Are Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Israel about to go to war?

Israel is threatening all out war against the Lebanese group Hezbollah, which could be catastrophic for both countries, say analysts.

An Israeli firefighter works to extinguish a fire burning in an area near the community of Ramot Naftali, by the border with Lebanon, northern Israel, Tuesday, June 4, 2024
An Israeli firefighter works to extinguish a fire burning in an area near the community of Ramot Naftali, by the border with Lebanon, northern Israel on June 4 [Ariel Schalit/AP Photo]

Tensions and tit-for-tat attacks are escalating between Israel and the Lebanese group Hezbollah.

Since October 8, Hezbollah has engaged Israel in a low-level conflict to impede Israel’s war on Gaza, which has already killed more than 36,000 people.

Civilians have been evacuated from villages on both sides of the border. Israel has targeted Lebanese villages with white phosphorus, while Hezbollah has targeted Israeli military installations with drones, guided missiles, and other weapons.

Over the last week, both sides have stepped up attacks as US President Joe Biden pushes for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Here’s all you need to know about whether Hezbollah and Israel will go to war.

Who is Hezbollah?

Hezbollah is a Shia group that first emerged to confront Israel’s 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon, which began in 1982.

Backed by Iran, Hezbollah poses the largest military threat to Israel, according to Israeli and regional security experts.

In 2006, Hezbollah stood up to an all-out assault by Israel and has only grown stronger since then.

Hassan Nasrallah
Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gives a televised address during a ceremony, in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Lebanon May 31, 2024 [Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

Why are Hezbollah and Israel at odds?

After the occupation of Lebanon ended, Israel and Hezbollah’s relationship remained fraught.

In 2006, Hezbollah ambushed Israeli soldiers, killing three and kidnapping two.

Israel responded by launching a war on Lebanon, reaching the capital Beirut.

There, Israel employed its “Dahiya Doctrine” – named after a Beirut neighbourhood Hezbollah controls – which entails targeting civilian infrastructure.

The war lasted 34 days, killed 1,901 Lebanese people and displaced 900,000.  About 165 Israelis were killed. However, Hezbollah was not destroyed.

The group has since accumulated more sophisticated weapons and experience as it fought alongside the Syrian government during the country’s war, where it was accused of committing war crimes against Syrian civilians.

What has happened since Israel’s war on Gaza started?

Since Israel launched its devastating war on Gaza after a Hamas-led attack on southern Israel on October 7, Hezbollah has fought a low-level conflict with Israel.

Fighting has followed what seem to be “rules of engagement” in which both sides try to avoid significant civilian casualties.

However, Israel has progressively struck deeper into Lebanon and killed many civilians.

Why is it feared that a major conflict is coming?

Because Israel seems to be threatening exactly that.

On June 5, Hezbollah fired two suicide drones into an Israeli village that killed two people and injured 11.

Israeli firefighters also rushed to put out almost 100 fires that broke out from Hezbollah attacks.

Subsequently, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “Israel is prepared for a very tense operation on its border with Lebanon”.

Israel’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir visited some of areas hit by the fires in the north and later told reporters, “It is unacceptable that a region in our country is targeted while Lebanon remains quiet. We must burn all of Hezbollah’s outposts. Destroy them.”

Ben Gvir
Israeli national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks at a conference calling for the establishment of illegal Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip at the International Convention Centre, Jerusalem, January 28, 2024 [Abir Sultan/EPA]

Despite Israel’s rhetoric, Imad Salamey, an associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, does not believe an Israeli invasion is imminent.

“Israel is facing significant challenges on multiple fronts, including regional security threats and internal political dynamics,” he told Al Jazeera.

“An invasion would likely result in severe international condemnation and strained relations with key allies, particularly the United States, which would complicate support,” he added.

What’s the calculus in Israel?

There are many voices in Israel demanding their government attack Hezbollah, the question is if they will be heeded.

They fear Hezbollah will attack Israeli military outposts and communities, as Hamas did on October 7, according to Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli commentator and political analyst.

Supporters of bereaved family members and the families of hostages who were kidnapped during the deadly October 7 attack by Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, protest on a Day of Disruption by anti-government protest groups, amid the ongoing conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, outside the Knesset, Israel's Parliament in Jerusalem, May 20, 2024. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
Supporters of bereaved family members and the families of captives who were kidnapped during the October 7 attack by Hamas, protest on a Day of Disruption by antigovernment protest groups, outside the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament in Jerusalem, May 20, 2024 [Ammar Awad/Reuters]

Many Israelis, she said, do not believe Hezbollah when it says it will stop attacking Israel if a ceasefire is reached in Gaza.

On the contrary, she said, many Israelis believe fighting Hezbollah is necessary for displaced citizens to return safely to their homes in the north.

“I don’t think there are enough voices [in Israel] playing out the devastating consequences … of [Hezbollah] strikes on civilian infrastructure in Israel,” Scheindlin said.

“It’s known. It’s not a secret. Nobody’s hiding it … but not quite front and centre.”

What’s the calculus for Hezbollah?

Hezbollah’s recent attacks aim to warn Israel that it has the capacity to inflict serious damage, according to Michael Young, an analyst and senior editor at the Carnegie Middle East Centre think tank in Beirut.

“These are all messages to Israel. ‘Don’t think today you will win a war or a war will advance your calls or create more leverage.’

“Each side, in my mind, is preparing for a negotiation,” he told Al Jazeera.

Young added that he expects the fighting will escalate as both sides try to gain leverage in negotiations, which he believes Hezbollah covets to end the fighting.

“Hezbollah has been clear. The day fighting in Gaza stops will be the day fighting in southern Lebanon will stop,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Hezbollah does not want a grey situation on the Lebanese border and they don’t want a situation where no agreement is reached … because that means Israel can continue to hit them and assassinate their fighters.”

Source: Al Jazeera