Israel issues most direct warning to Hezbollah yet

Israeli military leaders believe they have unfinished business with Hezbollah and are looking for any reason to launch a fresh assault on the Iran-backed militia

Israel issues most direct warning to Hezbollah yet

The prospect of the Gaza conflict escalating into a wider regional war has increased significantly following Israel’s explicit threat this week to attack Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon.

The possibility of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia opening a second front on Israel’s border has been viewed as a distinct possibility ever since Hamas launched its devastating 7 October attack against the Jewish state.

While Hezbollah’s leadership has appeared equivocal, in public at least, about supporting Hamas in its war against Israel, the recent upsurge in attacks close to Israel’s northern border has prompted the Israelis to warn that they will launch military action to remove the threat posed by Hezbollah’s military infrastructure in southern Lebanon.

In what amounts to the most direct warning Israel has issued against Hezbollah’s leadership since the Gaza conflict erupted, retired Israeli general Benny Gantz, one of the three Israeli ministers who make up the country’s war cabinet, threatened to significantly increase military action by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) against the militia.

“The situation on Israel’s northern border demands change,” Gantz told a press conference late Wednesday. “The stopwatch for a diplomatic solution is running out."

“If the world and the Lebanese government don’t act in order to prevent the firing on Israel’s northern residents and to distance Hezbollah from the border, the IDF will do it,” he said.

His warning was echoed by Lt Gen Herzi Halevi, Israel’s Chief of the General Staff, who has overseen the IDF’s uncompromising assault against Gaza during the past 11 weeks. Halevi warned that IDF units in northern Israel were in "very high readiness" to tackle the Hezbollah threat.

"Our first task is to restore security and the sense of security to the residents in the north, and this will take time," he said, adding that the IDF had already undertaken a "situational assessment" of the deteriorating security situation.

If the world and the Lebanese government don't act in order to prevent the firing on Israel's northern residents and to distance Hezbollah from the border, the IDF will do it.

Benny Gantz, Israeli war cabinet minister

Upsurge in cross-border fire

The Israeli warnings have come against a recent upsurge in cross-border exchanges of fire between Hezbollah and the IDF.

Hezbollah and Israel have been engaging in near-daily cross-border fire since 8 October, with the attacks seen as helping to support Hamas, which Iran also backs.

While Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has declared his support for Hamas in the wake of the 7 October attacks, he has stopped short of a full declaration of war against Israel, warning that the conflict against the Israelis would be long and that achieving victory could "take years".

Nevertheless, as the IDF has intensified its assault against Hamas's infrastructure in Gaza, there has been a noticeable upsurge in clashes between Israel and Hezbollah along Israel's northern border, culminating on Wednesday with Hezbollah launching its highest number of cross-border attacks in a day since 8 October, according to Israeli security sources.

More than 100 people have been killed in Lebanon since October — most of them Hezbollah fighters but also a number of civilians. In the most recent clashes, more than a dozen casualties have been reported by Lebanese authorities, including three people who were killed by an Israeli air strike on southern Lebanon, including two Lebanese brothers who had Australian citizenship.

Their deaths have prompted Australian officials to launch an investigation into Israeli claims that one of the brothers was a member of Hezbollah after the militia's flag was draped over the brothers' coffins at their funerals.

Three Lebanese journalists have also been killed by Israeli strikes in southern Lebanon since the start of the war, including a photojournalist from the Reuters news agency Reuters.

In one of Hezbollah's more audacious attacks, the militia claimed responsibility on Wednesday for firing a barrage of missiles against an Israeli naval base near Rosh HaNikra, with Israel intercepting six of at least 18 rockets and no damage being caused.

Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shiite militia that is designated a terrorist organisation by Western states, Israel, Gulf Arab countries and the Arab League, is regarded as being one of the world's most heavily armed, non-state military forces.

On the Israeli side, meanwhile, four civilians and eight soldiers have been killed. In comparison, the cross-border fighting has led Israel to evacuate an estimated 80,000 civilians from a strip of the north several kilometres wide, resulting in much of the area being filled with deserted ghost towns.

In pictures: Lebanese and Israelis remain displaced as cross-border strikes intensify

In one of Hezbollah's more audacious attacks, the militia claimed responsibility on Wednesday for firing a barrage of missiles against an Israeli naval base near Rosh HaNikra.

Widening of conflict

The mounting tensions on Israel's northern border have inevitably raised fears of a wider Middle East conflict developing, which have increased significantly in recent days after Tehran accused Israel of carrying out an air strike that resulted in the death of  Reza Mousavi,  a senior Iranian general based in Syria.

Syria has become an important base for Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps after Tehran played a key role in helping the al-Assad regime to survive the country's decade-long civil war. Apart from building an extensive network of military bases in Syria, Tehran regularly uses the country as a transit point for shipping weapons to its Hezbollah ally in southern Lebanon.

The upsurge in Hezbollah activity in southern Lebanon comes at a time when pro-Iranian militias have been accused of attacking US bases in Iraq, prompting the US military to launch air strikes that the Iraqi government has condemned. At the same time, Iran-backed Houthi rebels have been accused of attacking international shipping in the Red Sea in a deliberate attempt to disrupt global trade routes.

Iran has threatened to retaliate in the wake of Mousavi's death, prompting Israel to warn Tehran not to become involved in a wider escalation of the Gaza conflict. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a blunt warning that if Hezbollah launches "an all-out war", Israel would "turn Beirut . . . into Gaza".

Whether Israel really wants to open a new front in the north of the country while its forces are fully engaged in a bitter battle with Hamas in Gaza is a moot point. The last time Israel went to war with Hezbollah was back in 2006 when the IDF invaded southern Lebanon, with its attempts to destroy the militia ultimately proving unsuccessful.

Many senior IDF commanders, therefore, believe they have unfinished business with Hezbollah and will seek to use any upsurge in clashes on Israel's northern border as a justification for launching a fresh assault on the Iran-backed militia, with all the implications that might have for the broader security of the Middle East.

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