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After Gaza, Israel turns its sights on Lebanon

Hezbollah members bury a commander killed in an Israeli strike last month. Credit: Getty

June 7, 2024 - 2:25pm

As one war closes, is another just beginning? The conflict in Gaza is seemingly winding towards an inconclusive end, with Washington accelerating pressure on both sides to accept a peace deal, and now regional and global attention is shifting to Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where months-long but carefully managed border clashes have escalated in recent weeks. As the analyst Nicholas Noe observes, “Hezbollah’s heaviest political and strategic blow has been — for the first time since 1948 — forcing the Israelis to create a ‘buffer zone’ on their own territory and not on that of their opponent.”

According to the Lebanese daily al-Akhbar, which is close to Hezbollah, British officials this week warned the Lebanese government to prepare for an Israeli offensive starting in mid-June. Visiting the site of devastating wildfires in northern Israel caused by Hezbollah shelling, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that “we are prepared for very intense action in the north,” with IDF Chief of the General Staff Herzi Halevi asserting that Israel’s armed forces possess  “strong defence, readiness to attack, [and] we are approaching a decision point”. More stridently, Netanyahu’s far-Right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir told cameras that because “they’re burning [us] here [in the north]… all Hezbollah strongholds should be burned, they should be destroyed. War!”

Yet while Israel calls up its reserves and trains brigades for an invasion, both America and the IDF itself are urging caution. According to an Axios report, while the IDF presented Israel’s war cabinet with several options, “including a ground invasion aimed at pushing Hezbollah’s elite Radwan force away from the border”, any expansion of the current conflict would, in the words of one unnamed IDF official, have “huge implications for Israel” while achieving limited results. The official added: “We need to understand this before making decisions.”

According to the Left-wing Israeli daily Haaretz, “the IDF fears that the public is not aware of the implications of a broad war in the northern sector for the home front.” The Biden administration is equally sceptical, warning that Israel’s desire for a limited war may be unattainable, potentially dragging in Iran as well as Hezbollah’s allied regional militias in Iraq, Yemen and Syria.

Certainly, Hezbollah presents a much greater challenge for the IDF than Hamas. Israel’s military record against the group is poor — both the 18-year occupation of Southern Lebanon and the 2006 war saw the IDF withdraw with heavy casualties and Hezbollah more strongly entrenched than before — and Hezbollah’s capabilities have dramatically increased since then. Its recent strategy of striking IDF listening posts and early warning systems on the border is, as well as a warning to Israel, a means to punch holes in the country’s Iron Dome system, increasing the risk posed by the group’s vast stockpiles of medium-range missiles, capable of striking central Israel.

In the view of the academic Amal Saad, an expert on Hezbollah, the group “seems to be betting that all of these threats and manoeuvres amount to little more than sabre-rattling because it knows Israel is in a much weaker position than it has ever been to launch such a war”.

Israel is already running out of diplomatic road, while the IDF’s capacity to simultaneously fight Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in the north looks increasingly doubtful. To shift its attention to Lebanon, the IDF will likely have to abandon notions of occupying Gaza, leaving a battered Hamas to claim a costly, perhaps pyrrhic victory. Ironically, then, ending the Gaza War is both the precondition that Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has declared is necessary to halt his group’s clashes with Israel and the essential precondition for Israel to invade Lebanon.

If Hezbollah’s recent uptick in attacks is an example of “escalating to de-escalate”, Israel will paradoxically be forced to de-escalate to escalate, with preparation for war creating a window for peace the struggling Biden administration is certain to exploit. As Israel’s War Cabinet member Benny Gantz remarked recently, the crisis on the Lebanese border will be resolved by autumn “whether by [diplomatic] arrangement or [military] escalation”. In navigating these paradoxes, the chances of a wider war and a sudden, fragile outbreak of peace hang equally in the balance.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

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Wyatt W
Wyatt W
17 days ago

Amateur analysis here, but wouldn’t Israel be better off spending the remainder of the year putting most of their attention to eliminating Hamas and then work on Hezbollah next year with a new US president that actually supports their ally?

Walter Lantz
Walter Lantz
17 days ago
Reply to  Wyatt W

IMO that’s a fair point. We know that Trump is backing Israel straight up but Biden and the Dems have to read the tea leaves in the next few months. They’re losing support from Jewish-Americans but do they think they can depend the far-Left to push them over the top in November? What about leadership in Iran? Is there a point at which Hezbollah becomes a liability? Recent criticism of the Obama/Biden approach to Iran would seem to suggest that Iran would be happier with a Biden repeat than a Trump comeback. Or does that even matter?
As for Hamas. It looks like the IDF has put a serious kink in their scimitar. If I was Bibi I might float the idea of making a lasting ceasefire conditional on 1) release of all hostages (obvious) and 2) a third party inspection and full disclosure of the tunnel and bunker system.

Ian_S
Ian_S
17 days ago
Reply to  Walter Lantz

Yes, as Jacob Siegel’s piece here the other day emphasizes, Israel’s biggest problem with Hezbollah is that it comes attached to the Biden-supported regime in Tehran. If Biden shuffles off and Trump gets in, the work can begin to weaken, rather than strengthen, Iran. Without the credible threat of intervention by its Iranian guarantors hanging over the theater, Hezbollah could be crushed like a bug.

Steve White
Steve White
13 days ago
Reply to  Wyatt W

At this point some things are just going to happen no matter what the US does or doesn’t do, but fear not, US politicians on both sides are fully owned by the Zionist lobby.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
17 days ago

This is the most useless “analysis” I have ever read on this topic. The author seems to be an intellectual lightweight, if this is typical of his stuff.

Also, Israel has its work cut out for it, but seriously? By this author’s logic, anything challenging should be avoided, lest failure occur.

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
16 days ago

All of the many aggressions against Israel over the last three quarters of a century have occurred with few criticisms of Israel’s response from Europe or the U.S. October 7 changed that paradigm. Now highly-charged explicit public protests against Israel are common on both sides of the Atlantic and Western governments are pressuring Israel toward restraint. Those are new and different from what Israel has received from its allies in the past. Given the long standing animus of Hezbollah toward Israel and its repeated military aggressions against her despite the former prevailing Western support, it is easy to imagine that Hezbollah will be tempted to take advantage of this recent adjustment in commitment to Israel from its allies.

If Israel faces an all-out assault from Lebanon the course and outcome is far from certain. It will not be a larger version of Gaza. Hezbollah is a credible existential threat to Israel in ways Hamas never has been. One scenario that should be considered is that Hezbollah will manage to penetrate Israel’s northern border with momentum that appears to jeopardize Israel’s territorial integrity. It has already, with much less than full effort, pushed Israeli civilians out of northern Israel. In all-out war would further success embolden Iran, Palestine, Syria, et al to pile on even more support to Hezbollah or even dare to directly engage? If so, what would the U.S. do? And, critically, what would the U.S. do if merely furnishing weapons were insufficient to halt an advancing Hezbollah? Would the U.S. conduct direct air and missile offensive assaults on Lebanon? In a worst-case scenario would American troops become involved? Given the political fault lines in the West exposed by October 7, what then would be the magnitude and character of domestic unrest in response to a military conflict orders of magnitude bloodier than Gaza?

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
16 days ago
Reply to  Ex Nihilo

You asked 20 questions, but gave no added clarity.

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
15 days ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

They are rhetorical questions and, as such, intended to provoke consideration of concepts and suggest possibilities. The overarching point is that the current situation in the Middle East is distinctly different from the many previous iterations of Israel-Arab conflict with a correspondingly different potential outcome than in the past. The geopolitical background is also fundamentally different, begging the questions of whether, to what degree, and for how long Israel can count on Western support. That may seem a lack of clarity for you but, for the Israelis, it is crystal clear: they can trust only themselves. The practical point for the West is that pressuring Israel to soften its responses to aggressors emboldens those adversaries to even greater aggression, which in turn may lead to the U.S. being painted into a corner it cannot escape.

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
15 days ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

.