Israel banks on Iran's aversion to war to go after Hezbollah

Israelis sense weakness, leveraging Iran's lack of appetite for large-scale warfare to dismantle Hezbollah's infrastructure

Israel banks on Iran's aversion to war to go after Hezbollah

In the days after the Hamas attacks on southern Israel on 7 October, a lot was going on in northern Israel and southern Lebanon.

While Israeli troops massed on the Gaza border, Iran made reference to Lebanon’s dominant armed group, Hezbollah (which it sponsors), taking “pre-emptive action” against Israel in support of Hamas.

The threat of a ‘second front’ opening to Israel’s north was not taken lightly. The United States sent two aircraft carriers to “deter any state or non-state actor seeking to escalate this war”. By this, it meant Hezbollah.

As a precaution, Israeli villages near the Lebanese border were evacuated, with more than 90,000 people rehoused temporarily in places like Tel Aviv.

Israeli intelligence thinks Hezbollah’s rocket and missile stockpile could number up to 150,000, so they took no chances, bolstering Israeli troop numbers in the north.

Whimpered response

Back in October 2023, no one knew what Hezbollah would do. Several months later, the war that could have transpired has not, and the Hezbollah stockpile remains intact.

There have certainly been cross-border skirmishes. More than 200 Hezbollah operatives have now been killed, as have 50 Lebanese civilians, while Hezbollah volleys have killed 12 Israeli soldiers and six civilians.

But by the standards set by Israel and Hezbollah in the past, this is relatively minor. When they fought in 2006, up to 1,300 Lebanese were killed, as were 165 Israelis.

Towards the back end of 2023, Israel's position seemed to be that it was not looking for a fight with Hezbollah but that it would oblige if attacked. War with both Hamas and Hezbollah simultaneously would have stretched Israel's resources.

By February of this year, Israel's emphasis seemed to have changed when Defence Minister Yoav Gallant indicated that Israel would increase attacks to remove Hezbollah fighters from the border region.

In February, Israel indicated it would increase attacks to remove Hezbollah fighters from the border region.

Defence to offence

From being reactive, the Israeli army was now to be proactive. Earlier this week, Israeli jets struck targets in the Bekaa Valley. This fertile plain deep inside Lebanon is only 30km from Beirut.

The Israeli army said it targeted two Hezbollah command centres in the Baalbek area in response to rocket attacks from southern Lebanon. In January, Israel killed Wissam Tawil, commander of Hezbollah's elite Radwan Force.

Israel's increasing assertiveness in Lebanon comes from its assessment that Hezbollah and Iran do not want a full-scale conflict, either in Lebanon or elsewhere.

Instead, Iran seems to want to continue supporting its proxies, which in turn employ diversionary tactics such as Hezbollah's rockets or the Houthis' operations in the Red Sea.

This strategy aligns with Tehran's realisation that it would bear the consequences of continued escalation with the Americans in Iraq. Iran does not want to come to blows with the US since Iran's nuclear infrastructure would be at risk if it did.

Going it alone

On Friday, Reuters reported that Esmail Qaani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force, met Hezbollah's leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut in February, their third meeting since 7 October.

Citing seven sources, including three "Iranians within the inner circle", Reuters reported that Qaani shared concerns that a full-scale escalation between Hezbollah and Israel could draw Iran into the fight.

Nasrallah is reported to have assured Qaani that Hezbollah would not expect Iran to get involved, saying: "This is our fight."

Hezbollah, led by Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, takes pride in having displaced residents from northern Israel and of having kept three Israeli army divisions preoccupied in the north (and away from Gaza in the south).

Yet there is no evidence that the Israeli military has reduced its operations in the Gaza Strip or adjusted its strategies in the south in response to Hezbollah's actions.

Nasrallah told Iran Quds Head Esmail Qaani that Hezbollah would go it alone if it chose to engage Israel at full-scale.

Border area cleared

The impact of displacing residents from towns near the Lebanese border on Israeli morale is undeniable. Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to return these residents to their homes while threatening Lebanon.

On the other side, tens of thousands of Lebanese displaced from their border villages find themselves relocated to cities far from the conflict zones, often referred to as the 'Ring of Fire' by Israel.

While displaced Lebanese civilians receive minimal assistance from Hezbollah, often having to stay with relatives or in public schools, the Israeli government pay for Israelis displaced from border towns to stay in Tel Aviv hotels.

Israel is now convinced that Tehran has imposed serious limits on its proxies in Lebanon and elsewhere and not simply based on public proclamations of Hezbollah's operational successes.

The significant disparity in casualties shows that Israel's tactical edge is likely to evolve into strategic superiority. Israel's air strikes on targets far beyond the immediate conflict zones in southern Lebanon are evidence of this.

Growing confidence

By extending its military reach to the Bekaa Valley, Israel has demonstrated its broader intent, as it does with its pursuit and targeted elimination of senior Iranians in Damascus.

Israel's leaders sense a weakness. They appear to be leveraging Iran's current incapacity for large-scale warfare to dismantle Hezbollah's infrastructure across all reachable areas.

Beyond Baalbek, the Israelis have struck several areas, from Jabal al-Rayhan to Ghaziyeh along the route to Sidon, while also bombing various Syrian territories.

Given Israel's top-tier missile defence system, including its famed 'Iron Dome', Hezbollah's true military threat comes not from rockets but from the human infiltration of borders, potentially in the Galilee region.

Israelis sense weakness, leveraging Iran's lack of appetite for large-scale warfare to dismantle Hezbollah's infrastructure.

In truth, Hezbollah's arsenal of drones and missiles have had limited effect since 8 October. In stark contrast, Israel's precision bombings have taken out Hezbollah fighters and leaders, while also hitting control centres and arms dumps.

These actions are designed to significantly diminish Hezbollah's military and human resources, thereby altering the strategic landscape.

How not to do it

For Hezbollah, the bar for serious retaliation has been raised. Nasrallah now looks like he needs to be forced into a very tight corner before he will hit out.

The Lebanese people have been living through an eviscerating financial crisis since 2019, one that world bankers say is one of the worst ever known anywhere.

Yet Hezbollah, which is militarily superior to the Lebanese armed forces, does not care about the people.

Rather than fighting its sworn enemy Israel, Hezbollah fighters prefer to interfere in presidential elections, stall the Port of Beirut explosion investigation, and dictate Lebanon's fate.

Rather than troubling the Israelis by opening a much vaunted 'second front', it seems that Hezbollah has only managed to trouble the people of Lebanon.

font change