Israel-Hezbollah new rules of engagement pending Iranian action

Hezbollah developed its arsenal, which forced Israel to reconsider its modus operandi.

Israel-Hezbollah new rules of engagement pending Iranian action

A building destroyed in Sultanieh, south Lebanon, on April 8, 2024 after an Israeli strike. (Credit: Hassan Fneich/AFP)

The region, especially Lebanon, depends on the Islamic Republic’s response. Eight days after the Israeli strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, to which Tehran vowed to respond harshly, negotiations have been ongoing to prevent a major escalation.

In the meantime, eyes are on what Israel will do about the battle for Rafah, an overcrowded city in the south of the Gaza Strip that they vowed to invade to dislodge Hamas.

As for Lebanon, conflicting information circulates behind the scenes. Some suggest that the expansion of Israeli military operations against Hezbollah would take place after the Rafah operation.

Others claim that the new warnings Beirut received indicate that the Israeli escalation will take place after April 15. Some believe that this escalation would happen during the summer, but before September, as Israel anticipates the return of inhabitants to the northern border localities at the start of the school year.

This came amid new threats by Israeli officials, who said they are preparing to move from defense to attack to have Hezbollah pay a high price. On Monday, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said that his army does not fear a ground invasion of south Lebanon.

Israel and Hezbollah seek to establish new rules of engagement. When Hezbollah strikes with its drones or guided missiles, Israel responds by targeting the Bekaa Valley, deepening and expanding the target area. Similarly, when Israel targets this region, Hezbollah retaliates by striking the occupied Syrian Golan.

This phase promises to be long as Israel does not expect a political agreement any time soon. Some diplomats believe that any settlement could be preceded by further escalation.

Hezbollah modernizes its arsenal

On the technical front, Hezbollah recently succeeded in relaunching the development of its air defense system. According to informed sources, it succeeded in developing a surface-to-air missile capable of shooting down Israeli drones. Based on this advance, the Iran-aligned militia shot down an Israeli Hermes 900 drone over the weekend.

Previously, Hezbollah had shot down an older Hermes 450 drone, but Israel had developed the drone’s operation to prevent Hezbollah’s missiles from hitting it. Also, Hezbollah succeeded in developing Kornet-type guided missiles with a range of seven to eight kilometers. The old ones hit the target at a distance not exceeding four kilometers. Hezbollah developed these new missiles as part of the technological competition.

The Iron Dome — Israel’s highly advanced air defense system — cannot intercept this missile. This is because Kornets are not fired at a high altitude range before they go down on their target. Instead, they are fired at a relatively low altitude to travel horizontally, preventing the Iron Dome from intercepting them.

This technological advance has prompted Israel to step up its operations, particularly in certain hills and mountainous areas of south Lebanon, which they consider to be launching points for missiles due to their convenient altitude.

In short, the more Hezbollah demonstrates its capabilities and technological advances, the more Israel will be embarrassed and forced to rethink their modus operandi to change the equation once again.

This flexing of muscles on both sides came when the risk of all-out war was reaching fever pitch. Following the Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, the US sent clear signals to Tehran that Washington was not involved in the operation. The American messages clearly expressed the US’ desire not to widen the conflict, while the Iranians insisted that their retaliation is unavoidable.

In this vein, negotiations took place through several channels to ensure the response does not lead to regional escalation. The US asked the Iranians to calculate their retaliation but Tehran set conditions demanding that the US put pressure on Israel to end the assassinations of Iranian officials in Syria and elsewhere.

However, Washington failed to obtain this concession from Benjamin Netanyahu, who said he is determined to carry on with the attacks on Iranian centers of influence and eliminate all officials supporting Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and other factions engaged in the support fronts, such as Hezbollah. Discussions between the two sides have not stopped, at least on how to contain the situation on the ground.

Iran seeks guarantees

Pending Iranian action, sources in Iran indicate that there is debate in political and religious circles about the possibility of diversifying the response mechanisms between Tehran and its allies in the region. This is to force Israel to divide its retaliation rather than focusing it on Iran, which risks widening the conflict between the two countries.

Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said on Friday that Iran would respond directly to the Israeli attack.

These statements are Nasrallah’s response to all the criticism leveled against him after his meeting a few weeks ago with al-Quds Force commander Esmail Ghaani was leaked. Nasrallah reportedly said in the meeting that Hezbollah was ready to engage in war instead of Iran.

In an interview with the pan-Arab Asharq Al-Awsat daily on Monday, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said that his ally Hezbollah is not going to provoke a full-scale war, even though Nasrallah said in his speech that he was ready for such a scenario. “He was only responding to threats,” Berri said.

“Iran is seeking US guarantees that Israeli attacks against its allies in the region, notably Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, will stop. The same goes for attacks against Iranian forces in Syria,” said an Arab diplomatic source.

The source added, “If a truce is reached in Gaza, Iran will work to ensure that it is extended to all other fronts, in exchange for guarantees concerning Hezbollah, especially after several Israeli and US messages that an end to hostilities in Gaza would prompt Israel to intensify its war against Lebanon.”

According to available information, the US failed to have Israel commit to this. This led to a verbal escalation on the part of Nasrallah, who sharply criticized the US position in his speech on Friday and held Washington responsible for Israel’s actions.

“Israel intends to intensify its operations against Hezbollah in the next phase,” said the source. “This does not necessarily mean a full-scale war, but an expansion of operations to hit the party’s strategic targets and prevent it from strengthening its position by bringing more weapons from Syria into Lebanon or transferring weapons from different parts of Lebanon to the south,” the source said.

To this end, Tel Aviv is concentrating its strikes on Hezbollah’s targets in the southern villages, adopting a scorched-earth policy in various border areas.

The Arab diplomat perceived that there had been a fundamental change in Israeli mentality. “Before Operation al-Aqsa Flood, Israeli officials considered the Iran-aligned factions as elements destined to weaken the Arab countries where they were present,” he said. “This perception changed after Oct.7, [2023] and these factions are now seen as a direct threat to Israel, which intends to intensify its military pressure to weaken them,” the diplomat said.

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

The region, especially Lebanon, depends on the Islamic Republic’s response. Eight days after the Israeli strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, to which Tehran vowed to respond harshly, negotiations have been ongoing to prevent a major escalation. In the meantime, eyes are on what Israel will do about the battle for Rafah, an overcrowded city in the south of the Gaza Strip that they vowed...