Neither Hezbollah nor Israel will lose any war they fight. Lebanon will

Tension is escalating on Lebanon’s southern border as Israeli leaders sound bullish about turning their guns from Hamas to Hezbollah. For the survival of Lebanese statehood, this is a big moment.

Neither Hezbollah nor Israel will lose any war they fight. Lebanon will

Shortly after Hamas launched its surprise attack on southern Israel, Iran rallied its forces, most notably Hezbollah, its powerful proxy militia in Lebanon.

The next day, there were more cross-border attacks in Israel’s north. It looked like a second front would soon open, alongside Israel’s war in Gaza.

Yet there was nothing out-of-the-ordinary from southern Lebanon. The skirmishes were largely in-line with the long-established rules of engagement between Hezbollah and Israel. That suited both parties.

Lebanon’s economy is in tatters, after some of the worst financial mismanagement in recent history. It can ill afford a costly war against Israel. As such, Hezbollah was careful to be seen to act, but to do so in a way that avoided a major conflict.

Yet just after the Hamas attacks, Lebanon’s interim Prime Minister Najib Mikati made an important point, when he said candidly that “the authority to decide peace and war does not rest with me or with the government”.

Temporary relief

The world breathed a sigh of relief when it looked like a much wider regional conflict in the Middle East would not break out. Iran showed no signs of getting directly involved, and Israel was busy in Gaza.

In recent weeks, however, those original worries about escalation and war-widening have returned, not least after the beating of Tel Aviv’s drums grew louder. Israeli ministers, including most notably Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have domestic political reasons to keep Israel on a war footing.

In Beirut, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said his group’s cross-border attacks had distracted Israel enough to diminish Israeli aggression in Gaza. This seems a spurious claim, given that Israeli aggression in Gaza could scarcely have been less diminished.

Lebanon's economy is in tatters. It can ill afford a war with Israel. As such, Hezbollah was careful to be seen to act, but to avoid a major conflict. 

Nonetheless, those attacks mean that hundreds of thousands of Lebanese living in southern regions now face even greater hardships, in a country that is already reeling.

In early June, Hezbollah rockets set fire to hundreds of acres of Israeli farmland, leading to several injuries and prompting Israel's gung-ho National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to call for the burning of "all Hezbollah strongholds".

His is not an isolated threat. Earlier, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said Israel would "return Lebanon to the Stone Age" in the event of war.

Fellow minister Miki Zohar says war with Hezbollah "cannot be delayed any further," adding that "delaying the confrontation with Hamas led to 7 October 2023… delaying it with Hezbollah would lead to an even greater disaster for us".

Based on the sabre-rattling comments of Israel's more hawkish cabinet members, Tel Aviv looks determined to go straight from war in Gaza to war in Lebanon. This may suit Israeli military planners, who consider Lebanon to be little more than a vassal state of its arch nemesis, Iran.

Lebanon's politicians may plead ignorance or incapacity, as they did in July 2006, when Hezbollah's cross-border raid killed three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others, triggering a 34-day artillery blitz in response.

At the time, Lebanon's Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said his government "was not informed of Hezbollah's attacks, does not support them, and does not bear responsibility for them", but that did not stop Lebanon from taking the hit as a result.

Today, the situation is both similar, and very different. Similar, because Lebanon's politics remain fractured and fractious; different, because of an apparent lack of concern for the impact on Lebanon's population of the increased aggression.

Southern discomfort

As revealed in a recent Al Majalla investigation, the Lebanese government has fallen woefully short of supporting those citizens from the south whose lives have been affected by the increased aggression since October 2023.

Hundreds of thousands have been displaced from Lebanon's border regions, with little or no government support. The few that have stayed find it increasingly difficult to buy essentials. Farmers are now wondered whether to abandon their livestock.

Read more: The differing fortunes of those displaced from southern Lebanon

Aid, both financial and material, has only really been forthcoming from the big Shiite groups—Hezbollah, and the Amal Movement—who have used municipal channels and affiliated institutions to provide help.

The rest of Lebanon, which still has no president owing to constitutional quagmires and factional infighting, now seems beholden to Hezbollah decisions concerning war, peace and all other big matters of state.

For almost 20 years, Hezbollah has dragged Lebanon into disputes and wars that serve the purposes of Hezbollah and/or its benefactor, Iran, but which do nothing for Lebanon or the Lebanese, so this turbulence is not new.

Lebanon consistently bears the consequences, but as a nation, it is unable to counter Hezbollah's formidable influence and authority.

Its fighters are estimated to have around 150,000 rockets and missiles. Many are thought to have been fitted with precision guidance systems, to take them to within ten metres of their target.

Lebanon bears the consequences of Hezbollah's actions, but as a nation, it is unable to counter the group's formidable influence and authority.

Among its arsenal are hundreds of Fateh 110 ballistic missiles capable of travelling up to 260km. This puts most of Israel in range. Tel Aviv, for instance, is only 100km from the Lebanese border.

Israel will be mindful of this, but it must remember that southern Lebanon is not Iran, its residents are not Iranian, and not all Lebanese support Hezbollah. Far from it.

National or factional

Despite supporters of Hezbollah not all congregating in the south of Lebanon, some now call for the abandonment of the southern regions by the Lebanese state, given that it includes some Hezbollah "strongholds".

Doing so would feel like collective punishment. More importantly, it would subjugate an overriding Lebanese nationality to ideological affiliations. That, in turn, would weaken any remaining sense of national unity still further. This plays into Hezbollah's hands.

Calls for the state to turn away from one region just pushes the people there towards the group that dominates it. That would then move Hezbollah and its supporters closer to Tehran. It would benefit Lebanon to weaken this link, rather than reinforce it.

Opposing Hezbollah alone does not solve the problem. Factions can be staunchly opposed to the party-cum-militia, yet still prioritise factional loyalties and interests over those of Lebanon. The principles of statehood must come first.

When faced with the choice between state governance and militia control, the international community—especially the Arab world—has always stood in solidarity with Lebanese state infrastructure, backing its institutions and offices, not the unofficial power brokers or those who would seek to play that role.

The Middle East cannot afford new conflicts driven by militia groups, but Iran wants to deepen its regional influence and sees Hezbollah as key. However it chooses to do so, Lebanon and its people will bear the brunt of the impact.

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