Will Hezbollah and Israel’s escalations plunge Lebanon into war?

Both sides are barely staying within the rules of engagement, leaving Lebanese anxious over what comes next.

Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah gives a televised address during a ceremony, in Beirut's southern suburbs
Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly threatened Israel with an escalation in attacks if Israel continues to strike Lebanon [File: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

A threat from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to strike Cyprus has ratcheted up tensions even further in the eastern Mediterranean, as the Lebanese Shia group’s conflict with Israel continues to threaten to turn into an all-out war.

Nasrallah said on Wednesday that Hezbollah did not want an expanded war, but that it was ready – along with its regional allies – to match Israel’s increased aggression. The threat towards Cyprus is a result of what Nasrallah said was the Israeli use of bases on the eastern Mediterranean island.

“The Cypriot government must be warned that opening Cypriot airports and bases for the Israeli enemy to target Lebanon means that the Cypriot government has become part of the war and the resistance [Hezbollah] will deal with it as part of the war,” Nasrallah said.

Although the United Kingdom has two bases in Cyprus, there has been no officially acknowledged Israeli use of Cypriot land or airbases. Israel has used Cypriot airspace to conduct drills in the past.

The heightened rhetoric from Nasrallah comes a day after Hezbollah published footage it said was taken by one of its drones above the Israeli city of Haifa. The footage, which Nasrallah said only showed a small part of the footage captured, appeared to be a warning to Israeli authorities of Hezbollah’s reach, should Israel continue to threaten an expansion of its attacks on Lebanon.

Israel had announced on Tuesday that operational plans for a military offensive in its northern neighbour were “approved and validated”. More than 90,000 Israelis have fled their homes in the north of the country since hostilities began with Hezbollah on October 8, a day after the conflict between Israel and Hamas began in Gaza. At least 90,000 people have also fled their homes in southern Lebanon as a result of Israeli attacks.

‘No red lines crossed’

Israel has assassinated a number of Hezbollah commanders, including, most recently, Taleb Abdallah, a senior commander who was killed last week. Hezbollah responded to the attack by firing more than 200 rockets – the most it has fired in a single day towards Israel since October. Since then, Israel has continued its air strikes on southern Lebanon, including the city of Tyr.

But despite that, and despite the rhetoric from both sides, there is a belief among observers that both sides are still largely sticking to the rules of engagement, with escalations occurring gradually.

“The intensity of hostilities has increased but not their nature,” Eyal Lurie-Pardes of the Middle East Institute said. “No red line has been crossed. A rocket attack on Haifa, for instance, would signal greater capability, so would almost constitute a red line [for Israel].”

“Hezbollah have said they’ll stop with a ceasefire in Gaza. Israel just needs to deal with the displaced people of the north. Both are one miscalculation away from conflict.”

Diplomatic efforts continue. United States envoy Amos Hochstein, who previously helped mediate a maritime deal between Lebanon and Israel, was recently in Beirut to try and ease tensions at the border, which could still draw in other regional actors.

“[Hochstein’s] mission is constrained by the need for a comprehensive agreement that would involve both Hamas and Hezbollah,” said Imad Salamey, a political scientist at the Lebanese American University. “This necessity has not been fully recognised or addressed by either the American or Israeli sides, limiting the effectiveness of Hochstein’s efforts to achieve lasting peace and stability.”

Anxiety in Lebanon

Although an all-out conflict between Hezbollah and Israel can still be avoided, many Lebanese are growing increasingly worried.

“The feeling in Lebanon is one of growing worry and anxiety about the possible breakout of an all-out war,” said Salamey. “The Israeli military’s approval of a war plan is taken very seriously by the Lebanese people, leading to heightened fears of escalation. This approval has significantly undermined plans for tourism and investment in the country, as potential visitors and investors are reconsidering their decisions due to the increased threat of conflict.”

Lebanon has had one of the century’s worst economic crises and has been stuck in a political deadlock without a president since October 2022. The country has lacked political and economic stability in recent years, even before the war. Infrastructure is stretched and an expanded war could have a devastating effect on the already struggling nation.

Lebanon is not in a position to effectively respond to an Israeli invasion or a wider aerial war on its infrastructure,” Salamey said. “Any significant expansion of conflict would be devastating, as the destruction of infrastructure would be difficult to repair or replace. The Lebanese government lacks the resources for reconstruction, and there are few international donors willing to provide the necessary support, unlike the aftermath of the 2006 war.”

The further dissolution of the Lebanese state could have serious repercussions for the region as well, Salamey said, adding that it “could exacerbate existing political and social tensions within Lebanon, making recovery even more challenging”.

“The destruction of Lebanon would produce a state of chaos with armed groups pouring into its territory, hence creating a much more unstable situation [for the Israelis, too],” he said.

Israelis want answers

Should Israel decide to further engage with Lebanon, however, its military and civilian infrastructure could also sustain serious damage. Hezbollah is significantly stronger and better equipped than Hamas and the group has recently unveiled new weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles that have driven Israeli military aircraft out of Lebanese airspace for the first time.

“What is particularly worrisome and significant is that the Israelis seem to have learned absolutely nothing after their past experiences in Lebanon,” Karim Emile Bitar, professor of international relations at University Saint Joseph in Beirut, told Al Jazeera. “The announcement they made yesterday that they are about to wage a total war that would annihilate Hezbollah is at best extraordinarily naive and at worst, it shows amateurism.”

“Hezbollah could inflict serious and significant and even unprecedented damage on Israel,” he added.

Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978 and 1982, where it put west Beirut under siege to drive out Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). It occupied south Lebanon from 1985 until the year 2000.

While Israel’s military establishment seems to be aware of Hezbollah’s capability, many in Israel, including far-right ministers like Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, are pushing for military solutions over diplomacy. Smotrich in particular has even floated the idea of reoccupying south Lebanon, though Lurie-Pardes said that “only the extreme right/radical fringe … would want to conquer Lebanon”.

There is a widespread belief that Israel would need a ceasefire in Gaza to be able to turn its full focus towards Lebanon, but Lurie-Pardes said that operating on two fronts is not outside the realms of possibility.

“Israel can handle another front,” he said. “The human and financial cost would be immense, but they could do it.”

Inside Israel, political pressure is mounting on politicians as the school year approaches and residents in the north want to return home. There’s a growing view from the Israeli side of the border that they will not be able to live in security as long as Hezbollah operates nearby.

“The public wants it both ways,” Lurie-Pardes said. “They want to feel secure in the north and they want to see a military action that will make that happen.”

“People want to see that answered. However, they also understand that Hezbollah is more powerful than Hamas and has more complex weaponry.”

What is clear is that an expanded war will have few winners. Israel has struggled to achieve its stated goal of eradicating Hamas over the last eight months, and Hezbollah has far more capabilities than the Palestinian group. And while Israel could do serious damage to Lebanon it could also lead to unforeseen long-term repercussions, as has happened in the past.

“In 1982, the Israelis wanted to do away with the PLO and succeeded, but it led to the birth of Hezbollah – a movement much more radical and more organised than Fatah,” Bitar said. “The same scenario could happen all over again.”

Source: Al Jazeera