Does Israel have territorial ambitions in Lebanon?

Israel has historically wanted the areas south of the Litani River. Believed to have been abandoned, some extremists have revived these aspirations. 

Does Israel have territorial ambitions in Lebanon?

Along the Lebanese-Israeli border. (Credit: AFP)

“This land is ours, the whole land, including Gaza, including Lebanon.” Addressing soldiers geared and ready to enter the Palestinian enclave, Amichai Friedman, a rabbi in the Israeli Army, openly called for the annexation of Lebanon.

A few days later, Daniella Weiss, far-right figure and former mayor of Kedumim, a settlement in the West Bank, called for the “invasion of Lebanon” immediately after the war in Gaza. To Weiss, Lebanon’s territory is rightfully part of the “Promised Land” of the Jewish people, which extends “from the Nile to the Euphrates.”

In parallel, Lebanon-born Israeli journalist Edy Cohen vowed over social media that Lebanese areas, including Faraya and Kesrouan, would have the same future as Gaza.

Such rhetoric comes amidst particularly tense times. On one hand, both Israeli society and government — already the most right-wing in the country’s history — have become more radical after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack. On the other, Hezbollah has turned southern Lebanon into a “support front” for Hamas, much to the dismay of Tel Aviv, which threatened that the whole country would pay the price.

Such remarks have revived an age-old and ever-present fear in Lebanon: that Israel set its sights on the country. Are these fears valid?

‘Greater Israel’

Widespread throughout the Arab world and espoused in some Jewish extremist circles is the assertion that Israel seeks to establish a state that envelopes Lebanon, among other countries in the region.

“This project is rather the product of the imagination, a bit like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” said Hilal Khashan, a researcher specializing in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The protocol Khashan referred to is a text that is believed to have been fabricated by the Russian Tsar’s secret police in the early 1900s to justify anti-Semitic policy, and claims that the Jews worked to establish a new world order.

While a “Greater Israel” stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates may seem like a fantasy, the Israeli ultra-right has historically defined itself with such expansionist ambitions, which it does not bother to hide.

Closely linked to “Revisionist Zionism,” this political camp, which came to power for the first time in 1974, called for the creation of a “Greater Israel” in the early 1900’s along both banks of the Jordan River — an area that today comprises the Palestinian territories, Jordan and the Israeli state.

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich recently ignited controversy when during a speech, he displayed a map depicting these expanded borders.

Smotrich wasn’t the only one displaying expansionist maps. At the UN General Assembly in late September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented a map of the “new Middle East” showing his own “Greater Israel,” which absorbed all the Palestinian territories.

But what about Lebanon?

“Before 1948, the Israeli far-right had its eye on southern Lebanon,” explained Henry Laurens, a historian and specialist on Middle East affairs.

In an article published in 1995, Israeli historian Eyal Zisser claimed that a few days before the creation of the state of Israel, Zionist officials met with Lebanese Maronite figures to discuss the possibility of Beirut ceding parts of the south to Israel, arguing that this would create a demographic balance more favorable to the Maronites in Lebanon.

In May 1955, the issue was raised at a meeting between Prime Minister Moshe Sharret, his Defense Minister David Ben Gurion and Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan.

According to Sharret, Gurion and Dayan proposed the annexation of the territory south of the Litani River — which includes the city of Sour — and the establishment of a pro-Israeli regime in Beirut.

“They wanted us to find any Christian officer we could either bribe or convince to become the ‘savior of the Maronites’… The Israeli army would do the rest,” Sharret wrote in his diary, underlining his opposition to the plan which eventually never saw the light of day. “Israeli claims to southern Lebanon were abandoned over time and are no longer on the agenda,”

The security challenge

Israel’s strategic objectives in Lebanon are now primarily security-related.

“It has to be said that Israel no longer has any real territorial ambitions in Lebanon, particularly since it already controls the water resources it needs,” said Khashan. “The occupation of southern Lebanon is a good example of this.”

Although Israel occupied southern Lebanon from 1978 to 2000, it did not build settlements there, as it did in the Golan Heights, West Bank, Gaza Strip, and even the Sinai peninsula.

“The clear aim of this operation was to dislodge Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) fighters from the border area. Moreover, in May 1983, (the Israelis) proposed to the Lebanese factions to withdraw completely from Lebanon in exchange for the creation of a buffer zone in South Lebanon managed militarily by the Amal movement, which should keep the Palestinians away from the border. The plan failed, however, mainly because of Syrian opposition,” explained Khashan.

Israel finally withdrew from the south in 2000. Occupation of the south began to become somewhat troublesome due to Hezbollah’s operations, and back home, domestic pressure was mounting, driven in particular by the mothers of soldiers killed in Lebanon. External pressure from Western countries also played its role. Nonetheless, Israel continued its occupation of the Shebaa farms and Kafr Shouba hills, territories disputed between Lebanon and Syria.

Following Oct. 7, the security of Israel’s northern border has become more important than ever. The ongoing conflict undermined the (already largely cosmetic) security guarantees that Tel Aviv won after the July 2006 war through UN Resolution 1701, which provided for the withdrawal of Hezbollah north of the Litani River. As a result, dozens of localities in Israel’s north (like in the south, near the Gaza Strip) have been evacuated.Is this enough to justify a new ground invasion of southern Lebanon?

“Israel is unlikely to launch such a military operation, which could be particularly bloody, not to mention the US opposition to any expansion of the conflict,” said Khashan.

“However, to save face, Netanyahu’s cabinet could resort to carpet air raids to destroy Hezbollah’s military infrastructure,” he added.

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.

“This land is ours, the whole land, including Gaza, including Lebanon.” Addressing soldiers geared and ready to enter the Palestinian enclave, Amichai Friedman, a rabbi in the Israeli Army, openly called for the annexation of Lebanon.A few days later, Daniella Weiss, far-right figure and former mayor of Kedumim, a settlement in the West Bank, called for the “invasion of Lebanon”...