AMU Intelligence Middle East Original

Lebanon, Israel and the Chances That a War Could Begin

There has been growing tension between Israel and Lebanon over the past few months, especially on their mutual border, according to the Washington Institute. Also, several moves by Hezbollah operatives and threatening vitriol from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah are a constant reminder that these two countries are on the verge of a violent clash that could easily evolve to a war.

Iran, naturally, is knee-deep in this developing clash between Israel and Lebanon. It is clear that Nasrallah is playing a dangerous game with the Iranian government’s approval.

Iranian and Hezbollah Interests in Lebanon

The position of Hezbollah in Lebanon has changed considerably over the years. Its popularity peaked in 2000 when Israel withdrew from the zone that it held in southern Lebanon.

The second Lebanon war with Israel in 2006 caused significant damage to Lebanon and its growing power at the expense of other religious groups in Lebanon. That war further damaged Hezbollah’s popularity.

Later, the situation got worse in light of Hezbollah’s primary role in Lebanon’s government, which has driven the Lebanese economy to the brink of collapse and caused unemployment and unparalleled poverty. As a result, Hezbollah, Nasrallah, and the Iranian regime became the targets of wrath from not only Christians and Sunnis in Lebanon, but also within the Shia community.

After the last election in Lebanon, Hezbollah and its allies are in decline, and this change has not escaped the attention of Nasrallah’s Iranian handlers. The involvement of Hezbollah in the Syrian civil war and the many Shia men who died fighting for the Iranian regime has affected not only the non-Shia Lebanese – who saw the effects of the great refugee crisis in Lebanon – but people in the Shia community.

Washington Institute fellow Hanin Ghaddar recently explained in her book “Hezbollahland: Mapping Dahiya and Lebanon’s Shia Community” that there is a growing rift in Lebanon’s Shia community. That rift has been caused by a growing trend of secularization and the deaths of many young, poor Shia soldiers in Syrian battles.

The threats of war strengthen the resistance narrative that have made Hezbollah and Nasrallah so popular in the past. However, an actual war will destroy Lebanese infrastructure and worsen Lebanon’s economic problems, which will adversely affect Nasrallah’s popularity.

Nasrallah is walking a fine line, sending both domestic and international messages. To local nations, his behavior shows the power of the Shia axis in the Middle East. At the same time, Nasrallah is providing signals to the U.S. and Israel that Hezbollah is here to stay and that Israel should not try to interfere with the emerging agreement between the U.S. and Iran.

Related: The Current State of Iran-US Relations and a Nuclear Deal

The Effect on Israel

So what will Israel do if Nasrallah orders a rocket attack or an incursion into Israel territory in areas where the border is not fortified? The situation in Israel is complex politically, and Nasrallah is betting that Netanyahu does not want to deal with a war at this point.

Nasrallah might intend to stop his activities before a war erupts, knowing Lebanese society is not interested in war. It’s a farfetched but possible idea.

However, miscalculations are common in these situations. A move that might seem limited at first can deteriorate quickly.

For example, a clash between Hezbollah operatives and Israeli soldiers in unfortified border areas could lead to casualties. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not hesitate to use force if necessary. Wars tend to unite societies, and a Hezbollah attach might be Netanyahu’s ticket out of the political crisis in Israel.

A Chain Reaction

If Nasrallah chooses to act aggressively – for instance, an attack on an Israeli outpost – that could lead to a chain reaction with other Middle Eastern groups. For instance, there are strong Palestinian factions in Lebanon, and Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon have served as extraterritorial zones for decades.

Since 1948, all of the Palestinian factions have maintained a presence in the Middle East, and they are in contact with Hezbollah before they take action. If there is a clash between Israel and the Palestinians in Jerusalem, Gaza, Judea, and Samaria, then Palestinian forces in Lebanon might decide to act by firing rockets into Israel.

As Reuters reporters James Mackenzie, Dan Williams, Maya Gebeily and Laila Bassam noted, quoting Mohanad Hage Ali of the Carnegie Middle East Center, an emboldened Hezbollah was seeking to work with Palestinian factions to “change the rules of engagement…There’s now a rule in which if there’s a violation in Jerusalem at Al-Aqsa Mosque or extended escalation in Palestinian territories, Lebanon’s southern borders witness skirmishes or rocket launches.”

What Are the Chances of a War Between Israel and Lebanon?

What are the chances of a war between Israel and Lebanon? They are not low, but a war will damage both sides.

A situation can escalate quickly when autonomous military units are involved. According to Haaretz, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant warned Hezbollah that Israel will send Lebanon back to the stone age if Hezbollah dares to attack Israel and Nasrallah responded with an identical threat. This tit-for-tat behavior is a normal part of Middle Eastern rhetoric, but it also exemplifies how fast things can get out of hand.

Nasrallah has much to lose. Any miscalculation on his part will strengthen the growing criticism of himself and Hezbollah.

However, Nasrallah is an autocratic leader, preferring to make his own decisions with little input from others. There is also a limit to how much Tehran can control him. Nasrallah might start something that will prove catastrophic not only for Hezbollah, but also Lebanon as a whole.

Ilan Fuchs

Dr. Ilan Fuchs is a scholar of international law and legal history. He holds a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science from The Open University of Israel and an M.A. in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. Ilan’s other degrees include an LL.B., an LL.M. and a Ph.D. in Law from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of “Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Education and Modernity,” and 18 articles in leading scholarly journals. At the University, Ilan teaches courses on international law while maintaining a law practice in several jurisdictions.

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