Are Israel and Hezbollah headed for another war?
Israel holds the largest military drill in two decades on its border with Lebanon, stirring fears of another conflict.
Tensions between Israel and its northern neighbours have risen once again, stirring fears of another military confrontation between the Lebanon-based Hezbollah armed group and the Israeli army.
While the border region has remained restive since the 2006 war between the two sides and the discussion of another conflict has become almost constant, a series of recent developments have renewed such worries.
On Thursday, the Syrian state news agency reported an attack by Israeli jets on a military facility in western Syria, killing two people.
Though Israel did not claim responsibility for the attack, a former major general, Yaakov Amidror, told Israel’s largest radio station, the Army Radio, that the attack was an effort to weaken Iran and Hezbollah, who operate in Syria.
Amos Yadlin, the former head of Israeli military intelligence, also said on Twitter that the attack sent several “important messages”, including Israel’s refusal to “allow for empowerment and production of strategic arms”.
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Earlier this week, Israel also began a 10-day military drill, the largest in two decades, on its border with Lebanon. The Israeli army said the main goal of the exercise was to “improve combat readiness on the northern front” and to “adapt the response to the challenges” facing Israel.
The drill comes after accusations by the United Nations envoys for Israel and the United States that the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon was ignoring a buildup of Iranian arms by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, on the Israeli border.
Experts and political analysts say that while a full-scale war between Israel and Hezbollah is unlikely, the option should not be ruled out.
“Based on the information that we have, I think it is improbable that a war would break out, even though there have been several limited attacks by both parties. However, Israel could surprise us with war in the moment we least expect it,” Kassem Kassir, a Lebanon-based journalist with close ties to Hezbollah, told Al Jazeera.
Israel and Hezbollah fought a bloody 34-day war in 2006 that resulted in the deaths of more than 1,100 Lebanese, the majority of whom were civilians; around 4,400 were injured and an estimated one million displaced. An estimated 159 Israelis, including 43 civilians, were also killed by Hezbollah’s rocket attacks.
The group was able to overwhelm Israel’s ground invasion of southern Lebanon and strike military and civilian targets, undermining internal Israeli support for the war and spurring regional support for Hezbollah’s military successes against a state army.
With Hezbollah’s deep involvement in the war in Syria over the past six years, the group and those close to it argue that it has gained a more sophisticated level of tactical experience and weaponry while fighting alongside the Syrian regime and allied groups. Others say the war has worn the group out and prevented it from engaging in a future conflict with Israel.
Yet, on several occasions in the past few years, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has threatened that the group would be capable of invading Israel’s northern region and beyond in the case of an Israeli offensive against Lebanon.
In a speech last year, Nasrallah also mentioned a chemical plant in the city of Haifa where thousands of ammonia tanks are stored as a potential target, threatening death to tens of thousands.
“Hezbollah, after it entered the war in Syria, acquired new abilities and powers that it did not enjoy before the war in Syria. Hezbollah went from fighting guerilla warfare to engaging in professional army-scale battles in areas across Syria for the first time,” Kassir said.
“Also, the coordination that is happening between Hezbollah and Russia – which, for the first time, are sharing the same fighting field – also constitutes worry for Israel. The other point which must be highlighted is that Hezbollah now has a relationship with tens of thousands of non-Lebanese fighters that have participated in the fight in Syria – whether Afghanis, Pakistanis or Iraqis – which could possibly participate in any future confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel.”
Over the course of the war in Syria, Israel has targeted Syrian and Hezbollah arms convoys on multiple occasions, saying it would continue to block any Iranian efforts to transfer weapons to the group.
Hezbollah expert Amal Saad said the changing nature of the war in Syria has meant that Israel would no longer be fighting a “localised war”.
“There’s no longer a separation of battlefronts, and Israel has made sure of that because of its aggression on Syrian territory. It has become a very active player on the Syrian battlefront, and therefore, it has ensured that Hezbollah and the Syrian regime remain linked; it’s erased the borders in that sense,” Saad told Al Jazeera.
And while there have been tit-for-tat attacks – including assassinations, attacks on arms convoys, and rocket attacks on the borders – analysts agree these incidents would not necessarily spark a war.
“These are limited attacks or security responses – designed to respond to a single event – which do not warrant a wide-scale conflict. For the two parties to go to war there would need to be aggression of a different level, such as an invasion or large-scale attack,” Saad said.
“Is Israel ready for another round of war with Hezbollah knowing full well that we’re no longer talking about a localised war? We’re talking about a regional war that would involve the participation of all the allied groups fighting in Syria.”
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For now, the military drill seems to be a form of psychological warfare intended to make a statement about the Israeli army’s capabilities.
“The exercise has two main objectives: first, training the Israeli army for a large-scale confrontation in light of Israel’s inferior strategic position as a result of the war in Syria, [including] Hezbollah’s growing military capacities in Lebanon [and the] expanded presence of Iranian and Iranian-backed armed forces in Syria,” said Ofer Zalzberg, a senior Israel/Palestine analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think-tank.
“Second, [it is about] demonstrating to others the sheer strength and scale of Israel’s military capacities,” Zalzberg told Al Jazeera.
Still, indicators point to the growing influence of Iran, Israel’s principal enemy in the region, as the reason behind the recent symbolic escalation. Along with Russia, Iran has been able to tip the scales of the conflict in Syria in favour of the Syrian regime. And with the war edging ever closer to Israel’s borders, the Israeli fear of an Iranian corridor through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon has come to the forefront.
“We do not interfere in the question of who will rule in Damascus; we interfere with the question of how strong Iran and Hezbollah will be in the region,” Amidror said in his interview on Israel’s Army Radio.
In the context of the regional divide between the Gulf states and Iran, Israeli officials and analysts have often spoken of an unofficial “moderate axis” of Arab countries that are working behind the scenes with the Israeli government.
In this “alliance”, US-backed countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and several of the Gulf states, as well as Jordan and Morocco, are said to be pitted against “common enemies” Syria, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah.
Saad believes that Hezbollah’s role in the war in Syria has only strengthened the alliance between the latter and added other countries, including Iraq, to what she terms the “resistance axis”.
“Iran is far more influential than the US and Saudi Arabia in the region. That’s very worrisome for Israel and its allies, the tightest of which is Saudi Arabia.”