By Girish Linganna
Hezbollah, The Lebanese Movement, has issued a warning, expressing full readiness to engage in combat against Israel. This follows days of exchange of fire between their fighters and Israeli soldiers along the border. Both sides have been involved in shelling and trading rocket fire across their borders since the Palestinian armed faction, Hamas, initiated an attack on Israel on October 7, resulting in nearly 1,400 casualties.
Israel’s military, meanwhile, has been evacuating 28 communities near its northern border with Lebanon because of rising hostilities with Hezbollah militants, according to the BBC. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) has also deployed tens of thousands of additional soldiers along its border with Lebanon.
On Sunday, intense fighting broke out in several locations along the Israel-Lebanon frontier as the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) personnel and Hezbollah exchanged fire. The first Israeli civilian death in the current round of violence also occurred from a Hezbollah strike when a man in his 40s died in an anti-tank missile fire in the border village of Shtula. An Israeli soldier also died in a missile attack on an army post.
Last Monday, three Israeli soldiers died in an exchange of fire between Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants who had crossed over the border from Lebanon, adds BBC. On the same day, at least three Hezbollah militants were eliminated in an IDF attack on sites in Lebanon in retaliation to mortar fire.
As violence intensifies, there are concerns among observers that Hezbollah may initiate a new front against Israel, likely on the urging of its leaders and their Iranian supporters. While such a scenario could alleviate the pressure on Hamas and the suffering of civilians in Gaza, it would have severe consequences for Lebanon and come at a significant cost to Israel, analysts speaking to Al-Jazeera have said.
The year 2006 saw Hezbollah’s seizure of two Israeli soldiers along its border, igniting a large-scale military retaliation by Israel. This conflict extended over 34 days, resulting in casualties of over 1,100 Lebanese civilians and 165 Israelis. While the outcome of the war remained inconclusive, the civilian population of Lebanon bore the brunt of the suffering. The conflict led to the destruction of, or damage to, approximately 30,000 homes, 109 bridges and 78 medical facilities, as reported by the International Committee for the Red Cross.
Nicholas Blanford, an authority on Hezbollah associated with the Atlantic Council, a Washington, DC-based think tank, had estimated Hezbollah’s strength at 3,000-5,000 fighters and short-range missiles within its arsenal to target Israel. In the subsequent 17 years, Hezbollah has made significant strides in enhancing its military capabilities. According to Blanford, Hezbollah, at present, has the capability to cause much more harm to Israel than at any point since its inception in 1948.”
Blanford’s evaluation suggests that Hezbollah’s forces have expanded to encompass around 60,000 fighters, comprising both full-time members and reservists. Additionally, the group has acquired long-range rockets that could strike deep into Israeli territory, besides substantially increasing its missile stockpile, growing from 14,000 in 2006 to approximately 150,000 today.
Although the majority of these missiles are short-range, Hezbollah has also acquired Iranian precision-guided missiles with a range of 300 kilometres (186 miles). Notably, Hezbollah maintains a highly trained ‘special forces’ unit poised for potential infiltration into Israel during times of conflict. Blanford emphasised that Israeli officials have increasingly regarded Hezbollah as their primary security concern in recent years.
According to Randa Slim, who serves as director of the Conflict and Resolutions Program at the Middle East Institute, the Syrian conflict—where Hezbollah actively supported President Bashar al-Assad—provided the group with an opportunity to enhance its combat capabilities. The extended duration of the war allowed Hezbollah to acquire new skills, particularly in the domains of urban warfare and intelligence operations. Slim noted that Hezbollah’s intelligence systems saw significant improvements during its involvement in the Syrian conflict, contributing to the group’s overall combat proficiency.
Although sporadic border clashes between Israel and Hezbollah have been relatively common, Slim suggests that there is an increased risk of a major escalation at present. She points out that Hezbollah and Iran may consider opening a second front against Israel depending on the severity of the situation in Gaza. If Hamas faces the imminent threat of being eliminated, Hezbollah could become more actively involved.
Slim highlights that Iran has unified various entities into its ‘resistance axis’, forming a more cohesive and coordinated force. Hezbollah has discussed this concept, often referred to as the unification of fronts, which resembles Article 5 of NATO in the sense that an attack on one is seen as an attack on all. This represents a significant shift from the past. The increased coordination among Iran and its allied groups, along with Hezbollah’s potential to engage on multiple fronts, has heightened concerns about the likelihood of a larger conflict with Israel.
However, despite the inherent risks, Blanford suggests that Iran and Hezbollah are likely to exercise restraint. He points out that Hezbollah serves as a significant deterrent against any potential Israeli or US intentions to attack Iran. In the event of a war in Lebanon, Hezbollah would likely sustain considerable damage and Iran would lose an essential means of deterrence. However, he acknowledges that the possibility of war cannot be entirely ruled out. Iran could still activate its proxies against Israel if it deems it the most opportune time to launch an attack.
The United States is aware of these risks and has deployed two aircraft carriers to the eastern Mediterranean, partly as a deterrent against Iranian-backed groups that might target Israel. Blanford also suggests that Israel could have its own plans, potentially capitalizing on US diplomatic efforts and military positioning to launch an initial strike against Hezbollah.
Slim highlights that Hezbollah has the capacity to ‘inflict a terrible cost on Israel’, although it remains outmatched. She suggests that the group could sustain an assault on Israel, damaging critical infrastructure, such as the Ben-Gurion airport and major electricity grids. However, Israel, with its superior military strength, could ultimately reduce most of Lebanon to rubble.
The situation in Syria, where Hezbollah was engaged in a different kind of war against various militias funded by some Arab governments, pales in comparison to confronting the powerful Israeli military. In a broader conflict, Israel is likely to employ what it terms the ‘Dahiya Doctrine’, named after a civilian neighbourhood and a Hezbollah stronghold in south Beirut. This doctrine dictates the use of disproportionate force targeting both civilian and military infrastructure.
Imad Salamey, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University, has cautioned that a war against Hezbollah could potentially lead to civil strife in Lebanon, which is already grappling with economic and political crises. He noted that the migration of mostly Shia Lebanese citizens to predominantly Christian and Sunni cities in the north could ignite sectarian tensions. This viewpoint is shared by other observers.
Critics and opponents of Hezbollah might also explicitly accuse the group, along with its perceived supporters, of contributing to involving the already troubled country in a war. Imad Salamey stated, “If (a war) happens, it won’t be like 2006. Domestic fighting and resistance will break out between communities.” (IPA Service)
The author is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru.