Daily clashes between Hezbollah and the Israeli army on Lebanon’s southern border have intensified over the past two days. Hezbollah’s tactics have evolved, as have those of Israel.
After a relative lull Wednesday and Thursday, fighting flared up again Friday, so much so that it is possible to say the clashes have entered a new phase, with the possibility of a third if Hamas is dealt a major blow in Gaza.
Stage 1: ‘Two-group’ tactics
It is necessary to first understand how the first stage of Israeli-Hezbollah exchanges unfolded. In this phase, Hezbollah mainly targeted Israeli military positions along the Lebanese border, as well as listening posts and other surveillance infrastructure.
For its part, Israel responded by striking sites from which the missiles were fired and targeting party cells suspected of carrying out the attacks.
During this phase, Hezbollah lost 47 fighters in drone strikes, to which the Israelis increasingly resorted as the party destroyed their surveillance cameras and listening posts.
Drones are capable of detecting any movement and have heat and heart rate sensors and can hit underground targets as close as 20 meters. These US drones have given Israel a technological advantage over Hezbollah, which explains its high losses.
In response, Hezbollah adopted a “two groups” tactic. The first group fires shells or missiles at Israeli positions before withdrawing; the second waits for Israeli forces to gather around the attacked site before targeting them.
The effectiveness of Israeli drones prompted Hezbollah to review its tactics, setting up and directing a missile launch, then launching the attack from a distance. The objective is to reduce personnel losses.
This tactic produced solid results for the first two days, then Israeli drones targeted the cells around the launch site.
This was the backstory of a strike took place two weeks ago that targeted a vehicle near the border village of Houla.
According to information obtained by L’Orient-Le jour, a Hezbollah fighter involved in launching a missile at an Israeli position was in the vehicle. This suggests Israeli drones are capable of striking rapidly, retaliating 10-30 seconds after a strike.
Stage 2: Drones
Faced with this challenge, Hezbollah revised its battle plan and commenced the second phase of exchanges Saturday, firing guided missiles at an Israeli drone to destroy it. The first effort missed its target. A similar one on Sunday did the job, taking down an Israeli drone with a missile fired from the vicinity of Khiam.
Targeting drones seems to be at the heart of Hezbollah’s new phase. At the same time, the party is testing its ability to use its own drones to carry out attacks against sites on the other side of the Blue Line while avoiding casualties.
In another new tactic, Hezbollah has started launching two simultaneous attacks. The first is a diversion to keep the Israeli defenders busy so the second can be carried out safely. This has proved effective over the past two days, as evidenced by the decline in Hezbollah casualties.
The Israelis have also commenced a second stage on the ground, moving from reaction to action. They no longer wait for fighters to carry out operations before targeting them. Now they raid any positions where they detect specific activity. This was evident Saturday with the Israeli army’s announced pre-emptive targeting of Hezbollah sites and infrastructure.
Another tactical change sees the Israelis launching attacks deeper into Lebanese territory — around 20 kilometers from the border, as they did Saturday when they fired three missiles at a military post at Jabal Safi.
This operation was the second of its kind after the one carried out Saturday night (Oct. 21), against a Hezbollah position at Birket al-Jabbour in Jezzine’s Rihan region. The Israelis say this site houses an airstrip that fighters used for military purposes.
In practice, this strike violated the rules of engagement, since it targeted an area north of the Litani River, outside the scope of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.
In response, Hezbollah sent one of its drones towards the city of Acre last Monday and penetrated some 20 kilometers into Israeli airspace. Its message was clear: the group is ready and capable of responding in the same way.
Al-Aqsa Flood 2.0?
It is unclear how long this second stage could last. What does seem certain, however, is that Hezbollah is seriously examining its options and discussing the possibility of moving on to a third phase, especially after destroying surveillance devices along the Lebanese border, which are considered to be Israel’s first lines of defense.
From a military point of view, the aim of these operations is to prepare to advance further toward these front lines if the battle plays out. It is possible that Hezbollah missiles will strike sites more than five kilometers inside the Blue Line. It might even try to take control of one or more Israeli towns, not unlike Hamas did during the al-Aqsa Flood Operation on Oct. 7.
Whether or not it crosses that Rubicon depends on developments on the ground in Gaza.
The Saturday after Israel’s incursions into Gaza accompanied by intensive bombardments, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian warned that Lebanese and Palestinian armed groups had “their finger on the trigger,” adding that Iran does not want war to “spread.”
Hezbollah is therefore sticking to its position that escalation will take place if the Israelis cross the red lines the party has drawn, namely a heavy blow to Hamas or the forced displacement of Gaza’s inhabitants.
This does not mean that an Israeli ground operation into the Palestinian enclave will necessarily provoke Hezbollah’s wider intervention. As long as Hamas is able to resist, the party will probably not feel the need to intervene.
Hezbollah’s wider involvement will require different tactics than those adopted over the past 16 days. It might start attacking new targets. Under the rules of engagement adopted so far, both sides are trying to avoid causing casualties among civilians.
Initially, Hezbollah retaliated to Israeli strikes by carrying out operations in the Shebaa Farms, considering them to be a purely military zone. Today, the situation has changed, with all settlements in the north of Israel evacuated. This could give Hezbollah greater leeway to carry out operations in these areas. It was to send this deterrent message that Hezbollah organized a military exercise in Lebanon’s southern town Aaramta, titled “We will cross.”
This story first ran in French, translated by Joelle Khoury.