Fifteen years of relative quiet have gone by since Israel’s last war with Hezbollah. Over the past two years, however, there are growing signs Hezbollah and its sponsor Iran are preparing to instigate an escalation on the border. These plans are bolstered by an assessment that such an escalation won’t flare into a costly war with Lebanon. The more the dire economic and political crisis in Lebanon deepens, the more numerous the provocations in the border area become. Not all of these acts of aggression can be directly linked to Hezbollah, but it is obvious that the quiet we enjoyed over the years following the war in 2006 has lately been replaced with tensions of varying degrees.
Friday’s barrage of 19 rockets fired at an IDF military zone on the Lebanon-Israel border, for which Hezbollah claimed responsibility for the first time in 15 years, was the most serious test of the terror organization’s premise that the “balance of deterrence” established with the IDF will keep Israel from starting a war. The rockets were fired with greater force and precision than those fired by Palestinian organizations earlier in the week. Hezbollah used a multi-barrel launcher that fired all the rockets in quick succession. Luckily, the Iron Dome intercepted half of them, and the rest landed in open areas.
News outlets reported the standard line that the barrage caused no casualties or damage. But, of course, this is not so. While not every rocket attack is covered on international news, every rocket launched at Israel causes damage. Thousands of Israelis bolt for cover in bomb shelters – sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes in the middle of the day, often at the peak of the tourism season. The Second Lebanon War, during which the conduct of the IDF and the Israeli government was criticized by many Israelis, did indeed establish a balance of deterrence that brought relative quiet to the northern border. This quiet was disturbed from time to time, but each disturbance was always thought to be the final one – up until now.
It must be said, every rocket shooting against Israel over the past two months on the northern border (there have been six) has had a different context, rationale and instigator. The latest barrage demonstrates Hezbollah’s desire to convey a message internally to the Lebanese people after two rocket launches by Palestinian Hamas in Lebanon that it alone is the authority in southern Lebanon.
Thankfully, Hezbollah failed. Its operatives and the rocket launcher with several remaining rockets were intercepted by the residents of the Druze village “Chouya.” The frightened face of the Hezbollah operative who was apprehended was ridiculed on numerous social media outlets, and this presented an opportunity for Hezbollah opponents to again demand Hezbollah be disarmed. Notwithstanding claims by many Lebanese citizens that their country is hostage to the ‘State of Hezbollah,’ there are areas in Lebanon that Hezbollah will never control.
On the strategic level, there is no argument that from “top-down,” Iran has an interest in escalating its confrontation with Israel, and by extension the US, without deteriorating into war. This was reflected in the election of Raisi as president, the shelling of American assets in Iraq, and the lethal attack on an Israeli-owned ship in the Arab Gulf, which killed a British citizen and a Romanian citizen. At the same time, from “bottom-up,” Hezbollah and Palestinian organizations assess that firing rockets at Israel from Lebanon will not lead the two states into war for a variety of reasons: the new Israeli government, the global COVID crisis, Israeli restraint as a result of international efforts to help Lebanon at the current moment, and Israeli-American coordination regarding Iran.
Consequently, it is likely we will see more rocket-firing incidents or provocations on the border in the near future by both Hezbollah and the Palestinian organizations. These events increase the potential for war because they will make the lives of the residents of northern Israel unbearable, similar to what has been happening near the Gaza border in the south of Israel during the last 20 years.
So, the main dilemma for the IDF and the Israeli leadership now is how to reestablish the effective deterrence that has enabled relative quiet on the northern border for the past 15 years.
Hezbollah’s secretary general has already announced that a sharp response by the Israeli Air Force will lead to further firing by Hezbollah. Since there were no casualties, the IDF chose to respond by firing only at the sources of the shooting and was criticized by many in Israel who saw it as the erosion of deterrence, a central component in the Israeli security strategy.
Bottom line: A fatality of an Israeli civilian or even an IDF soldier will likely throw us into an action-reaction cycle that may end with war in the region. As a resident of the Galilee, I have never written an assessment that I so dearly wish will prove wrong.