Israel and the United States have warned Hezbollah, Iran’s supreme surrogate in the Middle East, to stay out of the current war pitting the Israeli armed forces against Hamas in and around the Gaza Strip.
But for all intents and purposes, the war on the northern front already has begun. Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said yesterday that Hezbollah has “decided to participate” in the hostilities.
Judging by the events of the past two weeks, Hezbollah, an ally of Hamas, is ignoring warnings by U.S. President Joe Biden and pushing Israel into a two-front war that could well drag the United States, Israel’s closest ally, into the fighting.
Since October 7, the darkest day in Israeli history, when some 3,000 Hamas terrorists stormed into southern Israel and murdered 1,400 Israelis and foreigners in an unprecedented killing spree, Hezbollah has been firing rockets, mortars and missiles at Israeli army positions, towns and villages near the Lebanese border. Hezbollah has also attempted to send terrorists into Israel’s territory.
Israel has responded proportionately to each of these attacks with artillery fire, drone attacks and air strikes, but has yet to launch a major offensive against Hezbollah.
These tit-for-tat clashes have exacted a mounting price in blood. As of yesterday, six Israeli soldiers have fallen, including a 22-year-old dual Israeli-American named Omer Balva. In addition, 25 Hezbollah terrorists and six Palestinians fighting alongside Hezbollah have been killed.
These skirmishes have also claimed the lives of one Israeli and several Lebanese civilians.
The weak, corrupt and ineffectual Lebanese government has been powerless to rein in Hezbollah, a state-within-a-state. It is missing in action.
The current fighting is by far the most serious since the 34-day Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon in July and August of 2006. Hezbollah’s strategy in advance of a widely expected Israeli invasion of Gaza is “to weaken the Israeli enemy and let them know we are ready,” said its deputy leader, Sheikh Naim Qassem, on October 21.
Hezbollah’s stated objective is to keep three Israeli army divisions tied up in the north and away from Gaza, Qassem said in a speech during the funeral of a Hezbollah terrorist killed in the past few days.
And in a direct reference to Israel and Hamas, he said, “Do you believe that if you try to crush the Palestinian resistance, other resistance fighters in the region will not act? We are in the heart of the battle today.” Warning Israel not to launch a ground operation, Qassem predicted that Gaza would be its “graveyard.”
The United States has advised Israel not to widen the war, according to The New York Times. The Biden administration fears that a two-front war would stretch Israel’s capabilities and resources and might well draw Iran, Israel’s arch foe, into it.
Should this scenario unfold, the United States might have no alternative but to fight on Israel’s side in what would be an extremely destructive regional war.
The New York Times further reports that Gallant has called for a preemptive strike on Hezbollah since it poses a greater military threat to Israel than Hamas. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, has advised restraint for now.
Nonetheless, Netanyahu has warned Hezbollah of the dire consequences should it engage Israel in a full-scale war. “If Hezbollah decides to enter the war, it will long for the Second Lebanon War,” he said on October 22 in a reference to Israel’s last war with Hezbollah. “It will be making the mistake of its life. We will strike it with strength that it cannot even imagine and the significance to it and to … Lebanon will be devastating.”
Jonathan Conricus, an Israel Defence Forces spokesman, has conveyed an identical message to Hezbollah.
As he put it yesterday, “Hezbollah … is dragging Lebanon into a war that it will gain nothing from, but stands to lose a lot. Hezbollah is playing a very, very dangerous game. They’re escalating the situation. We see more and more attacks every day. Is the Lebanese state really willing to jeopardize what is left of Lebanese prosperity and Lebanese sovereignty for the sake of terrorists in Gaza? That’s a question that the Lebanese authorities need to ask and answer themselves.”
In the meantime, in an unmistakable sign that Israel could be facing a two-front war sooner later than later, the Israeli government has ordered the evacuation of Kiryat Shmona, the biggest town in northern Galilee.
This follows Israel’s decision to evacuate 42 communities within two kilometers of the Lebanese border.
Israel, too, has bombed Syrian airports in Aleppo and Damascus, knocking them out of service, for the third time in ten days. Iran uses these airports to resupply Hezbollah with weapons and munitions.
According to reports, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Esmail Ghaani, arrived in Syria on October 21. He reportedly told Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that Iran wants to use the Syrian side of the Golan Heights as a platform to confront Israel should the Israel-Hamas war expand.
Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who has often threatened Israel, has not delivered a public speech since October 7. But he apparently believes that Hezbollah is a match for Israel. In May 2000, in the wake of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon, he said, “This Israel, which has nuclear weapons and the strongest air force in the region, is more fragile than a spiderweb.”
Nasrallah did not exhibit such bravado immediately after the 2006 war, when he voiced regret for having ignited it.
On July 12 of that year, Hezbollah ambushed an Israeli army patrol just inside Israel, killing three soldiers and kidnapping two others. Five more Israeli soldiers were killed in further fighting.
This border incident led to war, which resulted in the deaths of 165 Israeli soldiers and about 500 Hezbollah terrorists.
Shortly after a ceasefire ended the war, Nasrallah said, “We did not think, even one per cent, that the capture (of the two Israeli soldiers) would lead to a war at this time and of this magnitude. You ask me, if I had known on July 11 … that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not”
Seventeen years on, Hezbollah appears no longer deterred by Israel’s military might. Nasrallah, having observed weekly demonstrations in Israel protesting Netanyahu’s divisive proposal to overhaul the judiciary, thinks that Israel is torn by fatally deep divisions that would adversely affect the performance of its armed forces.
If he decides to wage war on Israel, he will pay a very heavy price, despite his 100,000-strong army and his arsenal of some 150,000 rockets. Israel would hit Hezbollah extremely hard, both in southern Lebanon and Beirut. And Lebanon, which is struggling with an economic crisis of epic proportions, would be turned into a wasteland, as Gallant warned two months ago.
But a war on this scale and ferocity would tax Israel to the hilt, inflicting horrendous casualties and immense damage to Israeli towns and cities.