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Vidisha Arora
Geopolitical Risk Intelligence Analyst

Escalating tensions between Israel and Hezbollah

Backdrop
While global attention remains riveted on the Israel-Hamas conflict since October 7, 2023, another simmering tension unfolds along Israel’s northern border with Hezbollah. While the southern clashes monopolize headlines, Hezbollah, under the leadership of Hassan Nasrallah, strategically orchestrates its offensive in tandem with the Gaza conflict. The underlying objective? To divert Israeli military resources from the southern front, thereby easing pressure on Hamas. However, Israel’s response transcends the confines of Gaza’s ceasefire negotiations, emblematic of its unwavering commitment to security imperatives and national interests. Such steadfastness signals a cessation only upon the attainment of tangible assurances.

Nasrallah strategically intertwined his military actions with the Gaza conflict, foreseeing a potential resolution coinciding with an Israel-Hamas ceasefire. This tactic suggested an attempt to exploit the dynamics of regional diplomacy, leveraging the international pressure for de-escalation. However, Israel’s response is unlikely to be governed solely by the timeline of Gaza’s ceasefire negotiations. Given the severity of Hezbollah’s aggression and its backing by Iran, Israel is poised to uphold its security imperatives vigorously. The Israeli stance suggests a commitment to cessation only when tangible assurances of restored security and protection of national interests are achieved. This broader context emphasizes the depth of Israel’s strategic calculations, underlining the complexity of managing multifront threats and the unwavering resolve to safeguard its sovereignty.

Israel has repeatedly fought Hezbollah since the group’s inception in the early 1980s. Indeed, Hezbollah has defined itself from the start in opposition to Israel and dedicated itself to driving Israel out of Lebanon. Israel and Hezbollah conducted periodic operations against each other in the 1980s and 1990s despite the presence of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), and Hezbollah succeeded in forcing the Israeli military to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000.In the process, Hezbollah conducted an array of terrorist attacks against Israel around the world.

Who is Hezbollah?
Hezbollah is designated as a terrorist organization by a large portion of the international community.

The terrorist organization emerged in the early 1980s following Iran’s Islamic Revolution, spearheaded by approximately 500 militants from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Initially conceived to promote the radical Islamist doctrine propagated by Iran’s religious clerics, its inception coincided with a fervent campaign against Western influence in Lebanon and the broader region. Despite its evolution into a formidable political and military entity, Hezbollah remains deeply entrenched within Iran’s ideological and strategic orbit. Today, its leadership and operational hierarchy remain firmly tethered to the directives of Iran’s Supreme Leader, extending across both political and religious spheres.

With an extensive reliance on Iranian support, Hezbollah’s operational capabilities and financial sustenance are overwhelmingly dependent on Tehran. The organization’s annual budget, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars, derives almost exclusively from Iranian sources, underscoring the depth of its symbiotic relationship with the Iranian regime.

Hezbollah’s dependence on Iran extends across various critical domains. In addition to supplying weapons, the Iranian military and the IRGC Quds Force, previously led by Qassem Soleimani and presently commanded by Ismail Qaani, play pivotal roles in shaping Hezbollah’s military capabilities. They oversee the organization’s force expansion, development of strategic and operational frameworks for future conflicts, as well as the training and readiness of both commanders and fighters. This comprehensive involvement underscores the depth of Iran’s influence within Hezbollah’s operational infrastructure.

Context
Since the outbreak of the Gaza war in October, Hezbollah has predominantly relied on its seasoned core fighting force to navigate the complexities of the conflict. However, the landscape shifted dramatically with Israel’s announcement of the Rafah campaign, prompting Hezbollah to issue a call for general mobilization, a move typically associated with activating its reserves. While this call may serve primarily as a rhetorical maneuver, signaling readiness rather than an immediate surge of forces to the front lines, it aligns with Hezbollah’s characteristic approach of measured responses to changing dynamics. By refraining from an immediate full-scale mobilization, Hezbollah appears to be exercising caution, perhaps in a bid to avoid prematurely escalating the situation into an all-out war, at least for the present.

Nevertheless, the evolving scenario on the ground suggests a mounting risk of conflict, irrespective of the parties’ aversion to it. This can be evidenced by the recent advancement in Hezbollah’s arsenal. On 13 May, Hezbollah unveiled the use of a new heavy rocket, “Jihad Mughniyah,”. This development underscores Hezbollah’s continuous efforts to bolster its military capabilities and adapt to emerging threats. Additionally, the deployment of the “Suhab” drone, specifically designed to target Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, further underscores Hezbollah’s strategic agility and determination to challenge Israel’s defensive capabilities.

The recent shift in the strategy and the timing

These recent events come against the backdrop of last month’s direct exchange of fire between Israel and Iran highlighting Hezbollah’s critical role as Tehran’s primary ally in the region. The missile and drone attack on Israel on April 13 revealed Iran’s military limitations. To mount a significant operation or future conflicts, Iran would likely rely on Hezbollah’s extensive arsenal for support. This underscores Hezbollah’s weapons as vital defensive assets for Iran, which it’s reluctant to risk for Gaza or Hamas. However, Hezbollah also faced mounting pressure from Israeli attacks, prompting it to cautiously escalate actions particularly after April 13.

This can be evidenced by the fact that Hezbollah started using its advanced third-generation drones, demonstrating improved precision. On April 17, a drone strike on the border town of Arab al-Aramshe injured eighteen Israelis, mostly IDF reservists. This was followed by a similar strike near Beit Hillel and Kiryat Shmona the day before. Hezbollah used advanced Ababil kamikaze drones capable of targeting specific objectives in both cases.

Furthermore, considering that Hezbollah claimed responsibility for an attack on a base north of Acre, marking its deepest incursion into Israel since the Gaza conflict began. This incident suggested the deployment of more sophisticated weaponry and signaled Hezbollah’s readiness to broaden its engagement and expand the conflict zone. Importantly, these developments occurred shortly after four IDF soldiers were injured during a cross-border operation in Lebanon, highlighting the rapidly evolving and increasingly tense situation along the Israel-Lebanon border.

The beginning of the Rafah campaign holds significant importance for Hezbollah for two primary reasons. 

Firstly, the international response to the operation has been notably severe, primarily driven by concerns over potential humanitarian repercussions. This has led Hezbollah to interpret that Israel may currently be facing increased isolation and vulnerability on the global stage.

Secondly, while Israel may prolong its low-intensity military engagements in Gaza for several more months, the initiation of the Rafah campaign could signal the winding down of its primary combat operations in the region. This prospective shift suggests that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) may soon redirect greater resources and attention towards the Lebanon front, with the objective of facilitating the return of northern residents to their homes. Indeed, various indicators and official statements hint at an impending escalation by Israel against Hezbollah following the conclusion of the Rafah campaign.

If Hassan Nasrallah suspects that Israel is gearing up to launch an assault on Hezbollah, he will face a dilemma between two unpalatable choices: either engage in a full-scale war or acquiesce to the conditions proposed by U.S. and French diplomats in recent discussions. The latter scenario would entail withdrawing from the border region, or at least committing to do so formally, while devising a new strategy for deterrence.

The way forward

The strength, resilience, self-reliance of Israel hasn’t gone unnoticed since October 7. That said, In light of the changing strategic landscape and Hezbollah’s evolving capabilities, Israel’s way forward may largely be centered around an all out war or limited war.

An All-Out War

The analysis highlights potential scenarios if deterrence fails between Israel and Hezbollah. The prospect of an all-out war looms larger, as indicated by Israeli Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi’s warning to soldiers. Israel’s rationale suggests an inevitable conflict with Hezbollah, prompting proactive measures rather than reactive responses.

In such a war, Israel would likely target Hezbollah’s military capabilities, including rockets, missiles, and drones, while aiming to push Hezbollah forces away from the border. Despite Israel’s military superiority, Hezbollah’s deep roots in Lebanon and Iranian support make its defeat improbable.

Israel’s military readiness, including intelligence monitoring and strategic preparedness, underscores its capacity for a significant conflict. An Israeli offensive might entail airstrikes to disrupt Hezbollah’s command and control and target its rocket launch sites. The focus would be on Hezbollah’s border presence, reminiscent of strategies employed in Gaza.

There’s also the possibility of broader engagement, potentially involving strikes on Lebanese military assets. Israel could deploy multiple divisions for a ground invasion, aiming to neutralize Hezbollah’s tunnel networks and push its forces back.

Hezbollah’s response would involve guerrilla tactics, cross-border attacks, and missile strikes across Israel. International terrorist activities and influencing Lebanese governance would complement its military actions.

Limited war
Alternatively, a strategy of limited war could persist, characterized by ongoing skirmishes resulting in casualties on both sides. While serving tactical purposes for Israel and Hezbollah, such a conflict exacerbates instability in Lebanon and poses challenges for both parties, including managing displaced populations.

In conclusion, the evolving dynamics between Israel and Hezbollah present complex scenarios ranging from all-out conflict to ongoing limited warfare, each with significant implications for regional stability and civilian populations.

About the Author
Geopolitical Risk Intelligence Analyst, Vidisha Arora, from India. Masters in Diplomacy, Law, and Business with a specialisation in Economics and Foreign Policy.
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