Israel and Hizbullah Risk War in Lebanon as Rocket Fire, Retaliation Continue
Both sides seek deterrence, neither wants escalation as political cost mounts
A series of violent exchanges across the Israel-Lebanon border in recent days has left the Jewish state and Hizbullah the closest they have been to an all-out war since 2006, when they fought in a 34-day military conflict.
On Friday, Hizbullah fired 19 rockets at northern Israel, in the third day of such attacks. Israel responded with artillery fire into open areas in southern Lebanon. There were no casualties.
Some Israeli military officials were quoted in local media as saying a major escalation could be expected in the coming days. Others said Israel is not interested in an escalation. The mixed messages reflect the conundrum Israel is facing.
Hizbullah, which controls southern Lebanon, is not the only group firing at Israel. Lebanese-based Palestinian armed organizations are believed to be behind some of the attacks. But Israel was quick to hold Lebanon responsible and single out Iran and Hizbullah. The Shia group is heavily funded by Tehran, which also provides it with training and weapons.
“Iran and Hizbullah are entangling the citizens of Lebanon in a front against Israel. Lebanon and its army must take responsibility for what is happening in their backyard,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday.
“It does not matter to us whether it was a Palestinian organization that was involved, or whether they were dissidents or independent. The State of Israel will not accept firing at its territory,” Bennett said.
Sarit Zehavi, a former Israeli military intelligence lieutenant colonel and founder of the Galilee-based Alma Research and Education Center, which is dedicated to researching the security challenges on Israel’s northern borders, said that “Hizbullah and Iranian interests are the same. Both want to create an escalation without deteriorating the situation into a war. They believe this will not happen.”
This could prove a risky game.
Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, speaking over the weekend, vowed to avenge any Israeli strike.
“The tensions are very high,” said Dr. Eyal Pinko, an expert on Iran from Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv. “Hizbullah is trying to create deterrence and testing the Israeli response.”
For Israel, the Lebanese-based Hizbullah is its most dangerous and immediate enemy. Israeli intelligence officers say that, with the help of Iran, Hizbullah has accumulated tens of thousands of rockets and missiles, many more than in 2006. In the event of a war with Hizbullah, Israel’s multi-layered air defense systems, sophisticated as they are, would likely have difficulty fending off barrages of thousands of rockets a day. The organization is also believed to have improved its precision missile capabilities in recent years.
There is a very big dilemma in Israel. A major retaliation could bring quiet or could result in an escalation. It is a risk that the government is not necessarily willing to take
Airstrikes on Hizbullah targets in Lebanon have been attributed to Israel in recent years. These shadow operations are believed to be part of an Israeli effort to stop the group from further upgrading its offensive capabilities.
Israel also has carried out repeated strikes on Hizbullah and Iranian forces in Syria, in an effort to prevent the Islamic Republic from establishing a power base there.
It is no coincidence that the escalation of tensions on Israel’s border with Lebanon comes at a time of rising tensions with Tehran. Last week, Israel, the US, the UK and Romania, as well as the five other G-7 countries, accused Iran of carrying out a July 29 drone strike on the Israeli-operated Mercer Street oil tanker off the coast of Oman that resulted in the death of two crew members.
Bennett issued a warning to Iran last week while visiting a military base on the border with Lebanon.
“Iran already knows the price that we exact when someone threatens our security. The Iranians need to understand that it is impossible to sit peacefully in Tehran and from there ignite the entire Middle East. That is over,” he said.
Tehran has denied involvement in the maritime attack. Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, who was sworn in last week, is believed to be a hard-liner who will act tough against Israel and the international community.
“There is a direct connection between Raisi’s appointment, Iranian policy toward the West, the maritime attack and the firing of rockets toward Israel,” said Zehavi, who believes Israeli deterrence has declined.
The 2006 conflict is known in Israel as the Second Lebanon War and in Lebanon as the July War. Over a thousand Lebanese soldiers and civilians were killed and Israeli forces severely damaged infrastructure in the country. Over 160 Israelis were killed, the majority of them soldiers. In view of Hizbullah’s upgraded capabilities, a war now would surely take a heavier toll on Israel.
Since the last war, a delicate balance has been maintained between the sides, with sporadic flare-ups throughout the years. These violent incidents have so far remained largely isolated, but one could easily spiral into a full-blown conflict at any time.
Israel’s lackluster response to the latest attacks appears to reflect this predicament.
“There is a very big dilemma in Israel,” said Zehavi. “A major retaliation could bring quiet or could result in an escalation. It is a risk that the government is not necessarily willing to take.”
The 2006 war left major scars in both countries. In Israel there was widespread criticism that the army and the home front were insufficiently prepared and the toll was too high. A committee of inquiry found severe faults in Israel’s military performance.
Since then, Hizbullah has boosted its arsenal and its forces have gained significant combat experience by fighting throughout the Middle East. It is now stronger than the Lebanese army.
“Hizbullah has more combat experience than the average Israeli soldier,” said Pinko. “It has a very skilled and trained force.”
“Israel is not prepared for war,” he added. “Especially the home front, which is not prepared for massive numbers of missiles, and also not for the psychological effect of such a war.”
“No one is going to extend their hand in peace here,” said Zehavi.
Hizbullah is in a weak political position within Lebanon. When this happens, and it has happened in the past, its best option is to create a war with Israel. When this happens, it gets more legitimacy in the international community and also within Lebanon.
After years in which Hizbullah was deeply entrenched in the civil strife in Syria, sending thousands of fighters to help stabilize the regime of President Bashar Assad, it appears it has switched its focus back to Lebanon.
The profound economic and political crisis in Lebanon does not appear to deter Nasrallah, and perhaps even motivates him to attack Israel. In his televised speech on Saturday, Nasrallah emphasized that Hizbullah is not under any constraints caused by Lebanon’s internal crisis.
Hopes in the country that Hizbullah will refrain from risking a devastating war with Israel were dashed by the harsh rhetoric.
The Hizbullah crew that fired rockets from a truck in southern Lebanon on Friday was stopped, roughed up and detained by Druze villagers as it was making its way back to its base. Well-known residents of the Druze village of Chouya accuse the armed Shia group of risking their lives for its own interests.
Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Harriri, a Sunni who leads the country’s anti-Syrian March 14 Alliance in parliament, also issued a statement criticizing the firing of the rockets.
“Hizbullah is in a weak political position within Lebanon,” said Pinko. “When this happens, and it has happened in the past, its best option is to create a war with Israel. When this happens, it gets more legitimacy in the international community and also within Lebanon.”
Israel’s ongoing shadow war with Iran also is meant to deter Hizbullah. After years in which Israel has conducted mostly covert operations throughout the region, both sides seem to be reevaluating their positions.
“It is a daily campaign with Israel and Iran playing on the whole field,” said Zehavi.
Israel’s new government faces the problem of how to deter Hizbullah and Iran while avoiding a major war.
“There is no textbook solution here,” said Pinko. “A harsh response by Israel will definitely lead to a war, but no response is perceived in the region as weakness.”