Israel and Iran-Backed Hezbollah Face Off in Shadow of Crises

After months of quiet, Israel is facing off against militant forces across its northern border, in a showdown exacerbating the economic and political strife already convulsing both sides of the frontier.

An alleged July 21 Israeli airstrike that killed a Hezbollah fighter in Syria set off a chain of fighting that has revived talk of war. The Iran-backed Lebanese militant group has vowed revenge for the death of its operative, though it denied Israel’s claim that its fighters later infiltrated Israeli-controlled territory. And on Monday, the Israeli military said it thwarted a bombing attack by four unidentified militants from Syria, where Hezbollah is fighting in that country’s civil war, and struck Syrian army targets in response.

“Hezbollah feels it must respond when its personnel is killed, but tries to do so in a limited, managed way,” said Matthew Levitt, director of the Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Israel, too, tries to respond with minimal casualties. And yet events could easily spiral out of control.”

While Israel has repeatedly warned Hezbollah not to test it, officials from both sides have said they don’t want to go to war at this time, with their countries wracked by coronavirus outbreaks, economic crises and political discord. The sides, which engage in sporadic skirmishes, last warred in 2006.

After bringing infections to near zero at the end of May, Israel has seen the number of confirmed cases more than quadruple, while deaths have doubled. Unemployment topping 20% has been one factor behind the protests that have drawn thousands in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem every week to call for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s resignation.

Israel, which has fortified its northern defenses, has the added incentive to “end this round quickly and without casualty” because keeping the army on high alert for an extended period would be a strain on its already diffusely spread resources, according to Sarit Zehavi, a retired lieutenant colonel in Israel’s intelligence corps. The Defense Ministry has said it would mobilize some 3,000 reservists to help battle the Covid-19 outbreak.

What’s more, although Hezbollah has lost some 1,700 fighters in Syria, it remains a formidable force, possessing, with Iran’s help, an arsenal of about 130,000 missiles, according to Israeli military assessments. That stockpile is not only many times bigger than the one it possessed in 2006, but also boasts improved range and accuracy.

Israeli media have suggested that the military might not be accusing Hezbollah of Monday’s aborted attack to avoid escalation.

Yet Hezbollah has to tread carefully, too. Lebanon’s economy is imploding, and popular outrage is high, with some of it directed at Hezbollah, which plays an influential role in the country’s political and economic life. The virus, which has spiked recently in Lebanon, has only exacerbated the worst financial crisis in Lebanon’s history and the accompanying political turmoil. And Hezbollah’s fighting force is spread thin, training or bolstering allies in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Hezbollah’s No. 2, Sheikh Naim Qassem, said after the alleged July 27 infiltration that he didn’t think war is likely. And Lebanon’s premier, Hassan Diab, called for caution “because I fear things are slipping into the worst amid high tension on the border.”

Zehavi, who is now head of the Alma Research & Education Center near the Lebanese border, says it’s possible to avoid an escalation by allowing Hezbollah to save face.

“To do that, Israel needs to give Hezbollah a chance to show it can strike at Israel without causing any damage,” she said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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