Search
Search

Southern border

More temperature test than opening salvo: Analysts consider recent flare-ups in Hezbollah–Israel tensions

A Lebanese army member holds the remains of Israeli ammunition as he stands near the damage in the aftermath of Israeli airstrikes in Marjayoun on Aug, 5. (Credit: Karamallah Daher/Reuters)

BEIRUT — Last week’s dramatic flare-up along the southern border with Palestine, when on Aug. 6 Hezbollah fired a volley of rockets in response to Israel’s first airstrike in Lebanon since 2014, once again put the fraught balance of deterrence between Hezbollah and Israel under the microscope.

Speaking with L’Orient Today, several security analysts argued that Israel’s bombing run on two locations in southern Lebanon in the predawn hours of Aug. 5, an escalation by its new government, aimed to test Hezbollah’s resolve amid economic collapse in Lebanon.

This analysis was echoed by Hassan al-Baghdadi, a Hezbollah official, who said on Thursday that Israel thought it could take advantage of deteriorating conditions in Lebanon to strike the country.

In a speech on Saturday, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah offered his own analysis of Israel’s decision-making regarding the airstrike. He said Israel believed Hezbollah would not respond, and thus it could change existing rules of engagement to allow it to bomb Lebanon.

The Hezbollah leader described the Israeli airstrikes as “very dangerous,” adding that his organization launched a rocket barrage at “open ground” near Israeli positions as an appropriate response to Israeli jets striking uninhabited areas.

Israel, for its part, cried foul over repeated rocket launches from Lebanon — the first in five years — which started mid-May during Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz said the airstrike in Lebanon “was an attack meant to send a message.”

Testing Hezbollah

The Israeli decision to use airpower for the first time in more than seven years was likely a means of testing the rules of engagement, according to Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center.

“The [Israeli Army] is trying to push the line further and test Hezbollah’s resolve in responding to any threat or change or reconstruction of the former equation,” the analyst said.

“Each side is trying to test the other side,” he added.

Talal Atrissi, a military analyst and consultant at the Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Maaref University, told L’Orient Today that Israel was attempting to test Hezbollah’s strength amid Lebanon’s compounding crises.

“They discovered that Hezbollah is able to react and reassert the deterrence equation in spite of [Lebanon’s] domestic challenges,” he said, adding that — for now — “there is no possibility of changing this equation.”

Responding to rocket fire

“Israel’s escalation to using airpower for the first time since 2014 reflects concern that the increased frequency of rocket fire from Lebanon signaled a change in the rules of engagement,” said Aram Nerguizian, an analyst with the CMEC.

Before Israel’s dramatic airstrike, five volleys of rockets were fired from southern Lebanon from May 13 to Aug. 4. None of them was claimed by Hezbollah, and speculation swirled that they had been launched by Palestinian factions. The rocket launches were the first since 2015.

Amid Lebanon’s crises and following the unclaimed rocket attacks, some Israeli analysts have begun to question whether Hezbollah is in full control of the southern border region and whether the sporadic rocket attacks of recent months are catching the party by surprise.

A former Israeli intelligence official now working at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies wrote that Lebanon is “a chaotic arena” in which Hamas is expanding.

As such, he claimed that it would be difficult for Israel to keep the border with Lebanon from heating up using “political communication with Hezbollah and the Lebanese government.” He therefore called for a “new equation” in which incidents on the border result in further collective punishment of Gaza.

However, Nerguizian and Heiko Wimmen, an analyst with the Belgium-based International Crisis Group, expressed skepticism over the theory that the recent rocket attacks indicate Hezbollah has lost control of the military environment in southern Lebanon.

If it is true, such a scenario would be worse from an Israeli perspective, Wimmen argues. “The Israelis would like very much for Hezbollah to be in control. At least they know who to deal with, they know who to blame and they know who to attack.”

No appetite for war?

Following the potentially dangerous exchange at the border on Aug. 6, the Israeli army said neither side was interested in an escalation, while Nasrallah said his organization was not seeking war.

Nevertheless, Hezbollah and Israel may be overconfident in their ability to avert wider conflict.

“A wide-scale conflict would see much of the south, the Bekaa Valley and the southern suburbs of Beirut, Hezbollah footholds, being destroyed,” Hage Ali said.

Hage Ali argued that Hezbollah does not have the resources to fund reconstruction efforts following a potential war or compensate a population already suffering from economic and financial crisis.

Following the 33-day war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, Hezbollah distributed payments of up to $12,000 to thousands of people whose homes were damaged or destroyed by the fighting.

Wimmen cautioned that calculations of deterrence preventing conflict come with a risk. Exchanges of fire could immediately escalate into serious crises if, for instance, civilians are killed, he said, regardless of each side’s intentions.

“It assumes falsely that you can control the intensity of the conflict reliably and that you can control the mistakes, but mistakes can always happen.”

On Thursday an Israeli Army spokesperson said the army had brought down a Hezbollah drone inside occupied Palestine the previous day. A Hezbollah spokesperson was not immediately able to comment on the allegation.


BEIRUT — Last week’s dramatic flare-up along the southern border with Palestine, when on Aug. 6 Hezbollah fired a volley of rockets in response to Israel’s first airstrike in Lebanon since 2014, once again put the fraught balance of deterrence between Hezbollah and Israel under the microscope.Speaking with L’Orient Today, several security analysts argued that Israel’s bombing run on...