An all-out Israel-Hezbollah war looks increasingly likely

The fading prospects of a Gaza ceasefire could be why Hezbollah has intensified its attacks on northern Israel

An all-out Israel-Hezbollah war looks increasingly likely

The prospect of the Israeli army opening a second front in their military campaign on the country’s northern border has risen considerably as a result of a recent upsurge in Hezbollah attacks.

Israel’s domestic intelligence service Shin Bet reports there was a marked increase in Hezbollah attacks against northern Israel during the month of May, with the organisation recording over 1,000 attacks (rockets, anti-tank missiles, drones). This compares with 334 recorded attacks in January and 534 in February, whilst in both March and April, there were more than 740.

The use of drones in the attacks, moreover, signifies that Hezbollah is using more sophisticated methods to attack Israel’s northern border, which Hezbollah officials insist will continue until there is a ceasefire in Gaza. The frequency of the attacks is having an increasingly devastating impact on Israelis living close to the border area, who are enduring almost daily bombardments, with Israeli officials claiming that more than 3,000 projectiles have been launched towards Israel from Lebanon since the start of the war in Gaza.

At least 100,000 Israelis are estimated to have fled their homes in northern Israel since Hezbollah launched its operations following Hamas’s attacks on Israel on 7 October. In the past week, the intensity of the attacks has led to a series of bushfires erupting in northern Israel, with Israeli firefighters battling to contain the blazes, which have been exacerbated by rising temperatures. More than 3,500 acres of land have been destroyed so far.

Growing pressure

Pressure on the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to respond to the increase in Hezbollah attacks has grown in recent days after the Israelis suffered a number of casualties from explosive-laden drones. On Wednesday, an Israeli army reservist was killed and at least ten people wounded in a drone attack on the Druze village of Hurfeish in the Upper Galilee.

An Israeli army officer based close to the border warned that the population in northern Israel was “losing hope”. “The feeling is that if we don’t eliminate Hezbollah, the displaced populations won’t come back home because we can’t trust these militia groups any more after what happened on 7 October,” he warned.

Netanyahu is under growing pressure to respond to the uptick in Hezbollah attacks which has inflicted a number of Israeli casualties.

While the Israeli army remains heavily committed to its war to destroy Hamas militants in Gaza, the sheer intensity of Hezbollah's rocket and drone barrage against northern Israel has prompted senior Israeli politicians and military commanders to undertake an urgent review of their military resources in the area. The latest reports suggest the Israeli army has increased its preparations for a more extensive engagement against Hezbollah, possibly involving a ground incursion into southern Lebanon.

The Hezbollah-affiliated Lebanese news outlet al-Akhbar has reported that the UK has warned the Lebanese government that Israel intends to launch a significant offensive in mid-June. The possibility that Israel is giving serious consideration to opening a second front was raised by Lt Gen Herzi Halevi, the Israeli Army Chief of Staff, this week when he said that Israel was close to making a decision regarding Hezbollah's daily bombardments. 

"We are approaching the point where a decision will have to be made, and the IDF is prepared and very ready for this decision," Lt Halevi said during an assessment with military officials.

Commenting on the most recent drone attack against northern Israel, Israeli President Yitzhak Herzog declared in a speech to mark Israel's annual Jerusalem Day ceremony that "We can't remain indifferent to this terror. For months now, Israel has been attacked by Iranian proxies in Lebanon on a daily basis, clearly violating all international resolutions and agreements. The world has to wake up and realise that Israel is left with no choice but to defend its citizens. Israel will do this firmly and forcefully."

The president's sentiments were echoed by Netanyahu after the Israeli prime minister made his own tour of the region. "Anyone who thinks he can attack us and we will sit idly by is making a big mistake. We are prepared for a very intensive operation in the north. One way or another, we will restore security to the north."

With the increase in Israeli military activity, Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah's deputy leader, told broadcaster Al Jazeera that the group's intention was not to widen the war but that Hezbollah would not stop its operations until the Gaza war stops.

At a time when global efforts are focused on ending Israel's war on Gaza, a new war with Hezbollah would be a huge setback.

Cause for concern

At a time when the main focus of international diplomats is to reduce tensions in the region by brokering a ceasefire in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, the prospect of a new front opening on Israel's northern border is a serious cause for concern. US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Washington does "not support a full war with Hezbollah" while agreeing that Israel had the right to defend itself from Hezbollah attacks. "We've heard Israeli leaders say the solution that they prefer is a diplomatic solution. And obviously, that is the solution that we prefer too and that we're trying to pursue," he said.

The increase in Hezbollah attacks inevitably raises the question of whether Iran—the main backer of the militant group—is deliberately raising the stakes in its confrontation with Israel in an attempt to deflect attention away from challenges that lie closer to home.

The death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash last month, together with the country's foreign minister, means that the Iranian regime must now hold a fresh round of presidential elections, raising fears that this might provide an opportunity for anti-government protesters to launch a fresh wave of demonstrations.

Fading prospects for ceasefire

The fading prospects of a ceasefire deal being reached over the Gaza conflict could be another factor in Hezbollah's decision to increase the intensity of its attacks against northern Israel.  Since President Joe Biden's speech at the end of May, in which he suggested a ceasefire deal might be possible, talks between Israel and Hamas appear close to collapsing. The US has blamed Hamas, with the president branding the group "the only obstacle to a complete ceasefire" while confirming "Israel's readiness to move forward" with the terms he set out last week.

Hamas, by contrast, has denounced the Biden proposals, with a Hamas spokesman confirming that the ceasefire proposal had been rejected by negotiators. Hamas's position, he said, was that Biden's proposal was simply a ruse designed to lure the organisation into another round of negotiations without an Israeli commitment to end the fighting and withdraw fully from the Gaza Strip.

The idea of Israel opening a new military front on its northern border might fill world leaders with dismay at a time when their main priority is to end the fighting in Gaza. But it must remain a distinct possibility so long as Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants continue their bombardment of northern Israel.

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