On the Brink: Can All-Out War Between Israel and Hizbullah be Avoided?

Tensions run high: Hizbullah fighters attend the funeral of one of their commanders who was killed in an Israeli strike in January 2024. Image: Associated Press / Alamy

With Israel and Hizbullah engaging in months of tit-for-tat strikes across the Lebanese border, the dangers of a full-scale conflict are clear. But there are reasons for both parties to refrain from escalating further.

Deep into its fourth month, Israel’s offensive in Gaza remains in an intense phase of operations. While the US assesses that approximately 30% of Hamas’s fighting force has been killed, the Israeli government has little to brag about in terms of achieving its two main objectives: eradicating Hamas and freeing the approximately 130 hostages under the group’s control. Forced to juggle between far-right ministers who label any compromise with Hamas as defeatism and the families of the hostages, for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the war remains an albatross around his neck.

Yet as difficult as Gaza’s operating environment is, the simmering conflict 130 miles to the north has the potential to be even worse. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Hizbullah have spent the last four months engaged in a low-level, undeclared war, characterised by an incessant tit-for-tat that has produced casualties on both sides. The Israel–Lebanon border region, governed over the last 17 years by an informal arrangement that has deterred Israel and Hizbullah from replaying their full-scale conflict in 2006, is now increasingly fragile. The outstanding question is whether the war of words between senior Israeli and Hizbullah officials will, over time, become a shooting war that could compel Israeli troops to enter Lebanese territory, in what would be Israel’s fourth major ground incursion into Lebanon in 46 years.

Israel’s Muddled History in Lebanon

Israeli military operations inside Lebanon are hardly unprecedented. On 14 March 1978, the IDF launched an invasion of Southern Lebanon to push the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) north of the Litani River, 18 miles from the Israel–Lebanon border. The military campaign was instigated by a PLO terrorist attack that took place three days earlier, in which militants infiltrated Israel from the sea, took control of a bus and killed 35 Israeli tourists. The IDF would withdraw later that year on the assurance that UN peacekeepers and Israel’s Christian militia partners would exercise security control over the area.

Four years later, in June 1982, the IDF conducted an even larger ground offensive into Lebanon, taking Israeli troops all the way to Beirut. The mission was similar to the previous incursion in 1978: destroying PLO infrastructure, bolstering the security of civilians living in Northern Israel and demolishing the PLO as a fighting force. The invasion was a mixed bag: although PLO leader Yasser Arafat was exiled to Tunisia and a buffer zone was established in Lebanon’s south, the entire operation cost Israel significant international support due to the extent of the destruction. Israel’s relations with the US were put under strain. President Ronald Reagan was lukewarm on Israel’s policy and told the Israeli prime minister at the time, Menachem Begin, that a foray into Lebanon would cause ‘serious complications’ for US–Israel relations as a whole. The IDF would later pull back to Southern Lebanon in 1985 and consolidate its positions there, beginning a long, costly and politically unpopular occupation that would eventually conclude with a full Israeli withdrawal in 2000. Hizbullah would be the ultimate beneficiaries, taking territory south of the Litani River.

The Israelis also mounted smaller operations throughout this period, utilising air power in an attempt to degrade Hizbullah’s military capacity – most specifically the organisation’s rocket capability. In 1993, after Hizbullah killed five Israeli soldiers, Israel launched Operation Accountability, a week-long air campaign against Hizbullah infrastructure in Southern Lebanon and the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley. In 1996, the IDF engaged in a 16-day bombardment against Hizbullah (Operation Grapes of Wrath) to stem rocket attacks into Northern Israel. Lebanon’s ports were blockaded in a bid to stop weapons flows to Hizbullah, and the IDF conducted its first airstrikes in Beirut since the 1982 invasion.

The Second Lebanon War

Of course, the most extensive Israeli engagement in Lebanon occurred in the summer of 2006. On 13 July, Hizbullah militants infiltrated the border into northern Israel, abducting two Israeli soldiers and killing three others. While Hizbullah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah sought to use the Israeli soldiers as bargaining chips for the release of prisoners in Israel, such an exchange was simply inconceivable for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Hizbullah’s daring mission into Israel served as a casus belli for the IDF to initiate a comprehensive military campaign against the Lebanese terrorist group – one that would be far larger in scale and scope than the 1993 and 1996 engagements.

The Israeli intelligence and military establishment recognises that Hizbullah is much more militarily capable and politically powerful today than it was in 2006

The IDF not only targeted Hizbullah rocket-launching sites, command-and-control nodes and weapons storage facilities, but also took aim at Lebanese civilian infrastructure. Beirut International Airport was put out of commission; Lebanon was blockaded by sea; and Beirut’s southern suburbs, where Hizbullah’s headquarters were based, were destroyed. Similar to past campaigns, Israel’s international support depreciated the longer the fighting went on. After first rejecting a ceasefire, George W Bush’s administration later pressed the Israeli government to accept one. On 11 August, the UN Security Council approved Resolution 1701, which called for a full cessation of hostilities by the combatants, a full Israeli troop withdrawal from Lebanese territory, Hizbullah’s withdrawal north of the Litani River, and the deployment of UN and Lebanese army troops to maintain the peace.

While the conventional wisdom is that the 2006 war in Lebanon ended in a loss for Israel, the reality is more nuanced. The IDF’s performance was lacking in key areas, no doubt. The Olmert government’s objectives for the campaign – getting the two Israeli hostages back and crushing Hizbullah as a fighting force – were maximalist to the point of being unattainable. As the Winograd Commission concluded in 2008, ‘Israel initiated a long war, which ended without its clear military victory’.

Israel, however, wasn’t without its achievements. In the short term, Hizbullah’s military capacity was degraded. The volley of rocket fire into Northern Israel fell exponentially after the war. Deterrence was established along the Israel–Lebanon border, with Israel and Hizbullah both concluding that the costs of another round of major fighting were too high and wouldn’t serve their respective interests.

Deterrence is Holding – For Now

This 17-year-old arrangement has frayed ever since Hamas’s 7 October attack on Israel. The Israel–Lebanon border region resembles a warzone, albeit one that hasn’t been officially declared by the combatants. Israel’s air defence system shoots down Hizbullah drones and anti-tank missiles daily, and Israeli airstrikes target various Hizbullah locations just as frequently. On 23 January, Hizbullah claimed responsibility for a missile attack on the Meron airbase in what the group said was retaliation for Israel’s assassinations of Hizbullah operatives in Lebanon and Syria. Israel has increasingly taken to using precision strikes against individual Hizbullah fighters, the most significant thus far being the 8 January assassination of Wissam al-Tawil, a commander of Hizbullah’s Radwan Force.

The big question on the minds of Israeli, Lebanese, Hizbullah and US policymakers is whether the limited spats will expand beyond the border region. There is good reason to believe that deterrence between Israel and Hizbullah still holds up well. The Israeli intelligence and military establishment recognises that Hizbullah is much more militarily capable and politically powerful today than it was in 2006. Estimates of Hizbullah’s rank-and-file numbers range from 50,000 to 100,000. The group’s missile arsenal, complete with precision-guided anti-tank missiles, medium-range rockets and Fateh 110 projectiles, is formidable; some are able to reach any part of Israeli territory, effectively locking the entire country down in the event of major hostilities.

Hizbullah has reasons to stay away from an all-out war with Israel as well. First, Lebanon’s economy is in such a depressed state that any conflict would wipe out whatever economic potential it has left by scaring away investors, eliminating tourist flows and heightening reconstruction costs that Lebanon already can’t afford, putting the country on a path to long-term financial destitution. The civilian casualties would be significant, and given the political polarisation within Lebanese politics today, Hizbullah would be foolish to assume that its current political position would survive intact. Nasrallah isn’t immune to political considerations; in addition to being a militant outfit, Hizbullah is also a political movement with seats in the Lebanese parliament.

All the major players appear to recognise that diplomacy is the most effective way to defuse the Israel–Hizbullah standoff, if not permanently then at least peacefully

Iran, Hizbullah’s primary patron, must also be taken into account. Despite the Islamic Republic’s incessant anti-Israel statements and its material support for its proxies in the region, Tehran is unlikely to support Hizbullah stumbling into a war with Israel. Such a scenario would severely jeopardise Iran’s strategy of distancing itself from the current fighting. While US military intervention on Israel’s behalf is hardly guaranteed, Iranian officials can’t rule out the prospect of Washington becoming a party to an Israel–Hizbullah war. If that did come to pass, Iran would then have two options: fighting a much superior adversary in the US to defend its Lebanese proxy or staying on the sidelines, thereby ruining its credibility as a reliable ally. Tehran would prefer not to have to make that choice at all.

Tempers Flare

Even so, it would be irresponsible to rule out conflict entirely. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is so concerned about the Israel–Lebanon border that he has warned about the clashes possibly triggering a regional war. As risky as another Israel–Hizbullah war would be, there’s also a risk for Netanyahu and his coalition government in tolerating Hizbullah’s access to the border, which gives the group a degree of coercive leverage in its dealings with Israel. Israeli politicians and military officers see the status quo, which has pushed approximately 100,000 Israelis from their homes, as politically and economically unsustainable. The fact that tens of thousands of civilians are unable to return is an embarrassing eye sore for Netanyahu and a daily example of his government’s weakness.

It’s therefore no surprise that Israel is becoming more aggressive in its rhetoric. Israeli officials have reiterated that they would prefer to remove Hizbullah from Southern Lebanon diplomatically but haven’t ruled out the military option if talks grind to a halt. IDF Chief of Staff Lt Gen Herzi Halevi was blunt when he recently visited troops in the north: ‘I don’t know when the war in the north is. I can tell you that the likelihood of it happening in the coming months is much higher than it was in the past.’

The US would be wrong to interpret these words as mere bluster – and to its credit, it hasn't. President Joe Biden has already talked Netanyahu out of ordering a massive pre-emptive strike against Hizbullah, but the probability of one hasn’t gone away entirely. As repeatedly demonstrated during Israel’s periodic interventions in Lebanon, the military option entails a lot of risks, and the rewards are anything but certain. Just as Israel’s Gaza operation won’t eliminate Hamas completely, an even bigger (and costlier) military operation in Lebanon is even less likely to eliminate Hizbullah.

All the major players appear to recognise that diplomacy is the most effective way to defuse the Israel–Hizbullah standoff, if not permanently then at least peacefully. The US has spent months trying to mediate a solution, using Lebanese officials as intermediaries to Hizbullah to work out possible formulations. To date, Israel and Hizbullah’s terms remain irreconcilable; the Israelis want Hizbullah to fully implement UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which requires Hizbullah to pack up and move north of the Litani River. Hizbullah is adamant that no diplomatic resolution is possible until the war in Gaza ends. US attempts to find a middle ground – including a proposal that would compel Hizbullah to withdraw four miles from the border – have been rejected, although Nasrallah has kept the door open to talks.

With Israel and Hizbullah sticking to their positions and showing little willingness to compromise, even the most talented mediator would have trouble crafting a mutually acceptable formula. The US shouldn’t give up on backchannel diplomacy. But it also needs to be brutally realistic about what it can accomplish under the present circumstances. The best strategy, at least for the short term, is conflict management. A full resolution of disputes between these two historical adversaries may not be on the cards right now, but that doesn’t preclude the US, its allies and partners from doing what they can to prevent the flare-ups from escalating further. For the US, this requires talking tough to Israel behind closed doors, making it abundantly clear that Washington doesn’t support a pre-emptive Israeli strike under any circumstances and won’t automatically come to Israel’s defence in the event of one. The US, either directly or through the Europeans, Qatar or Oman, should also press Iran to deliver a similar message to its Hizbullah proxy. Given Iran’s desire to avoid direct participation in a regional war, Tehran might be receptive to such a request.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Daniel R DePetris

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