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Is Israel-Hezbollah war unavoidable?

Strategic and political experts assess the likelihood of a full-scale war on Israel’s northern border.
TJI Wrap
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Bearded man with turban

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah speaks at a ceremony commemorating a slain Hezbollah senior commander, June 19, 2024. (Screenshot)

Published: 20 June 2024

Last updated: 20 June 2024

Israel’s foreign minister Israel Katz said this week that a decision on “all-out war” with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon is coming soon. 

His comment came as the head of Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group Hassan Nasrallah this week threatened “No place in Israel will be safe” if war breaks out on Israel’s northern border. Hezbollah also released a video detailing targets in Haifa and threatened to attack Cyprus if it allowed Israel to use its airspace.

Hezbollah has been attacking northern Israel since October 8, leading to Israeli reprisals and an escalating conflict Israel has increasingly warned could spark open war. So, is war inevitable?

Not a question of if, but when
Dr Omer Dostri, Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, Jerusalem Post

The State of Israel has no choice other than to embark on a large-scale and comprehensive war to defeat Hezbollah in order to provide security to its citizens, change the strategic picture, and reduce the threats against the state. This is as opposed to a limited military operation aimed at deterrence, such as in the second Lebanon War.

We cannot accept a strategic situation in which a terrorist organisation leads to the mass evacuation of approximately 80,000 residents from their homes in the north. Hezbollah is currently the most serious threat to the State of Israel, bar Iran. If Israel does not manage to address this threat immediately, it will receive an 'October 7' in the North in a few years, after Hezbollah consolidates and re-establishes itself on the northern border.

Therefore, Israel must take advantage of the current security situation, the international legitimacy of a future response given Hezbollah's incessant attacks, the Israeli evasion of escalation so far in order to exhaust all diplomatic options, and the fact that Hezbollah cannot strategically and operationally surprise Israel at the border at this current time. The Israeli south is also in a state of war, and many reserve forces are mobilised. The army is prepared and ready regarding military skills and exercises.

"An all-out war with Hezbollah could lead to severe damage on the home front. This scenario involves the launching of thousands of missiles per day across all parts of the country, with a reasonable possibility of hitting critical infrastructure such as electricity and water supplies.

"At the same time, if Israel initiates the attack, which will probably happen, and does not postpone it further, it is likely that it will carry out pre-emptive strikes against Hezbollah's weapons depots, which will reduce Hezbollah's long-range and precision launch capability.” 

Israel is in danger of believing that war with Hezbollah is inevitable
Alon Pinkas, Haaretz

The conventional wisdom about the "inevitability of war" between Israel and Hezbollah, and how that war will transpire exactly, suffers from the same herd mentality and fixated premonitions, exacerbated by potentially flawed assessments on escalation, military capabilities and political objectives.

That the situation and circumstances along the Israel-Lebanon border are unacceptable, intolerable and unsustainable is beyond doubt. Had there not been a Gaza war, there would have been a major military operation and likely a full-on war in Lebanon already.

A war against Hezbollah may be warranted, but it lacks clear political objectives. At the end of that war cycle, we would be exactly where we are now – only with mutual devastation. By definition, such a war would not be decisive. Power relations in Lebanon may not be altered and the Israeli tendency to think every few years that a military operation will change the political reality was proven wrong time and time again – ever since the massive invasion in 1982, aka the first Lebanon war.

The assumption that Iran will stay out of such a war because it has no convincing argument or strategic benefits to join in is questionable. Hezbollah is Iran's main and most powerful regional ally. It can employ other militias in its influence orbit, such as the Houthis in the Red Sea. Or threaten to get involved directly, as it did in April when it launched some 300 rockets and drones at Israel.

The idea that Israel knows what Iran and Hezbollah are thinking – and is ascribing to them predictable and cost-benefit decision-making – is not just arrogant. It could be very wrong.

Hezbollah has become Israel's greatest threat
Ron Ben Yishai, Ynet

Hezbollah, as the vanguard of Iran's proxy network, has become the primary threat that Israel must urgently remove. Not only because Hezbollah emptied the northern Galilee of its residents, causing massive destruction and fires in the area, but also because it holds about 50,000 Israelis hostage who can’t return to their homes until Hassan Nasrallah and Ali Khamenei allow them to do so.

The tables have also turned militarily. While the IDF, via its manoeuvring in the Gaza Strip, is close to dismantling Hamas' military power, significantly undermining its governance capabilities and managing to prevent an intifada in the West Bank through aggressive actions, it has so far failed to achieve any significant strategic goal on the northern border, certainly not one that would bring Hezbollah to seek a ceasefire.

Contrary to IDF predictions, the footage of destruction in the Strip doesn’t deter the Lebanese terror organisation and its Iranian patrons. Evidence of this is their escalation of retaliatory attacks after every Israeli airstrike. Even cautious and calculated Iranian rulers didn’t hesitate to launch a massive and direct missile and drone attack on Israel, something they had avoided for over a decade.

The strategic implication is clear: If Israel doesn’t end the northern conflict with a decisive victory that restores its deterrence, not only toward Hezbollah but also toward Iran, we could face repeated attacks in the coming years intended to wear Israel down militarily, and especially mentally, leading to its internal collapse.

This trend will worsen when Iran acquires nuclear weapons or the capability to produce such weapons within weeks. The bottom line is that Israel must change its war goals. Defeating Hamas and freeing the hostages will no longer suffice. The north is now the focus; restoring peace and hoping Hezbollah’s missiles and drones will rust over time isn’t enough.

By tying Lebanon agreement to Gaza truce, Hezbollah obstructs the deal all sides seek
Zvi Bar’el, Haaretz

The working assumption of Israel, Lebanon and the mediating countries is that as soon as the fighting ends in Gaza, it will also end in Lebanon. This assumption is based on Hezbollah's conduct during the ceasefire in Gaza in November, part of the first hostage deal; on Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's remarks that he tied the continuation of the conflict with Israel to "developments on the ground"; and above all to the assumption that Hezbollah and Iran seek to preserve Lebanese public legitimacy such that it would allow the organisation to continue to dictate Lebanese policy and control the country's economic, military and political centres of power without triggering civil unrest or, worse, civil war.

According to the terms of the deal now on the table, the IDF is supposed to withdraw from population centres in the first stage, and later from all of Gaza. The result is that Hezbollah has essentially created a situation in which quiet in Israel's north and perhaps even Lebanon's fate depend on the success of the hostage deal, which in turn depends on a complete ceasefire in Gaza.

Nor is that the only problem. Even if a ceasefire is achieved in Gaza and Hezbollah complies with the assumption that it will also then stop shooting, there is still no agreed plan for removing its forces from the border region, dismantling its bases near the border and securing its consent to let an international force – with or without the Lebanese army – deploy along the border.


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