Does ceasefire in Gaza mean Israeli escalation with Lebanon’s Hezbollah?

War drums beat louder as Israel kills Hezbollah commander and Lebanese group launches massive missile attack.

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises above Lebanon, following an Israeli strike, amid ongoing cross-border hostilities between Hezbollah and Israeli forces, as seen from Israel's border with Lebanon in northern Israel, May 5, 2024. REUTERS/Ayal Margolin ISRAEL OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN ISRAEL/File Photo
Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah have exchanged increasingly escalating attacks since October 8 [File: Ayal Margolin/Reuters]

Beirut, Lebanon – Hezbollah fired more than 200 missiles and rockets across its southern border on Wednesday in one of its heaviest attacks on northern Israel since the 2006 war.

The day before, Israel had assassinated Taleb Abdullah, the most senior Hezbollah commander killed since October 8.

What happened on Tuesday and Wednesday is the latest intensification of hostilities between Israel and Lebanon, as negotiations for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas seem to be coming to a head.

Israel has killed more than 37,000 Palestinians in Gaza since October 7, the day Hamas led an attack on Israel, killing 1,139 people and capturing some 240.

Israel faces genocide charges for its actions in Gaza in a case brought to the International Criminal of Justice by South Africa.

Is there a connection?

Analysts told Al Jazeera a Gaza ceasefire could shift Israel’s military focus to Lebanon, where it has exchanged attacks with Hezbollah since the day after October 7.

The exchanges across Lebanon’s southern border are not exactly tit-for-tat.

Al Jazeera found in an April investigation that Israel had launched more than five attacks on Lebanon for every attack from Hezbollah.

Israel has killed about 300 Hezbollah members and more than 70 civilians during this time, while Israel says it has lost about 15 soldiers and 10 civilians.

Israeli war hawks

While tensions are increasing along the border, analysts believe Israel would struggle to widen the war on Lebanon without first a ceasefire in Gaza.

“The Israelis will not enlarge their fight with Lebanon as long as there is [still] one single shot in Gaza,” Tannous Mouawad, a retired brigadier general in the Lebanese army, told Al Jazeera. “When [a ceasefire is achieved in] Gaza, the Israelis will definitely turn towards Lebanon.”

The Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is under domestic pressure tas the school year approaches and more than 90,000 people remain displaced from their homes in northern Israel.

Politicians say Hezbollah needs to be pushed back from the border before civilians can safely return – although many have reportedly decided not to come back.

Netanyahu said last week that Israel is “prepared for a very intense operation” on the border with Lebanon.

“An opinion poll published by [Israeli newspaper] Maariv … showed [that] over 70 percent of Israelis want to do away with Hezbollah,” Karim Emile Bitar, professor of international relations at Saint Joseph’s University in Beirut, told Al Jazeera.

“Several members of the [Israeli] war cabinet also share this hawkish position.”

“We are approaching the point where a decision will have to be made, and the [Israeli military] is prepared and very ready for this decision,” chief of staff of Israel’s army, Herzi Halevi, told military officials in early June.

Negative consequences

A push for war against Hezbollah and Lebanon does not mean an assured victory for Israel.

Bitar said any war would be “extraordinarily counterproductive” and could inflict heavy suffering on both the Lebanese and Israelis.

“[It will not be] a walk in the park [for Israel],” he added. “The idea that they could occupy south Lebanon shows that they have learned nothing from Israeli history.”

Israel invaded south Lebanon in 1978 and 1982 during the country’s civil war, aiming to push out Palestinian groups.

Hezbollah itself, a Lebanese Shia group with close ties to Iran, was formed in 1982 in response to Israel’s invasion.

Israel also occupied south Lebanon from 1985 until 2000, after Hezbollah and other Lebanese forces pushed Israeli troops back across the border.

An invasion would likely give Israel “much more than it bargained for” Bitar said.

Today, Hezbollah is generally believed to be the world’s strongest non-state actor, which means its military capabilities are significantly stronger than those of Hamas.

Until now, it has largely struck military targets near the north of Israel but, analysts say, it striking military targets in areas like Tel Aviv, which is surrounded by civilian infrastructure, would be more problematic for Israel.

“There’s [already] a rift in Israel itself with northern settlers furious at the government,” Amal Saad, author of the book Hizbu’llah Politics and Religion, told Al Jazeera.

Raining rockets down on a populated city could be a way “to deepen preexisting divides and showcase what the rest of Israel can look like,” she said. “Israel cannot tolerate a fraction of what Gaza or Lebanon can.”

In recent weeks, Hezbollah has also used new weapons not previously utilised on the battlefield, including anti-aircraft missiles, which it claimed forced Israeli fighter jets to retreat.

This move was “symbolic”, according to Saad, because it “challenged Israeli’s aerial supremacy”. Hezbollah has also downed a number of Israeli drones in recent weeks.

Of course, a wider war in Lebanon could come with serious consequences for both Israel and Lebanon.

US officials have warned that an escalation against Hezbollah could draw in Iran and other allied forces in the region.

And Lebanon, with its collapsed economy, would surely be left in an even worse state. A war would bring “extra large destruction by Israel on Lebanon”, said Mouawad, the retired brigadier general.

“Lebanon cannot afford its consequences.”

Source: Al Jazeera