A new level was reached. On Sunday, Hezbollah bombarded the north of Israel, injuring 16 people and killing at least one civilian, the Israeli press reported.
A few hours later and following a high-tension security meeting, Israel declared having “a plan” to neutralize the security risk coming from the Lebanese border. Despite the threat, Hezbollah did not waver and claimed responsibility on Monday morning for a rocket attack that caused several casualties.
Since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, Hezbollah has contented itself with sporadic and limited attacks in support of its Palestinian ally, to which Israel has generally responded proportionately. Developments on the ground indicate that all the rules are being breached, although escalation does not seem to be in either country’s interest.
‘A policy of trial and error’
Until recently, the general impression was that both Israel and Hezbollah were not seeking an all-out war. In the two speeches he has given since the start of the war, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah made it clear that southern Lebanon remained a “support front” for Hamas and that his party was therefore not looking for further escalation.
In the same vein, several Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, stated they had no interest in raising tensions on the Lebanese front.
Despite this, over the last two weeks, strikes near the Lebanese-Israeli border saw a significant increase, and not just by Hezbollah. Israel has repeatedly violated the rules of engagement. On Saturday, Israel targeted a van in an orchard in Zahrani, some 45 km north of the border. This was the first in-depth strike on Lebanese territory since Oct. 7.
A week earlier, four civilians were killed by a drone attack that targeted their car.
“In the chain of actions and reactions, it is becoming difficult to know who initiates the escalation,” said Joseph Bahout, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
How can we explain the heightened tensions? “The two belligerents are conducting a policy of trial and error,” said Ali al-Amin, editor-in-chief of Janoubia News and expert on Hezbollah. “This means that both Israel and Hezbollah are testing the enemy’s reaction to every offensive to see whether they can afford to step further.”
Hezbollah, which seems confident that Israel doesn’t want a major war, is stepping up its strikes without fearing a bloody response. This is all the more important for Hezbollah, especially while Israel advances in Gaza, putting Hamas in difficulty and showing the limits of Nasrallah’s promised “support” for the Palestinians.
The most sensitive and in-depth strikes, like those targeting Haifa, Acre and Nahariya were claimed by Hamas in Lebanon and not by Hezbollah.
By standing idly by, Nasrallah is putting his credibility on the line. This can be seen in the satirical reactions online to his speeches in Lebanon, Palestine and even Israel. Iran, Hezbollah’s sponsor, is also striking cautiously from southern Syria. But Tehran and its protégé have no real interest in provoking a potentially destructive war against Israel, which is betting on this reluctance.
Tel Aviv could try to take advantage of the fact that Iran and Hezbollah fear a major escalation to carry out more decisive strikes, without compromising its operation in Gaza.
“It’s a possible but risky calculation, especially as the Hebrew state knows the cost and danger of a Lebanese front. This is one of the dilemmas that Hezbollah is probably facing,” said Bahout. “For instance, in case Beirut was struck, will the Shiite party take the risk of striking Tel Aviv?”
However, this “dialogue of deterrence” could get out of hand. “Hezbollah is obliged to escalate when Israel also escalates, especially as the war in Gaza intensifies,” he said. “The hypothesis, a redoubtable one here, would be that the radical wing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet would be tempted to widen the war.”
“Aware that their objective in Gaza is unattainable, the Israelis could seek to transfer the war from Hamas to the Iranian axis as a whole,” said Bahout. “This could almost force the United States to plunge into the quagmire, with, ultimately, the dream of some Israeli strategists of going as far as striking Iran itself.”
But Washington seems to fear this scenario. “We do not believe that a conflict involving Lebanon and Israel is in any way inevitable,” said US Special Envoy for Middle East Humanitarian Issues David Satterfield last week.
Similarly US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reportedly “expressed concern” to his Israeli counterpart over Israel’s role in heightening tensions along the border with Lebanon in a call on Saturday, the US news outlet Axios reported.
Citing three informed US and Israeli sources, Axios wrote, “Austin’s message to Gallant reflected growing anxiety in the White House that Israeli military action in Lebanon is exacerbating tensions along the border, which could lead to a regional war.”
The crisis in the Middle East has already weakened the popularity rating of US President Joe Biden, who wants Israel to avoid prolonging the scope and duration of the conflict. Biden, whose term of office expires next year, would need to give a good diplomatic performance if he hopes for reelection. That is keeping in mind that the Biden administration is also dealing with other things, like the war in Ukraine and China's growing influence.
While Iran-aligned factions in Iraq have on several occasions struck US bases in the region since Oct. 7, the US’ response remains highly proportional for the time being. On Monday evening, US strikes in Syria killed eight Iran-allied fighters. This was only the third operation of its kind.
In another sign indicating a desire to avoid escalation, Biden sent his envoy for Lebanon, Amos Hochstein, to Beirut last week. Hochstein met with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and the former General Security Director Abbas Ibrahim, both of whom are close to Hezbollah. According to various sources speaking to L’Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity, Hochstein urged the Lebanese leaders to put pressure on Hezbollah to avoid a regional conflagration.
“In his speech, Nasrallah replied to the Americans,” said Bahout. “In his view, if they want to avoid a regional war, they must supervise the Israeli operation before Benjamin Netanyahu’s adventurism becomes their [the US’] problem.”
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.