“Hizbullah’s preoccupation in Syria prevents it from getting in a full-scale war,” he explained. “In addition to the internal Lebanese situation, where the Lebanese people suffered a lot from previous wars, perhaps the most important point is that [US President Donald Trump], unlike [many in] his administration, does not want military escalation.”