Another war may break out on Israel’s northern border

Israeli reservists and tank teams take part in training exercises on the Lebanese front in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, January 4, 2024. (AP Photo/Ohad Zweigenberg)

The bright winter sun plays on the cavernous rock faces and the views over the Mediterranean Sea are delightful. However, if you look closer at the seemingly peaceful scene from the point where Israel’s border with Lebanon meets the sea, a threat appears to loom. Naval patrol boats are roaming near the coast, their guns at the ready. The usually popular tourist attraction is deserted except for armored vehicles. A short drive up a wooded hill just south of the border fence reveals dozens of camouflaged emplacements where Israel Defense Forces (IDF) paratroopers have been deployed since October 7, the day they attacked Israeli communities and army bases to the south. There was a devastating Hamas surprise attack. ,

Although the landscape is calm, there is a threat of full-scale war between israel And Hezbollah, Iran-backed Lebanese parties and militias. Especially after the explosion on January 2 in the Dahiye area of ​​Beirut, Hezbollah’s main stronghold. One person killed in explosion caused by Israeli drone strike Saleh Al-Arouri, a senior Hamas leader close to Iran, as well as several other commanders. Hezbollah responded by saying that the massacre would not go unpunished and that its “finger is on the trigger.” Even before this attack, some European officials feared that the front would collapse within a few days or weeks.

Tension and uncertainty was further heightened when twin explosions in the city of Kerman, Iran, on January 3 killed about 100 people near his grave. Qasim Sulemani. Many of them had gathered to pay tribute to the commander of the Quds Force, the foreign operations wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who was killed in a US strike four years ago. Iran blamed first “terrorists” and then the United States and Israel for the latest blasts.

Threats of war on the Lebanese border first rose in the hours and days immediately following Hamas’ attack on Israel, leading to fears that Hamas ally Hezbollah was about to launch a similar attack. Many of the hundreds of thousands of reservists called up that day were sent north. By nightfall, entire divisions were deployed near the border, known as the Blue Line.

Senior Israeli security officials, including Defense Minister Yoav Galant, were in favor of launching a pre-emptive strike against Hezbollah. The matter remained up in the air till benny gantzThe most pragmatic general, and now leader of the centrist party, joined the government on 11 October. US President calls for restraint, Joe Biden, which deployed an aircraft carrier strike group to the Lebanese coast, also helped persuade the Israelis to wait. Biden issued a warning during his visit to Israel on October 18. “For any state or any other hostile actor that is thinking of attacking Israel,” he said. “Do not do this. Do not do this. Do not do this.”

What followed was a deadly series of tit-for-tat attacks, in which Hezbollah fired missiles and drones at Israeli civilian and military targets daily and Israel launched counter-attacks. For the most part, both sides have attacked targets close to the border, according to the unspoken rules of engagement established over the years. In Israel and Lebanon, thousands of civilians have fled the fighting, and Israeli towns such as Shlomi and Kiryat Shmona have become ghost towns. Hezbollah has lost more than 146 of its fighters in three months, while 15 have been killed by Israeli missiles. Three journalists from the Lebanese side have also died.

There is precedent for this situation. In 2006, Hezbollah launched a cross-border raid and attacked an IDF patrol, killing five soldiers and taking away two bodies. The conflict soon escalated into a 34-day war in which both sides bombed each other. The IDF launched a major ground campaign inside Lebanon, but Hezbollah stood its ground. lebanon It was this country that suffered the most damage, with over a thousand civilians killed and infrastructure heavily damaged.

Hezbollah insists on defining itself as a “resistance” movement and has amassed a formidable arsenal of some 150,000 missiles. A few hundred of them have the range and accuracy necessary to reach anywhere in Israel. It claims to have 100,000 fighters (the actual number is probably half), many of whom have recent combat experience in Syria, where Hezbollah supported the regime. Bashar Al Assad During a decade of civil war.

The funeral of senior Hezbollah leader Abbas Raad, who was killed in an Israeli strike in Beit Yahoun, southern Lebanon in November, Reuters/Ala al-Marzani

These are compelling reasons for Israel to avoid all-out war, but in the wake of Hamas’s surprise attack, some senior Israeli security officials believe their country cannot allow such threats to persist on its borders. can give. He says Israel should take the initiative, especially given the force Radwan Hezbollah’s elite group has been trained to attack Israeli territory with the same tactics that Hamas has used in its attacks on Israeli communities and military targets.

An Israeli military spokesperson claims the IDF is “already fighting a war,” although “at the moment we are in defense mode.” Commanders inspect empty villages and nearby kibbutzim and say that the mission for them “will not be complete until our citizens can return home in peace and Hezbollah is still here, on the border.” Israeli troops, currently busy locating and destroying Hezbollah missile teams from a distance, are ready to go on the offensive.

Western officials say the IDF has the military capacity to open a second front and quickly encircle Hezbollah positions near the border within hours as the war continues in Gaza. Although at times a major fire seems inevitable, efforts continue to defuse the situation. Hezbollah has withdrawn its fighters from positions near the fence to positions about 2-3 km from the border. This may just be a tactical withdrawal, but it is also a signal to the Israelis and Americans that it wants to avoid war. Meanwhile, the IDF has reduced its numbers slightly, although they remain much larger than before October 7. The Israelis are ready to go on the offensive at any moment.

Both sides have solid reasons to avoid escalating tensions. Israel is engaged in a bloody campaign in Gaza and has lost around 1,400 civilians and soldiers since October 7. For its part, Hezbollah knows it will not be popular by inviting Israeli retaliation, especially since many Lebanese remember the devastation of the 2006 war and witness the devastation of Gaza, where more than 22,000 Palestinians have been killed, including Most of them are citizens. Iran, which has seen Israel destroy most of Hamas’s military capabilities, is reluctant to waste its investment in Hezbollah, which acts as a deterrent against an Israeli attack on Iran’s own nuclear facilities.

Nevertheless, Iran is freely using its proxies elsewhere in the region to keep Israel guessing. The militias it supports have launched rockets into Israel from Syria and Yemen, while they have attacked US forces in Iraq. The Houthis, who control most of Yemen, have also disrupted global trade by attacking cargo ships in the Red Sea. A US-led international naval force has attempted to protect shipping traffic through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a key route through Yemen to the Suez Canal. But major shipping companies are diverting routes to South Africa, which means longer and more expensive journeys. Western ships have shot down several Houthi missiles and sunk several Houthi small boats.

However, the United States is having difficulty maintaining its extensive deployment in the region, which has helped to quell hostilities. On January 1 he said one carrier group would return to base, although the other would remain nearby, as would the Marine force of about 2,000 troops. Nevertheless, Israel is concerned that as the United States withdraws its troops, its ability to deter Iran or Hezbollah from attacking Israel will be diminished.

Israel’s response has been to try to eliminate Iran’s proxies without provoking a widespread reaction. Air strikes near Damascus on December 25 almost certainly killed people Razi MousaviBrigadier General of quds force Of Iran. Razi Mousavi served for many years as a liaison between Iran and Hezbollah and other Iranian-armed terrorist groups in the region.

Efforts are being made from outside to cool down the situation on the Lebanese border. A close adviser to President Biden has been visiting Israel and Lebanon frequently in an effort to broker an agreement to calm the situation. Its basis may be UN Resolution 1701, which was passed at the end of the war in 2006. This is believed to keep Hezbollah forces north of the Litani River, which flows parallel to the border about 29 km north. But the Lebanese army and the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, which was tasked with implementing the resolution, have not done so.

Israel claims that since 2006, Hezbollah has placed hundreds of rocket launchers on civilian buildings in southern Lebanon in defiance of a UN resolution. In December 2018, the IDF revealed six cross-border tunnels dug by Hezbollah in preparation for future attacks. Hezbollah has also set up observation posts along the border under the cover of an ecological front group called Greens Without Borders. Many of them have been attacked by Israel since 7 October.

Lebanon’s chaotic politics will not help talks. The country has had no president since October 2022 and has been led by a provisional government since then. However, it is not impossible to reach some kind of agreement. In October 2022, Israel and Lebanon agreed to demarcate their maritime boundaries to allow exploration and exploitation of offshore gas fields in the area each claims as their exclusive economic zone.

And although leaders of both parties make big statements, in practice they have proven cautious. binyamin netanyahuIsrael’s longest-serving prime minister has long exercised restraint in response to cross-border attacks. And Hassan NasrallahThe leader of Hezbollah for more than three decades and Iran’s most powerful ally in the region, seems reluctant to provoke another war after anticipating that Israel would not respond forcefully to Hezbollah’s 2006 incursion.

Israel’s condition is that it remains alert even as it attacks Hamas leaders in Lebanon, and it prefers to withdraw its troops to the other side of the Litani rather than risk losing them to an Israeli attack. “Nasrallah can control it,” says an Israeli military officer. “It’s still your decision.”

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.

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