Israel and Hezbollah are again embroiled in a perilous dynamic of escalation. How things unfold, as always, depends on the degree of self-restraint and level-headedness on both sides, and just as importantly on luck.
Hezbollah plans to perpetrate a terrorist attack in the coming days. Hence the Israel Defense Forces dispatched reinforcements to the Lebanese border last week and raised alert levels. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in the past that he would retaliate from Lebanese soil for any harm to his personnel, even if they were wounded or killed in Syria. Such was the case last September, following the assassination of a Hezbollah drone cell in the Syrian Golan Heights; and such is the case now as he seeks to avenge the death of a Hezbollah operative in an airstrike on Damascus International Airport last Monday, which has been attributed to Israel.
We can assume that, if Israel was indeed behind the attack, Israeli officials didn’t know the Hezbollah operative was present at the targeted site. Efforts are usually made to avoid casualties, which increase the likelihood of a counter-response. But from the moment the (relatively junior) operative was killed, the situation took on a life of its own: social media sites in Lebanon erupted, with users mocking Nasrallah for failing to back up his words. It seems he initially couldn’t decide whether or not to retaliate, but the IDF’s recent measures indicate the decision has already been made in Beirut.
Nasrallah does not want a war. He is in unprecedented distress. Lebanon is in tatters economically, on the verge of insolvency. Unemployment numbers are through the roof. Because it is a part of the government, Hezbollah is perceived as being part of the problem. The terrorist group has not avoided the vitriol of the masses, not least because many of the problems stem from the economic sanctions imposed against it, which heavily burden Lebanon’s financial systems.
This distress is also palpable among Hezbollah’s rank and file. Iranian funding has dried up considerably because of the Islamic Republic’s own economic hardships in the face of crippling U.S. sanctions. Nasrallah has to maneuver to survive. A war that will wreak havoc on Lebanon, and mainly on the country’s Shi’ite population, will give him nothing. He plunged Lebanon into a war with Israel in 2006, for which he eventually expressed his regret. “Nasrallah is a Shi’ite, but he isn’t suicidal,” a senior IDF officer said this week.
Responding, but on a small scale
We can expect Nasrallah to try walking a tightrope. He’ll look to retaliate, but to the most minimal degree possible. If he could kill one IDF soldier, an eye for an eye, so to speak, he would take it and close this chapter. He’ll likely look to hit an easy target from inside Lebanon, with an anti-tank missile, sniper or roadside bomb.
The IDF, as stated, is preparing accordingly and since Friday night forces have reduced their visibility. IDF vehicles are banned from using roads in the northern sector, which is exposed to Lebanese territory. Civilians can go about their daily routines, on the assumption that Hezbollah wants to kill a soldier, but military units are under stringent restrictions so as not to give Hezbollah a convenient target.
Past experience tells us however that a target will eventually be found. Inevitably, the enemy will make contact. Such was the case last year, when an army ambulance violated security protocol near Avivim and was attacked with anti-tank missiles. Miraculously, all five soldiers inside the vehicle survived. Although the IDF at the time presented the incident as a success, mostly because it was part of a deception exercise, it could have ended in abject failure. It was only by dint of fortune that a more serious incident was avoided, which would have assuredly triggered a grave, unpredictable escalation.
This is precisely the current situation. If Hezbollah harms soldiers, Israel will have to respond. To that end, reinforcements were sent north and additional outfits (mainly in the air force) were placed on a heightened alert footing. Hezbollah will then have to exact a price after Israel retaliates, and so forth. The downward spiral, at that point, will depend, as stated, on the leaders and luck. Although neither side wants a war, they can afford not to respond even less.
Bracing for an Iranian response
Supposedly, Hezbollah could have mitigated this risk by responding from the Golan Heights sector. The IDF is preparing for this, too: The Israeli helicopter attack on Friday—in response to errant Syrian anti-aircraft fire that landed in Israeli territory—was exploited to destroy observation posts on the Syrian side of the border.
There’s another reason for the heightened readiness along the Syrian frontier—Iran. In Tehran, regime officials are determined to retaliate for the significant damage at the centrifuge production facility at Natanz, which has been attributed to Israel. The belief is that this response will come from Syrian territory, and will be separate from Hezbollah’s response over the death of its operative in Damascus.
This state of affairs means IDF forces will remain on high alert, at least over the coming days. Last September, it took Hezbollah a week to respond. This time around, it might want things to happen sooner, perhaps before the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha on July 31.
What happens next will depend on the outcome of the Hezbollah attack. If it is deadly, heaven forbid, Israel will strike back. At that point, the path to full-blown war is exceedingly short. Israel and Lebanon, both buckling under the weight of the coronavirus and their struggling economies, could find themselves caught in an unwanted tailspin.
Anyone on either side searching for conspiracy theories can rest assured: These tensions and the heightened alert are quite real. This scenario appears in every briefing the Military Intelligence Directorate has presented in recent years, certainly due to the scope of Israeli airstrikes in Syria, alleged and otherwise. We can only hope that both sides exhibit the same level of judgment that has guided their actions since the Second Lebanon War, and end this current spat before the situation dangerously spins out of control.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.