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Israel and Hezbollah: Unintended Escalation Still Very Possible

March 6, 2015

By Tom Fenton – Research Assistant 

The beginning of this year saw a notable escalation in the simmering Israel-Hezbollah conflict. On 18 January, the IDF launched an airstrike against a convoy carrying Hezbollah personnel. Hezbollah said six of its fighters were killed, and it later emerged the attack killed an Iranian Revolutionary Guard general and a total of six Iranian soldiers — although according to security sources, the latter were not Israel’s intended target. Ten days later, on 28 January, Hezbollah fired on Israeli forces stationed on the Israel-Lebanon border, killing two Israeli soldiers. A Spanish UN peacekeeper was also killed, allegedly in crossfire from Israeli retaliation. The two incidents were the deadliest conflagration since the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

Importantly, the fact that Hezbollah concentrated its fire on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Shebaa Farms appears to be a sign that the militant group wanted to contain the violence. An Israeli General told The Economist: “Usually what happens in Shebaa stays in Shebaa.” In contrast, the 2006 Hezbollah raid on Israel that triggered the Second Lebanon War was not confined to the Farms.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, responded to the raid by saying the attackers would “pay the full price”. In response to the 18 January attack, Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, claimed his movement “is capable of responding” at “any time” with “all (the weapons) you can imagine… and in great quantities”. On 30 January, he said: “We do not want a war but we are not afraid of it and we must distinguish between the two, and the Israelis must also understand this very well…We have the right to respond in any place and at any time and in the way we see as appropriate.”

It seems as if these statements were merely rhetoric, with only a relatively limited military response emanating from them. The situation has now calmed, but is still tense. Israel and Hezbollah are not – contrary to the alarmist tone of some of the press – on the “brink of all-out conflict”. The Commander of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, Brigadier General Luciano Portolano, emphasised that Israel and Lebanon were committed “to using liaison and coordination channels” to prevent any further escalation. However, there have also been recent developments that – although they do not point to imminent conflict – do serve to illustrate the dangerous undercurrents of the present situation.

First, although it is heavily committed to the civil war in Syria, Hezbollah is in some ways in a much stronger position than it was in nine years ago. There can be little doubt that – whilst Hezbollah is still incapable of matching Israel – it has recently seen a notable improvement in its technical capabilities: in February, Hezbollah flew an Iranian designed drone over Israeli territory for twenty minutes before returning it to Lebanon, for the second time this year. Its offensive assets have also been enhanced: according to Pentagon officials, Hezbollah now has 50,000 missiles (and possibly more than 100,000) – including rockets capable of hitting Tel Aviv – in its stockpile. In contrast, in the last war in 2006, it only had around 13,000 short and medium-range missiles at its disposal. A number of the missiles also have a GPS guidance system, meaning that rockets fired at Israel are more likely to reach their intended target and cause greater casualties and material damage. Although – unlike in 2006 – Israel now has the Iron Dome anti-missile system, the vast numbers of rockets that Hezbollah could fire at Israeli territory could result in a large number getting through what is perceived as Israel’s safety net. Israeli intelligence estimates that in the event of a new conflict, Hezbollah would fire around a thousand rockets and missiles per day, far exceeding the approximate daily rate of 118 in 2006. Hezbollah also has new Syrian and Iranian-sourced anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank weapons at its disposal, with many of its personnel receiving training in Iran. In addition, Hezbollah has the capability to build tunnels for more infiltrations into Israel.

Second of all, Hezbollah’s links with Hamas and Iran are showing signs of growing in strength. In a statement believed to have been made with the support of Hezbollah, this February saw senior Hamas figure Mahmoud Zahar call on Syria and Lebanon to allow it to form military units in the south of the country. He said that these units “will conduct the resistance (also) from northern Palestine and take part with us in liberating it.” After an estrangement resulting from Hamas’ support of the revolutionaries in Syria, there have been new attempts at reconciliation between the two groups since Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, which hit Hamas in Gaza in 2014. In addition, Hezbollah’s links with Iran – although always present – are becoming ever more open. The day before Hezbollah hit Israeli forces in January, Nasrallah and Qasem Suleimani (the latter being the commander of the Iranian al-Quds Special Forces unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards which are responsible for Iran’s extraterritorial operations), met for the first time publically; they had met privately a number of times previously. As Michael Williams pointed out in an article for Reuters: “the meeting was all the more remarkable because of the publicity given to it. Suleimani paid respects to Hezbollah fighters killed by Israel and also visited the grave of Jihad Mughniyeh (Hezbollah’s commander of the Syrian Golan sector, and the son of the late Hezbollah militant Imad Mughniyah, who was killed in Israel’s January 18 strike on Hezbollah).”

Last of all, brinkmanship is a real danger in the conflict, as both Nasrallah and Netanyahu need to show they are capable of standing strong in the face of the enemy. Hezbollah is suffering losses in its war in Syria and needs to show its supporters that it is still dedicated to defeating Israel. In addition, it is very possible that Hezbollah could try and test out a new leader’s mettle if a new Prime Minister is elected in Israel on 18 March. The last war took place only months after Ehud Olmert was elected in 2006. The polls are very close between Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud and the Zionist Union and Netanyahu has a political interest in looking courageous for the voters, with Israelis being very concerned about security issues.

A further important factor is that the entrenched sectarianism in the Middle East means Saudi Arabia and Egypt are likely to encourage Israel to attack Hezbollah. Strikes against the organisation would weaken Assad’s army in the Syrian Civil War because it would force the militant group to move fighters back to Lebanon and could help rebels – supported by the Sunni nations – make gains. However, it is also likely that America – already on relatively unamicable terms with Israel – would push for a ceasefire and put pressure on the country for what it might perceive as an effort to scupper a nuclear deal with Iran.

However, Netanyahu does not want – and cannot afford – a war with Hezbollah because it would likely be both costly and protracted. Israel would need to embark upon a long, expensive and deadly war to destroy Hezbollah’s new military capacity. A quagmire could potentially see him thrown out of his premiership. Hezbollah, too, has little reason to strike Israel. If war did break out between them, Hezbollah would have to redirect fighters from Assad’s war in Syria. Prolonged fighting with severe casualties would hamper pro-government forces in Syria and possibly tilt the balance in the rebels favour.

Neither side really wants a full-scale war, but unintended escalation is very much possible.

About Tom Fenton

Tom Fenton was an intern with the Security and Defence research division. Tom is currently studying for a History BA at Durham University. His main interest is in the Middle East.