Iran’s foreign minister gave notice yesterday that while Israel’s military build-up continues on its border with Gaza, “the hands of all parties in the region are on the trigger”.
So what? It was the clearest indication yet that Iran will not stand by in the event of a ground invasion. That means Lebanon will play a key role in determining whether the Israel-Hamas war turns into a wider regional conflict.
- The government in Beirut wants no involvement – it’s struggling with one of the worst economic crises in modern history.
- But the country’s most powerful military and political force, Hezbollah, was created purely for this purpose: to oppose Israel.
Rules of engagement. Israel announced the evacuation of 28 communities close to its northern border with Lebanon at the weekend as Hezbollah tested Israel’s patience and defences with sporadic rocket attacks.
Exchanges of fire across the Israeli-Lebanese border are nothing new. Delicate and unspoken rules of engagement have served as deterrence for decades, but the scope of the current conflict is testing them. Breaking them will have disastrous consequences for all.
- The situation on the Lebanese border is deteriorating, but for now has not strayed far from the usual rules of engagement. Hezbollah has been striking in or near territories that Lebanon has disputed for decades to keep Israel busy, rather than opening a bigger front.
- That said, Hezbollah has been pushing the envelope, allowing Palestinian militants to launch infiltration attempts and attacks from its borders, as a sign of support while trying to avoid escalation.
- Israel has replied with artillery and at least one air strike, and on Saturday accused Hezbollah of escalating the situation on the border to hinder the Gaza offensive.
The tit-for-tat exchanges have so far stayed within boundaries that show neither side will take the decision to broaden the war lightly. But danger is brewing. Western diplomats fear Hezbollah could feel boxed in by the intensity of Israel’s attack on Gaza – particularly when a ground incursion occurs – and feel forced to join the fray.
Bigger than Hamas. Hezbollah is better equipped and more experienced; it’s estimated to have an arsenal of more than 150,000 rockets and precision-guided missiles. It’s also a player in its own right:
- Hezbollah has morphed from an Iranian proxy force in its early days to a regional powerhouse. Its fighters, in the tens of thousands, are war-hardened after years of fighting alongside the Assad regime in Syria.
- If Hezbollah is drawn in, Iran’s entire “axis of resistance” could get involved – including groups in Syria that could open up a third front on Israel’s northeastern border.
Lebanon’s collapse. Hezbollah may be the most formidable force likely to enter the conflict, but doing so would endanger gains it has made domestically: it is one of the most powerful blocs in the Lebanese parliament.
- The Lebanese government is in no condition to go to war. It faces economic collapse and a two-fold power vacuum, lacking both a head of state and a fully empowered cabinet. The average footsoldier in the Lebanese army earns roughly $50-100 a month.
- No one apart from Hezbollah’s most ardent supporters and fighters wants war, but it’s not clear if anyone has the power to stop them – foreign diplomats included. “The behind-the-scenes calls with us by great powers, Arab countries, envoys of the United Nations… telling us not to interfere, will have no effect,” Hezbollah’s deputy chief, Naim Qassem, said at a rally in Beirut on Friday. “Hezbollah knows its duties perfectly well. We are prepared and ready.”
Since 2019 there has been widespread anger against Lebanon’s political elite over corruption and the country’s state of incipient collapse – anger intensified by Beirut’s devastating 2020 port explosion. Hezbollah is not immune from this anger; some analysts suggest its popularity among the country’s Shia could be waning. But it still has the power to block the selection of a new president.
Assuming Israel carries out its plan to eradicate Hamas in Gaza, it appears only a matter of time until Hezbollah steps in to demonstrate its support of the Palestinian cause. Lebanon is braced, unsure how far its state-within-a-state will go.
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