Netanyahu must not be allowed a war with Hezbollah

Netanyahu must not be allowed a war with Hezbollah

Netanyahu must not be allowed a war with Hezbollah
Smoke billows from a Israeli army post after it was hit by a rocket fired from Lebanon, Dec. 12, 2023. (AFP)
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While the world is focused on Israel’s two-month-old military campaign in the Gaza Strip, the northern front is quickly heating up.

A few days after Israel declared war on Hamas and started pounding the besieged Strip ahead of a ground invasion, tensions along the Israel-Lebanon border began to rise. A few skirmishes between Hezbollah and Israel’s military soon developed into a daily exchange of firepower, forcing Israel to vacate the settlements and towns up to 5 km south of the Lebanon border.

And as the US dispatched two carrier groups to the Eastern Mediterranean, sending a stern message to Tehran and its proxies not to interfere in Israel’s war on Gaza, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah appeared — after the group released a couple of videos raising the level of suspense — to indicate that the his people were not about to break the truce with Israel under UN Security Council Resolution 1701, but would respond to provocations within the so-called rules of engagement.

But that did not stop the two sides from targeting each other in what can be described as low-intensity fighting. That forced Israel to mobilize three armored divisions to the north, something that Hezbollah said would relieve pressure on Hamas. Some of the skirmishes were deadly. While Israel was careful not to release figures concerning its own casualties, Hezbollah began, well into the first month of the Gaza campaign, to publish the names of its own fighters that fell during operations “in support of the people of Gaza and the gallant resistance.”

These operations were described as “support” and “diversions,” costing Hezbollah more than 100 of its fighters so far. On a few occasions, when Israel targeted civilians in southern Lebanon, the group launched rockets that hit Kiryat Shmona, one of the larger urban centers in the Upper Galilee, which is only 3 km west of the Lebanese border. Before it was evacuated, it was home to more than 22,000 Israelis.

Also, in response to Israel’s aerial bombardment of southern Lebanese towns and villages, Hezbollah fired a few heavy rockets, called Burkan, which have large payloads. It also admitted to sending drones across the border, a few of which sounded the alarm in northern Israel. On a number of occasions, it released videos of its fighters targeting Israeli armor, radars and fortifications. It claimed that it had killed and injured Israeli soldiers.

In addition to shelling southern Lebanon, Israel launched a number of aerial raids against Damascus airport, southern Syria and Qunaitra in the Golan. Some of these strikes reportedly killed Iranian advisers and Hezbollah fighters.

But last week and earlier this week, a noticeable spike in the scope of such exchanges resulted in Hezbollah firing rockets as deep as 9 km into Israeli territory in response to Israel’s bombing of Lebanese towns. On Monday, one Israeli strike killed the mayor of the Lebanese town of Taybeh and injured others. The day before, Israeli fighter jets destroyed an entire neighborhood in the border town of Aitaroun. In the past few days, Israel has also targeted journalists covering the skirmishes from the Lebanese side, the UN Interim Force in Lebanon and Lebanese army positions.

The rise in tensions along Israel’s northern borders comes in the wake of strong warnings and ultimatums made by a number of senior Israeli officials that the situation in the north must be dealt with. According to Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, Israel delivered a message to Hezbollah via UNIFIL that anything, military or civilian, spotted within a 3-km radius along the border with Lebanon would be targeted. Hezbollah responded that it too would consider anything moving within 3 km of the border a legitimate target.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a strong warning to Hezbollah last week that escalations along the border would mean “turning Beirut into Gaza.” A similar warning was issued by far-right Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich. Also last week, Israeli National Security Council head Tzachi Hanegbi claimed: “We will change the reality on the border with Lebanon and we will solve the problem militarily if it is not solved diplomatically.”

Such statements from senior Israeli officials should be taken seriously for a number of reasons. Israel’s war in Gaza is not going well, despite the heavy civilian death toll and the global outcry denouncing Israel’s reckless regard for innocent lives and nonmilitary infrastructure. The Biden White House is coming under unprecedented pressure, both domestically and from allies, to call for a ceasefire.

Netanyahu and his war Cabinet reportedly have less than a month to wrap up the military campaign. But by Israeli and other accounts, that is not enough time to achieve the country’s elusive goals in Gaza: destroying Hamas, killing its military leadership and freeing the hostages.

In addition, Israel is beginning to admit that, despite all its firepower and heavy armor, it is incurring unusually heavy casualties. It admits that more than 100 soldiers have been killed and more than 5,000 injured, some seriously. Hamas says the number of Israeli dead is much higher. Israel also says that, despite the heavy bombing, Hamas’ military abilities remain intact. As of Monday, Hamas was still firing rockets toward Tel Aviv and southern Israel.

Israelis and their apologists are saying that Israel is losing the public relations war. Millions around the world continue to march, demanding a ceasefire and putting additional pressure on their governments. The draft UNSC resolution calling for a ceasefire that the US vetoed last Friday was co-sponsored by more than 100 countries. The US is becoming isolated as the only country supporting the continuation of Israel’s war.

The escalation of hostilities along the northern borders of Israel and the Israeli threat to push Hezbollah north of the Litani river can only mean war. Despite the US’ blind support and threats, Hezbollah, which is now in full control of Lebanon’s political fate, will not hesitate to defend the status quo in southern Lebanon.

This is complex geopolitical territory for all. Neither Iran nor the US wants to see an expansion of the war for differing reasons. But for Netanyahu and his cohorts, the perspective is different — and dangerous. A sudden end to the war on Gaza would mean defeat for Israel and would have far-fetched repercussions for the country, but most of all for Netanyahu. The circumstances surrounding what really happened on Oct. 7 are vague. An investigation into this would make many heads roll, foremost of them being Netanyahu’s.

Despite the US’ blind support and threats, Hezbollah will not hesitate to defend the status quo in southern Lebanon.

Osama Al-Sharif

Hezbollah no longer acts as a nonstate actor. It must consider its gains in Lebanon and its alliance with Iran. It does not seek a 2006 version of a war with Israel, even though it has much more firepower than at that time. Those who want to expand the war and draw in the big powers are the extremists in the Israeli political scene. Netanyahu, who has sealed the fate of the Israeli hostages by ending the truce with Hamas, is looking out for his own personal interests. Fearing that time is running out on his war on Gaza, he is in a position to force Hezbollah into a wider confrontation — thus dragging the US, and possibly Iran, into a regional war.

The Biden administration must draw the line here. Hamas is unlikely to be destroyed completely, even if the war drags on for a few more months. The hostages’ families are already putting pressure on the war Cabinet, saying that this has become an unnecessary war. Netanyahu is reaching the end of his tether. A war with Hezbollah would be catastrophic for all parties. The only immediate exit is to bring Netanyahu’s government down.

That may not end the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. It would present a scenario for the day after, but it would also offer all stakeholders a way out of a conundrum that, unless it is addressed, could drag the region into a major war.

  • Osama Al-Sharif is a veteran journalist and political commentator based in Amman. X: @plato010
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