Tensions between Israel and Iranian proxies rise, war unlikely for now

Opposition voices in Israel accused Netanyahu of trying to bolster his security credentials ahead of the election as tensions with Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip remain high.
Saturday 31/08/2019
Closer to the brink than ever. A picture of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah lies amid damage inside the Lebanese Hezbollah media office in a southern suburb of Beirut, August 25.        (AP)
Closer to the brink than ever. A picture of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah lies amid damage inside the Lebanese Hezbollah media office in a southern suburb of Beirut, August 25. (AP)

LONDON - Israel has significantly stepped up its military campaign against Iran and its affiliates in the Middle East with a series of confirmed and alleged military strikes, increasing the risk of a major war in the region.

On August 24, the Israel Defence Forces struck a group they said was led by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that planned to fly unmanned aerial vehicles carrying explosives into northern Israel.

Iran denied that its operatives were hit in southern Syria but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said at least five men died in the strike. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said two of them were Hezbollah members.

The Lebanese armed group said two Israeli drones carrying explosives crashed in southern Beirut August 25, damaging Hezbollah’s media centre. A report in the Times newspaper in London suggested the actual target was material used to produce precision missiles.

An Israeli military spokesman said Iran had, in recent months, stepped up efforts to provide Hezbollah with facilities to produce precision-guided missiles.

In another attack attributed to Israel, a base of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command was struck in eastern Lebanon. In Iraq, Iran-aligned Popular Mobilisation Forces blamed Israel for raids that killed at least one of its fighters near the Syrian border. Israel did not take responsibility for the strikes in Lebanon and Iraq.

The series of confirmed and alleged Israeli strikes raised tensions in the region. Vowing retaliation, Nasrallah said this marked the first time Israel had struck inside Lebanon since the 2006 war.

“Do not live, do not rest, do not be reassured and do not bet for a single moment that Hezbollah will allow… aggression of this kind,” Nasrallah said, addressing Israelis. In what were considered the most direct threats in years, Nasrallah spoke of a “new phase.”

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, likened the events to a “declaration of war.” Lebanon’s Western-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri warned that “any escalation could develop into a regional cycle of violence.”

The escalation comes weeks before Israel heads to the polls and amid French mediation efforts between the United States and Iran regarding Tehran’s nuclear programme.

Commenting on the Israeli strike in Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said: “Iran has no immunity anywhere. Our forces operate in every sector against Iranian aggression.”

Israel has publicly stated that it has carried out hundreds of strikes in Syria to counter Iran’s growing presence there but rarely acknowledges individual strikes, such as the one August 24.

Opposition voices in Israel accused Netanyahu, who also serves as defence minister, of trying to bolster his security credentials ahead of the election as tensions with Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip remain high.

In reaction to Nasrallah’s threats, Israel said it would restrict the movement of military vehicles along the northern border with Lebanon. The Lebanese Army said it fired at Israeli drones in southern Lebanon on August 28.

The United Nations called on all parties “to exercise maximum restraint both in action and rhetoric.” Israel and Hezbollah fought a war in 2006 in which approximately 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 160 people in Israel, mostly soldiers, died.

Imad Salamey, associate professor at the Lebanese American University, said a full-scale war “seems highly costly for both sides… I expect restraint despite the rhetoric.” Netanyahu, he said, was using the attacks to gain an advantage in the upcoming elections and to obtain the backing of the Sunni Arab countries.

In a tweet, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa appeared to back Israel’s actions. He said it was Iran, alongside its allies such as Hezbollah, “who has declared a war on us.”

“So one who strikes and destroys the piles of their ammunition is not to blame. That is self-defence,” the statement read. Khalifa, who has met with Israeli officials and Israeli media publicly, previously said Israel had a right to defend itself.

Hezbollah has developed new capabilities since the start of the war in Syria, said Phillip Smyth, a researcher on Shia militant groups. “Right now,” he said, “I don’t really see interest coming from Tehran, which controls Hezbollah, or necessarily from Hezbollah itself” to push the current situation towards a major conflict.

Iran, Smyth said, was very focused on “strategic patience” to achieve strategic and tactical gains. In the case of Hezbollah, he said the group was working to secure its presence in the Golan Heights, having moved more forces there.

“So, at the moment, I think the command that is being issued is ‘no, we need to exhibit patience,’” Smyth said.

Salamey said Hezbollah’s most likely retaliation was a counter-drone attack or the targeting of Israeli planes in Lebanese airspace “without risking a full-fledged war.”

Like 2006, he said, domestic politics in Lebanon was split whether Hezbollah should be able to determine the military response by itself or whether the government should make such a decision.

Hezbollah Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem told the RT Arabic channel that the group would respond to Israel with a “surprise” strike while saying that war remained unlikely. “I rule out that the atmosphere is one of war, it is one of a response to an attack,” Qassem said.

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