Is all-out war between Israel and Hezbollah on the horizon?

Analysis: Recent statements by Israeli officials have raised the spectre of war again, but is an all-out conflict with Hezbollah inevitable?

Recent statements by Israeli officials have raised fears Israel could go to war against Hezbollah in Lebanon amid the ongoing military assault on the Gaza Strip.

While tensions between Israel and its arch-enemy to the north are undoubtedly high, many analysts doubt all-out war is likely for the foreseeable future.

Since Hamas’s unprecedented 7 October attack on Israel and Israel’s unprecedented retaliation in Gaza, the Israeli military and Hezbollah have engaged in the most significant clashes along the Lebanon-Israel border since the 2006 war.

Israeli National Security Advisor Tzachi Hangebi said Israel may have to go to war against Hezbollah to prevent a deadlier version of 7 October unfolding in Northern Israel.

“The Israelis are anticipating within the next six weeks to two months that if the diplomatic track isn’t working, they’re going to have to opt for some kind of military solution”

“We can no longer accept (Hezbollah’s elite) Radwan force sitting on the border. We can no longer accept Resolution 1701 not being implemented,” he recently declared.

Israel is presently pushing for the full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, passed at the end of the 2006 war. The resolution mandates the removal of armed groups between the Lebanon-Israel border and the Litani River. Israel would like to see Hezbollah pull back and the presence of UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) peacekeepers increased.

Israel and Hezbollah are currently clashing along the Blue Line, the demarcation line established by the UN in 2000 after Israel withdrew its troops from South Lebanon.

While both sides are loath to make any concessions that could be perceived as weakness, neither want another large-scale, costly war.RELATED

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‘Strong disincentives’

Joshua Landis, Director of the Centre of Middle East Studies and the Farzaneh Family Center for Iranian and Persian Gulf Studies at the University of Oklahoma, doubts Hezbollah will withdraw from the border.

The group, and the broader Iran-backed regional ‘Resistance Front’, also dubbed the ‘Axis of Resistance’, against Israel, has been given “new relevance and popularity” due to the Gaza war.

“With Syria in pieces, Lebanon facing both political and economic crisis, and Hezbollah’s reputation in the Sunni world badly damaged by its engagement on the side of Assad in the Syrian Civil War, the Resistance Front’s reputation was in below zero,” Landis told The New Arab.

“Now that the Arab world realises the Palestinian issue is not going away, resistance is again on everyone’s lips,” he said. “Hezbollah will not want to appear cowed by Israel, nor will Iran.”

Landis does not believe war between Israel and Hezbollah is imminent.

“Much of the rhetoric is meant as the baring of teeth and posturing for domestic credibility,” he said. “Both Israel and Hezbollah have shown considerable restraint. That is likely to continue.”

Furthermore, each side knows any war will bring little benefit, and the US and Iran will oppose it. On the domestic front, Hezbollah will face pressure to avoid dragging Lebanon into “further turmoil and destruction”.

Kristin Ronzi, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at the risk intelligence company RANE, also underlined that Hezbollah and Israel have “strong disincentives” for going to war. The restrained nature of post-7 October clashes have demonstrated their mutual hesitancy to risk escalating.

“Engaging in a war with Israel would be a deeply unpopular move in Lebanon, where Hezbollah plays both a political and military role, for fears that a war would exacerbate the ongoing political and economic instability,” Ronzi told The New Arab. “On the other hand, Israel’s capacity to sustain a long-term military campaign in Lebanon while maintaining a security role in Gaza restricts Israeli interest to confront Hezbollah.”

Ronzi anticipates “backdoor diplomatic efforts” between Hezbollah and Israel aimed at de-escalating the situation on the northern border after fighting in Gaza slows. At the same time, she believes a diplomatic agreement for a buffer zone would be unlikely since Hezbollah would fear being perceived as weak for accepting.

“However, if Israel feels that weakening Hezbollah and creating a buffer zone on its northern border is imperative to its national security to prevent a similar attack as 7 October, there may be a conflict down the line,” she said.

“Much of the rhetoric is meant as the baring of teeth and posturing for domestic credibility. Both Israel and Hezbollah have shown considerable restraint. That is likely to continue”

Greater firepower

Hezbollah is a much more powerful armed force today than it was in 2006.

“Hezbollah has gained increased capabilities from its long engagement in the Syrian Civil War and benefitted from Iran’s enhanced rocket and drone technology,” Landis said. “If there were another war, such as 2006, both countries would get badly hurt. It is the last thing either need.”

The 2006 war established a great deal of deterrence on both sides since it demonstrated “how capable” Hezbollah had become.

“There has been little fighting between both sides since,” Landis said. “Gaza has clearly strained that deterrent value but is unlikely to cause another war.”

Ronzi noted that the size of Hezbollah’s forces and its rocket arsenal is significantly larger than that of Hamas, and Israel would require more troops to fight against Hezbollah since that group’s “capabilities and sophistication” have markedly improved since 2006.RELATED

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“In the 2006 war, Hezbollah primarily used Russian Katyusha-style missiles. However, since then, Hezbollah obtained several Iranian missiles with a larger payload and longer range,” Ronzi said. “The number of rockets in Hezbollah’s arsenal and precision guidance systems have also increased with Iranian support.”

In any large-scale war between the two adversaries, Hezbollah would attempt to overwhelm Israel’s multi-layered air defences with large missile barrages targeting critical Israeli infrastructure.

“Israel would likely target Hezbollah storage facilities and missile launch sites and work to disrupt supply lines to prevent additional munitions from Iran,” Ronzi said. “A large-scale operation would likely see a significant exchange of rockets between Israel and Hezbollah.”

However, Israel would only launch a limited ground incursion due to “personnel limitations” and “domestic pressure from Israelis not to have a second sustained military presence, even if it was deemed a national security imperative to create a buffer zone.”

‘Diplomatic compromise’

While both sides will undoubtedly find it difficult, there are some plausible scenarios for a compromise to de-escalate the situation.

Nicholas Blanford, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of the 2011 book Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel, believes Hezbollah would be “quite happy” if the current situation came to an abrupt end. He reasons the group feels it has been dragged into “a dangerous conflict” with Israel that was not “of their timing” or “choosing”.

And while there has been talk about moving Hezbollah north of the Litani, Blanford doesn’t think the Israelis are necessarily pursuing such a “maximalist” position. Instead, Israel is pushing for Hezbollah to retreat from the Blue Line and establish a five-kilometre buffer zone.

“I think there is room for diplomatic compromise, where Hezbollah would go ‘invisible’ like they were after the 2006 war until around 2-3 years ago,” Blanford said.

“Hezbollah is a much more powerful armed force today than it was in 2006”

In the aftermath of the 2006 war, Hezbollah was in UNIFIL’s area of operation and along the Blue Line but did not have a “tangible” footprint or any bases there.

That changed in recent years when Hezbollah used its Green Without Border, an environmental front group, as cover to erect military outposts along the Lebanon-Israel border. In the same period, the group set up other “discrete positions” in the UNIFIL area, including firing ranges.

“I can see a situation where Hezbollah would potentially agree to abandon the firing ranges and not rebuild Green Without Border positions along the Blue Line, which have all been destroyed by the Israelis over the last two months,” Blanford said.

Nevertheless, this would also entail concessions from Israel.

“I think the concessions here would be a full re-delineation and demarcation of the Lebanon-Israel border and scrapping the Blue Line,” Blanford said.RELATED

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Israel would likely need to pull out of Ghajar, a Lebanese village it has occupied half of since 2006, and the Shebaa Farms border area it has held since 2000.

“The Israelis may be willing to do that if it means Hezbollah is no longer visible along the Blue Line for a depth of five kilometres, which would allow them to bring their 80,000+ residents that have evacuated Northern Israel back to their homes along the border,” Blanford said.

“So I think there is room for a diplomatic deal here,” he added. “But the important element is that both Israel and Hezbollah could tell their domestic audiences: ‘We won’.”

“If you’re gonna have a win-win scenario like that, then a deal is possible.”

No military solution

While Blanford assesses Hezbollah would “be happy for this all to conclude”, he believes Israel is “serious about staging some kind of limited incursion” into South Lebanon if diplomatic efforts fail.

He doubts Israel’s likely military objectives – pushing Hezbollah back from the Blue Line either five kilometres or north of the Litani – are “achievable”. And even if they were, Israel is not going to reoccupy South Lebanon and would eventually need to withdraw to the Blue Line.

“I don’t see either side wanting to get engaged in a full-scale conflict, and I think that’s extremely clear from the Hezbollah side,” Blanford said. “But I think the Israelis are anticipating within the next six weeks to two months that if the diplomatic track isn’t working, they’re going to have to opt for some kind of military solution.”

“That military solution won’t work, at least in the medium to long term.”

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon

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