Hezbollah, Israeli brinkmanship continues in the face of ratcheting tensions
TUNIS - The conflict between Hezbollah and Lebanon’s neighbour Israel has escalated, with the exchange of fire over what might be a situation creeping towards open warfare.
However, analysts cautioned against reading too much into recent exchanges between Israeli forces and Hezbollah in a contest that often relies more on perceived threat than tangible action.
Almost since the beginning of Hezbollah’s deployment in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Syria has served as a conduit for weapons channelled from Iran to Hezbollah. That is not lost on Israel, with numerous unclaimed strikes on Hezbollah-controlled arms factories in Syria, all of which have been attributed to Israel.
However, tensions appear to have escalated. Hezbollah fighters claimed to have shot down an Israeli drone on September 9 over Ramyeh in southern Lebanon. A week earlier, Hezbollah and Israeli forces exchanged fire in an apparent response to an Israeli drone entering Lebanese airspace to drop incendiary material on a border forest.
There has been an accompanying war of words. Beyond the expected denunciations by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri of alleged Israeli incursions into Lebanese airspace have been proclamations by Hezbollah General-Secretary Hassan Nasrallah, who threatened strikes against Israeli drones over Lebanese territory.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, emboldened by what he is said to regard as the unflinching support of US President Donald Trump, has been accused of capitalising on Israel’s tensions with Hezbollah as he seeks re-election and possible prosecution on corruption charges.
Despite the political vitriol, direct conflict between Hezbollah and the Israelis has been practically nonexistent since the war of 2006, which saw both sides take heavy casualties. Since then, Hezbollah has grown into one of the most potent non-state militias in the world, well-equipped by Iran and with its fighters experienced by their deployment into Syria.
Israel’s wariness is likely justified, Jack Kennedy, senior analyst for MENA at IHS Markit, said.
“Hezbollah has between around 120,000 and 150,000 rockets,” he said. “However, it’s not just the number of arms Hezbollah has, it’s their quality.
“The Hezbollah arsenal is not highly accurate but it’s the consideration that Iran is trying to introduce that capability that is partly driving Israeli willingness to carry out strikes.”
“Of course, Israel has missile defence systems but probably not enough to withstand that level of attack and, politically, it’s not clear if they could absorb the level of casualties an attack by Hezbollah might cause,” he said.
That attack was by no means certain, he said. Given Hezbollah’s reliance on Iran, it is unlikely to be goaded into war without Tehran’s sanction. “Hezbollah is very much the tip of Iran’s spear,” Kennedy said. “[It is] unlikely to deploy that casually. Not least when Iran is countering threats on a much wider, global, scale.”
It was a view echoed by Chatham House’s Yossi Mekelberg, who said: “However, just because it’s a war that no one wants doesn’t mean there’s no chance of them going to war. Lebanon exists in a near state of chaos, there’s no central state, which means there’s little to restrain Hezbollah.
“At some point, at any time, a Hezbollah fighter could shoot the wrong person at the wrong time and then [Israeli Military Intelligence Director Herzi] Halevi’s threat of making Lebanon ‘a country of refugees’ becomes very real.”
For a US administration that has consistently backtracked or contradicted itself on foreign policy issues, Mekelberg said, expecting consistency is hazardous.
“You really don’t know what they’re going to do,” he said. “Right now, Trump is making noises about meeting (Iranian President Hassan) Rohani. Say he does that ahead of the 2020 US elections and position himself as the great peacemaker. What’s Netanyahu going to do then, assuming he wins re-election himself?”