The Threat of Escalation: Can the Israel-Hezbollah Conflict Stay Contained?

The growing hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah could be the Middle Eastern crisis capturing the world’s attention at the moment if it weren’t for the continued slaughter in Gaza.

More fierce combat was frequently taking place near Israel’s northern border with Lebanon in the period preceding the current Israeli offensive in Rafah than in Gaza.

The conflict has been ongoing since the day after Hamas’s October 7 attacks, when Hezbollah launched guided rocket strikes against Israel in “solidarity with the victorious Palestinian resistance.” Since then, Hezbollah has continually fired rockets and drones into Israel, prompting the Israeli military to launch air and military strikes against Hezbollah bases in Lebanon. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are Iran-backed, anti-Israel militant groups, though they differ significantly in ideology and operational approach.

In the first six months of the fighting, there were at least 4,400 combined strikes from both sides, according to the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). An estimated 250 Hezbollah members and 75 Lebanese civilians have been killed, along with 20 Israelis — both civilians and soldiers. More than 60,000 residents of northern Israel have been displaced, along with around 90,000 people in southern Lebanon.

These numbers, though substantial, are dwarfed by the larger death toll and refugee crisis caused by the fighting in Gaza. However, the situation in the north could have been — and might yet be — far worse, given the military strength of both sides. The Israeli military, for its size, is one of the most powerful in the world, while Hezbollah is the best-armed non-state group globally, with an arsenal of 120,000 to 200,000 rockets and missiles and up to 30,000 active personnel and 20,000 reserves, according to CSIS estimates. If it wanted to, Hezbollah could cause far more damage to Israel than Hamas, which had around 30,000 rockets before October 7, ever could.

While both sides have seemingly tried to avoid escalating the conflict into a full-scale war as devastating as their 2006 conflict, that doesn’t guarantee such a war won’t happen anyway. Following the latest series of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) airstrikes in Lebanon in response to Hezbollah drone attacks on May 6 that killed two IDF soldiers, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant predicted a “hot summer” on the border.

Despite their supposed desire to avoid escalation, neither side appears to be taking steps to de-escalate. This raises the question: How long can this violent conflict stay under control? And what will it take to prevent it from spilling over into something worse?

Hezbollah and its Evolution, Briefly Explained

On November 3, 2023, nearly a month after the war began, Hassan Nasrallah, the cleric leading Hezbollah since the early 1990s, publicly addressed the conflict for the first time. Amid widespread speculation that the group was about to escalate its involvement — a worrying possibility given Hezbollah’s military strength — Nasrallah told supporters, “Some claim that we are about to engage in the war. I’m telling you we have been engaged in this battle since October the 8th.”

In other words, the group would continue its ongoing efforts: maintaining pressure on Israel and forcing it to divert resources, while minimizing its own exposure to risk.

Understanding Hezbollah and its potential actions is complicated by the group’s unique structure. Hezbollah is a hybrid organization, simultaneously acting as a military group fighting Israel, a proxy group for Iran, a political party within Lebanon, and the de facto governing authority in parts of the country.

Hezbollah’s origins trace back to the early 1980s when Israeli troops invaded and occupied part of southern Lebanon to drive the Palestine Liberation Organization out of the country. With Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ backing, a group of Lebanese Shiite Muslims took up arms against the Israeli occupation, eventually becoming Hezbollah, or “Party of God.”

Hezbollah gained global notoriety for a series of dramatic terrorist attacks, including the bombings of the US embassy and Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in 1983 (killing 241 US military personnel), the bombing of a Jewish Community Center in Argentina in 1994, and the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Israel withdrew its troops from Lebanon in 2000, but the conflict didn’t end. In 2006, Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers, sparking a two-month war during which Israeli troops invaded southern Lebanon and Hezbollah fired thousands of rockets at Israel. Including both combatants and civilians, more than 1,100 Lebanese and over 160 Israelis were killed in the war, which ended in a stalemate, with both sides claiming victory.

Hezbollah was also heavily involved in the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011, fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Iran-backed regime. It still maintains a significant military presence in Syria, periodically targeted by Israeli airstrikes in recent years.

This experience in Syria has transformed the group’s identity and approach to the current war. Today, Hezbollah is as much a regional power player as a resistance movement.

“Hezbollah’s mission has completely changed since 2006,” said Hanin Ghaddar, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of a recent book on the group. “In 2006, the mission was to fight Israel. However, their mission shifted when they went into Syria. Today their mission is to act as an insurance policy and a protective shield for Iran. Their job is actually to protect Iran’s interests, not to fight Israel.”

In this respect, Hezbollah differs from Hamas, which, though it receives weapons and funding from Iran, operates far more independently. Hamas is a Sunni group, while Hezbollah is Shiite, placing them on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war, with Hamas backing the anti-Assad rebels.

In recent years, however, they’ve reconciled, reportedly maintaining a joint operations center in Lebanon during the last round of fighting in Gaza in 2021. But unlike Hamas, Hezbollah has been more cautious about direct confrontation with Israel.

“They don’t see themselves with huge tank columns rolling into Galilee [in Northern Israel] toward Jerusalem,” Heiko Wimmen, a Lebanon-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, told Vox. “What they want is to build coalitions that constrain Israel’s actions and suffocate them, slowly building toward Israel collapsing from its own internal contradictions.”

This approach has spared southern Lebanon the type of devastation currently seen in Gaza. However, recent events across the border have made this slow approach harder to sustain.

Why the Fighting has Escalated

Israeli strikes since October 7 have killed some of Hezbollah’s most senior commanders, although Israel’s claims to have killed “half” of its commanders may be exaggerated. An early April strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus killed Mohammad Reza Zahedi, the Iranian general believed to be Hezbollah’s principal liaison with Iran and a member of its governing council.

Despite efforts to avoid a repeat of 2006, Hezbollah has already lost roughly the same number of fighters as during that conflict. Additionally, tens of thousands of Lebanese civilians in the south have been forced from their homes by the fighting.

Considering the impact on its own strength and the areas it governs, the war so far has been the worst of both worlds for Hezbollah. “What they’re doing is just bringing damage to Lebanon without actually affecting anything in Israel,” said Ghaddar.

Hezbollah might hope to de-escalate and preserve its strength for future confrontations with Israel. Hezbollah officials have indicated they might stop their strikes if Hamas agrees to a ceasefire, unless Israel continues its strikes into Lebanon. Until then, Hezbollah is stuck in a cycle of retaliatory strikes, unable to unilaterally stop without losing credibility with its supporters and Iranian patrons, but desperate to avoid greater losses.

“Hezbollah has climbed a pretty high tree by committing themselves to fighting as long as the war in Gaza has not ended,” said Wimmen.

Israel’s Calculations

In the aftermath of the October 7 attacks, Israeli leaders received intelligence — false, as it turned out — that Hezbollah fighters were planning a multi-pronged attack across the border. President Joe Biden reportedly had to dissuade Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from launching a preemptive attack against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Still, some senior officials, notably Defense Minister Gallant, have continued to push for more aggressive action against Hezbollah, which poses a much more serious military threat to Israel than Hamas. Pressure on the Israeli government is growing from the tens of thousands of northern Israel residents displaced by continual rocket attacks, forcing them to live with family, friends, or in hotels. Even if the fighting stops, many fear an October 7-style attack from across the border, deterring them from returning home.

“We have two schools of thought on the issue in the security establishment here,” Nimrod Novik, a former foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Shimon Peres, now with the Israel Policy Forum, told Vox. “One wants to prioritize Lebanon given that the threat is far more serious than Hamas. The other argues you’ve got to finish the job in Gaza, whatever that means.”

Gallant has suggested that Israel could intensify strikes against Hezbollah during a Gaza ceasefire, continuing strikes until Hezbollah pulls back from the border.

The US is keen to avoid a wider regional war that could draw in its forces. Washington has prioritized preventing such a scenario since October, deploying Navy ships to the Eastern Mediterranean and engaging in diplomatic efforts to end the fighting, led by Special Envoy Amos Hochstein.

However, the threat persists: In late February, CNN reported that US officials were increasingly concerned that the IDF could launch a ground incursion into Lebanon. Novik warned that the “Israeli home front is not prepared for the kind of damage that Hezbollah can inflict” on Israel, given Hezbollah’s formidable military capabilities compared to Hamas.

The northern threat weighs heavily on Israeli leaders, especially following the White House’s announcement this week that the US is pausing some weapons shipments to Israel due to concerns about its offensive in Rafah. Israeli officials reacted defiantly, with Netanyahu stating the country is prepared to “stand alone” if necessary.

On Gaza, Netanyahu might be correct: Israel could have enough weapons in its stocks and from other countries to continue the fight in the south. But waging a second war could stretch its resources thin.

The best hope for peace is that both Israel and Hezbollah have strong incentives to avoid a larger conflict. “Both sides know that an all-out war would be extremely destructive, possibly even more so than the 2006 war, with very little plausible gain,” said Wimmen.

However, wars are not always started by rational calculation. Novik cautioned that a “missile hitting the wrong target and causing unacceptable casualties could bring us into a conflagration.”

The longer the wars on both fronts drag on, the more likely that becomes.

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