analysisIsrael at War

‘War with Hezbollah inevitable, but perhaps not imminent’

Despite the growing tension, most experts agree the Lebanese terrorist group is not currently interested in a full-scale war with Israel.

A Hezbollah gunman in Tyre, Southern Lebanon, on Liberation Day, which	marks the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the country in 2000, May 25, 2021. Credit: crop media/Shutterstock.
A Hezbollah gunman in Tyre, Southern Lebanon, on Liberation Day, which marks the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the country in 2000, May 25, 2021. Credit: crop media/Shutterstock.
Shimon Sherman

Tension flares across the Israeli-Lebanese border as the rate and intensity of cross-border attacks has rapidly increased in recent weeks.

A stream of dozens of rockets and attack drones has been showering the Galilee and the Golan daily as massive fires ravage the north resulting, in upwards of 11,000 acres of burned land, according to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

White House special envoy to the Middle East Amos Hochstein was due to arrive in Israel on Monday for meetings with Israeli officials in a bid to de-escalate tension with Hezbollah.

Last week over Shavuot, the Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist organization fired more than 215 missiles into Israel, marking its single largest attack since the current Hamas war began. Hezbollah has vowed to ramp up attacks. One of its senior officials, Hashim Safi Al Din (also transliterated as Hashem Safieddine), declared over the weekend, “If the enemy is screaming and moaning about what happened to it in northern Palestine, let him prepare himself to cry and wail.”

The Israeli Defense Forces has also increased offensive actions in Lebanese territory. Israel has increasingly turned to targeted killings of high-profile Hezbollah commanders to disrupt and weaken the terrorist group’s operations. This strategy has so far culminated in the assassination of division commander Sami Taleb Abdullah, who is so far the most senior Hezbollah commander to be killed.

“The attacks may have taken a price from Hezbollah, but they have certainly not deterred it from continuing attacks on Israel,” Jonathan Spyer, director of research at the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, told JNS.

The persistent skirmishing has so far led to the mass evacuation of almost 80,000 Israelis from communities near the Lebanese border.

“It’s just not safe, there are sirens daily and life has essentially frozen,” Talyia Stien, an evacuee from the city of Kiryat Shmona, told JNS. “We don’t know when or how we can go back and we don’t see a light on the horizon.”

The long exile has carried a heavy toll on the northern towns; according to polling, only 60% are confident that they want to return.

The tit-for-tat clashes have also led to a general feeling of lack of overall strategy when it comes to the northern theater.

“The current strategy is just to contain the situation. The idea is to close the north and get our civilians out to safety while the military engages Hezbollah, but this isn’t a broad wartime strategy so much as a reaction to facts on the ground,” Spyer said.

Lack of strategy

“There is a lack of coherent strategy when it comes to the north,” Professor Chuck Freilich, a senior researcher at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and a former Israeli deputy national security adviser, told JNS. 

These sentiments were echoed by locals who are increasingly dissatisfied with the solidifying status quo.

“Our homes and towns are burning while the threat of Hezbollah is not being dealt with in a controlled manner,” Yotam Kaserman, another evacuee from Kiryat Shmona, told JNS. “This back-and-forth strategy is simply not acceptable when an entire region of the country is living out of a suitcase for months. Morale is falling and people need to be reassured that there is still the will to win this war both in the south and in the north.”

Significant and lasting damage

Some experts, however, believe that it is incorrect to classify Israel’s northern campaign as mere skirmishing and rather that Israel is inflicting significant and lasting damage on Hezbollah. 

“The IDF strikes against high-level Hezbollah commanders and important sites deep in Lebanon are significant,” Carmit Valensi, a senior researcher at INSS, told JNS. “There is a goal of pushing Hezbollah back around 10 kilometers to create a buffer zone and improve the security situation on the northern border.”

Israel has killed 342 Hezbollah operatives since the beginning of the fighting—almost 100 more than were slain in the entire Second Lebanon War in 2006.

Despite the growing tension, most experts agree that Hezbollah is not currently interested in a full-scale war with Israel.

“They don’t want to get drawn into a war, they want to be seen as supporting Hamas and not lose face,” Spyer explained. According to him, long-term geopolitical considerations are restraining the Lebanese terrorist group.

“Hezbollah is the product of a 40-year investment by Iran to assemble an army and a military capacity on Israel’s border. They are largely there as a massive deterrent, or a response against a possible Israeli strike on an Iranian nuclear reactor, so they have a role at the highest strategic level in terms of Iran’s interests,” Spyer said.

Furthermore, he said, drawing Israel into an all-out war would go against the broader Iranian geopolitical strategy that seeks to see Israel surrounded by a ring of aggressive proxies and becoming weakened and ultimately destroyed through a continuous campaign of attrition.

“In this scenario, getting drawn into a conventional war plays to Israel’s strength as the stronger military and goes against Iranian strategy,” Spyer summarized. 

He further believes that the historically cool relations between Iran and Hamas likely further reduce the chance that Tehran will sacrifice such an important card on behalf of a historically unreliable proxy.

“The relations between Iran and Hamas have always been problematic, especially since Hamas is Sunni. It is very possible that October 7 was not fully coordinated with Iran and there is likely some resentment over getting Hezbollah dragged into this round with no serious decision on Iran’s part,” Spyer said.

Fear in Lebanon

There is also reason to believe that Hezbollah is facing domestic pressure to not pursue an all-out war.

“There is also not insignificant pressure on Hezbollah to stop the attacks. There is genuine fear in Lebanon of a war with Israel and almost 100,000 Lebanese civilians have been evacuated from the border region,” Valensi explained.

In addition, she pointed out that “the IDF is at the highest state of preparedness in decades, which is not an ideal time to start an all-out war. [Hezbollah chief Hassan] Nasrallah has also lost his element of surprise.”

Despite Hezbollah’s unwillingness to commit fully to a conflict, most experts do not believe that a diplomatic resolution is likely. Many high-level Israeli officials, including the prime minister, have signaled openness to diplomatically resolve the conflict. However, they have also signaled that they are open to military solutions and will not compromise on Hezbollah’s presence near the northern border.

“There are some ideas of a diplomatic resolution to the issue, but I don’t think that this is at all serious,” Spyer said.

This perspective is strengthened by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s recent public rejection of a French proposal for a trilateral summit to reduce tension on the Lebanese border. 

Overall, despite hesitation by both Hezbollah and Israel, there seems to be a broad consensus that overall war is inevitable.

“We are going to have a war with Hezbollah eventually It can become even more aggressive and dangerous as time goes on and we need to create conditions to allow people to come home.” Freilich said

“I can only assess that Hezbollah is currently not interested in launching a larger war; however this outcome is inevitable,” Valensi agreed.

According to Spyer, although war with Hezbollah is inevitable, it is not necessarily imminent. “It’s not unimaginable that this thing will end not with a bang but with a whimper. It is possible that if the war in Gaza ends, then the firing from Lebanon will die down and then maybe some people will begin trickling back.

“Not everyone will come back at that point,” he said. “People will be terrified to come home and there would be a real scenario of another October 7, but on a much larger scale, taking place in the north. Some of these communities exist meters from Hezbollah fighters. It could just end in confusion and mess. If that’s where we end up then the question of the viability of the Israel border will have been posed by Hezbollah and not answered by Israel,” Spyer said.

Despite the seeming necessity of an Israeli campaign in Lebanon, there is massive international pressure to stop the IDF from going in. “At this point we’re damned if we do, and were damned if we don’t. If we go in, it will incredibly inflame international tensions. American support for a pre-emptive invasion is very tenuous,” Freilich said.

 “A war in Lebanon would come with a flood of negative media coverage and increased media pressure. Israel will have even less control of the coverage in Lebanon than we do in Gaza,” Spyer added. 

Another issue preventing Israel from fully committing to an offensive in Lebanon is a clear definition of war aims. The military establishment is hesitant to militarily control swaths of Southern Lebanon. In the aftermath of the First Lebanon War of 1982-85, Israel seized a large security zone in Southern Lebanon to prevent threats to the Galilee and the Golan. This buffer arrangement ended up being unrealistic and ultimately led to an Israeli withdrawal in 2000, creating a vacuum that was almost immediately filled by Hezbollah.

On the other hand, capturing but not establishing long-term control of territory, in a similar tactic to the one currently being pursued in Gaza, is also a problematic strategy. Furthermore, there is a broad lack of confidence that Israel will pursue an all-out war of annihilation against Hezbollah like the one it claims to be waging against Hamas. 

“The full-scale destruction of Hezbollah is just not on the agenda, so our best goal, in this case, is to strongly deter it and to establish new rules of the game for how Hezbollah is allowed to operate in Southern Lebanon,” Spyer said.

“Retaining troops across the border is not realistic; Israel must have the ability to engage quickly and effectively across the border. We need to shift the area of conflict entirely into southern Lebanon,” he added.

The source: Iran

In the broadest scene, any long-term strategy for dealing with Hezbollah has to go back to the source of the issue: Iran. This perspective has increasingly been gaining traction among certain elements of Israel’s political and military establishment.

Dubbed the “Octopus Strategy” by former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, this perspective seeks to supplement aggressive actions against Iran’s proxies with direct actions against the mother country.

“To truly resolve this issue what must happen is a broad all-out political and military strategy to roll back Iranian influence in the Middle East,” Spyer said. “If Iran sets fires on Israel’s border, we must set fires of our own around Iran. Bring the fight to the enemy and keep it there.”

So far, the conflict on the northern border has resulted in 10 civilian deaths on the Israeli side, as well as the deaths of 15 IDF soldiers and reservists.

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