OPINIONS

Thu 11 Apr 2024 8:10 pm - Jerusalem Time

What will the future bring between Hezbollah and Israel?

By Justin Salhani

Beirut, Lebanon – Israel’s decision to withdraw the majority of its troops from Gaza – at least temporarily – has analysts in Lebanon anticipating an intensification of some sort against Lebanon’s Hezbollah, a Shia militia and political actor, to Israel’s north.

The Israeli army indicated as much in a statement on Sunday when it said it was preparing to transition from defensive to offensive actions against Hezbollah.

 “The commanders of the regular and reserve units are prepared to summon and equip all the required soldiers in just a few hours and transport them to the front line for defensive and offensive missions,” the statement said.

Hezbollah and the Israeli military have been trading attacks across the Lebanon-Israel border since October 8, the day after Hamas’s surprise operation into Israel and Israel’s brutal retaliation on the besieged Gaza Strip.

Since then, more than 330 people in Lebanon have been killed in Israeli attacks, including at least 66 civilians. Hezbollah attacks have killed 18 people on the Israeli side, 12 soldiers and six civilians.

Civilians have cleared out from areas along both sides of the border. The Israeli government evacuated people from its north while tens of thousands of Lebanese have fled the south.

As the war in Gaza enters its seventh month, there are fears it is also ready to enter a new phase. But what will that phase entail?

  Israel’s aims in the north

Many Israelis feel they cannot safely return to their homes in the north as long as Hezbollah, an ally of Iran, which supports it financially, is present along the border.

A poll in an Israeli newspaper from February found that more than 70 percent of Israelis supported large-scale military engagement with Hezbollah.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Netanyahu was clear right away after the Hamas attack [on October 7] that he would turn to the northern front and by the time it is over he will transform the Middle East,” Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, told Al Jazeera.

Israel’s i24 News reported Netanyahu said at a meeting in January: “We are resolute in bringing about fundamental change along our border with Lebanon, ensuring our citizens’ safety and restoring peace to our north.”

“Israel is planning for a long war with Iran and its proxies that could explode at any second and damage the whole region,” said Tannous Moawad, a security analyst and retired Lebanese army brigadier general.

It is a feeling shared by many in Lebanon, where traumatic memories of deadly Israeli military offensives are relatively fresh. The last major Israeli war on Lebanon was in 2006.

Hezbollah’s strength in Lebanon

Hezbollah has a strong presence in the south, where it has popular support and recruits many of its fighters. Dislodging it from there would prove difficult.

It is the strongest political and military actor in Lebanon today and the only political group that remains armed after the Lebanese Civil War ended in 1990 – ostensibly to resist the Israeli occupation, which ended in 2000.

While Israel’s attacks on Gaza have been unrestrained, it has been more cautious in Lebanon, even if some of that restraint is now lifting.

Even at this limited intensity, some analysts believe the conflict – and the loss of field commanders and fighters – have been damaging to Hezbollah.

“Hezbollah is stuck now because they were not aware of the [extent of the] gap between them and Israel, which is now clearly unbridgeable,” Khashan said.

“Israel’s high-tech offensive is killing Hezbollah’s field leaders and attacking them with impunity.”

Among the leaders Israel has killed are Ali Abed Akhsan Naim, deputy commander of Hezbollah’s rocket and missile section, and Wissam al-Tawil and Ali Ahmed Hussein, both figures in Hezbollah’s elite unit, the Radwan Forces. Hamas also blamed Israel for a drone strike in a Beirut suburb in January that killed Saleh al-Arouri, commander of Hamas’s Qassam Brigades in the occupied West Bank.

Hezbollah has spoken defiantly, arguing that things are still going to plan.

  “The resistance [Hezbollah] has used only 1 percent of its qualitative weapons. All the clashes taking place today are with ordinary conventional weapons developed by the resistance,” Hassan Ezzeddine, a Hezbollah member of Lebanon’s Parliament, said during a speech on April 8.

“So far, things are under control. The enemy knows that if it goes far, it will lead to a broad and global war.”

Netanyahu’s survival dance

Despite its battlefield advantage, Israel faces domestic problems.

“Israel is currently in an internal crisis and its military situation is difficult,” Qassem Kassir, a political analyst close to Hezbollah, told Al Jazeera.

Many analysts believe Netanyahu wants to keep his country at war to avoid going to jail over corruption charges he faces. Opinion polls published this week found nearly three-quarters of Israelis want him to resign. His approval ratings have plummeted over security failings leading up to the October 7 attacks and mass popular rejection of legal changes his far-right government tried to force through last year.

He has received ample criticism from across society as protesters rally against his rule and management of the war.

Meanwhile, his domestic foes are circling. Calls for new elections have increased, including from Netanyahu’s major competitor for the premiership, Benny Gantz, who currently serves in the war cabinet.

“We must agree on a date for elections in September, towards a year to the war if you will,” Gantz said in a televised briefing on April 3.

 “Setting such a date will allow us to continue the military effort while signalling to the citizens of Israel that we will soon renew their trust in us.”

Two things are clear, according to analysts who spoke to Al Jazeera. First, Netanyahu’s desire to stay in power will have him prolong the war as long as possible, in what may potentially be Israel’s own “forever war”, and second, an offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon has broad public support in Israel.

“I think the implications for Lebanon are rather significant because an opinion poll in Israel indicated that over 70 percent of Israelis are in favour of Israel attacking Hezbollah,” Karim Emile Bitar, a professor of international relations at Saint Joseph University in Beirut, told Al Jazeera.

“This could incite Netanyahu to go on some sort of headlong rush and attack Lebanon and widen the scale of conflict [especially] considering that many Israelis would like to seize the opportunity to attack Hezbollah and curtail Iran’s wings in the entire region.”

Action against Hezbollah by air or land?

Analysts believe there are two ways for the Israelis to expand operations against Hezbollah: a land invasion or an expansion of aerial attacks using drones and fighter jets.

  Most analysts Al Jazeera spoke to said they did not see a ground invasion of Lebanon as likely, given the Israeli history of conflict with Lebanon.

The Israelis invaded Lebanon in 1978 and 1982 when they besieged west Beirut. They occupied the country’s south from 1985 to 2000. Hezbollah and Israel also fought a war in 2006.

Those experiences are still fresh in the minds of Israeli strategists, analysts said.

“A ground invasion is quite unlikely,” Bitar said. “Israelis have a long experience in Lebanon, Hezbollah knows the terrain extremely well and Israeli soldiers will be in a … situation where they would have to suffer significant losses that could then turn Israeli public opinion against Netanyahu.

“The Israelis would rather use aerial attacks and air strikes from F-16s rather than invade altogether.”

Khashan said he felt Israel may attempt a limited ground offensive that “wouldn’t even reach the Litani River” to clear the area closest to the border of Hezbollah fighters, creating a buffer zone.

“There won’t be a ground invasion,” a retired Lebanese army source told Al Jazeera. “There will be more targeted attacks. Civilians will [likely] be killed, but it won’t be a full-scale invasion.”

What most analysts do agree on is that Israel would continue a steady expansion of drone attacks and air strikes on Hezbollah targets.

The frequency of Israeli military attacks on parts of the northern Bekaa Valley, where Hezbollah also enjoys popular support, has increased.

An intensified Israeli confrontation with Hezbollah in Lebanon is likely coming, but it is unlikely – despite past Israeli comments – to follow through on threats of turning Beirut into Gaza or returning the country to the Stone Age.

The government is under pressure after its six months of attacks on Gaza have killed more than 33,000 Palestinians. Even fervent Israeli allies like the United States and Germany changed their tune after the Israeli military killed seven aid workers from World Central Kitchen.

Nonetheless, analysts believe Israel feels it may have enough leverage to expand engagement with Hezbollah.

“It’s an election year in the US, and there’s not much leverage the US are ready to use even though they have enormous leverage,” Bitar said.

“I think the risks [of an expanded war] remain quite significant.”

Rafah offensive still possible

There is uncertainty over where the Israeli military will focus first and whether it will ever launch these offensives at all. “All possibilities are still on the table,” Kassir said.

Israel’s partial withdrawal from Gaza does not mean the war there is over, even if there is growing pressure for it to stop.

Netanyahu is still insistent that an offensive will take place against the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where about 1.5 million people are sheltering, having fled fighting elsewhere in the enclave.

Despite mounting criticism of Netanyahu’s government from US President Joe Biden’s administration, the US Department of State authorised the transfer of 25 F-35A fighter jets and engines as well as “new arms packages that include more than 1,800 MK84 2,000-pound [900kg] and 500 MK82 500-pound [225kg] bombs”, The Washington Post reported in late March.

These weapons could be used on a variety of fronts, including against Palestinians in Rafah.

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