Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite political movement and army, killed two Israel soldiers Wednesday in its most serious attack on Israelis since 2006. Israel responded, pounding presumed Hezbollah positions. Who are the players and what's at stake?
The 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel claimed more than 1,000 Lebanese lives, about half Hezbollah fighters and half Lebanese civilians. Israel lost 43 civilians and 121 soldiers in the conflict. And what did it achieve? A stalemate, with Hezbollah stronger today than it was in 2006, and Israel more worried than ever about the trained fighters and substantial arsenal of rockets and artillery on its northern border.
A Hezbollah attack on Israeli soldiers on the Israeli side of the Israel-Lebanon border, and the carrying away of two of them, precipitated that last conflict.
This flareup began when an Israeli air strike killed 7 men inside Syria, two of them senior Hezbollah commanders and one an Iranian general traveling with the Hezbollah group. Hezbollah vowed retaliation and followed through Wednesday with an attack on an Israeli military convoy near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, killing two Israeli soldiers. Israel quickly responded with more than 100 shells fired into southern Lebanon. The UN and Spanish government told Reuters that a Spanish peacekeeper was killed by the Israeli fire, though Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman blamed Hezbollah.
Mr. Lieberman also called for Israel to respond to the Hezbollah attack with a "harsh and disproportionate response."
But Lieberman's political star in Israel is waning, and neither side seems eager for a full-on war now. Hezbollah is deeply involved in fighting on the side of President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war, and has also been struggling to contain incursions of fighters from jihadi groups like Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda-affiliate, from infiltrating into northern Lebanon. Israel has a parliamentary election scheduled for March 17, and will also be wary of wading into a Lebanon that is far more complicated than in 2006.
In the late afternoon in the region, shelling from both Israel and Hezbollah appeared to taper off.
Where did the attack happen?
The original Hezbollah attack took place near a town called Ghajar, half of which was seized by Israel from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967. The southern portion of the largely Alawite (the same minority sect that Syria's Mr. Assad belongs to) town and its immediate surroundings were annexed by Israel in 1981, with most residents accepting Israeli citizenship.
But the town itself has long been a powerful emblem of festering tensions between Israel and Lebanon. After the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon ended in 2000, the United Nations put the "blue" armistice line right through the town. The town lies just south of the Shebaa Farms area, a part of the Golan Heights. Israel seized most of the Golan from Syria during the 1967 war and has occupied it since. While most of the Israeli-occupied territory is claimed by Syria alone, the Shebaa Farms portion is also contested by Lebanon. Israel has routinely patrolled both sides of the town since the Blue Line was drawn.
Shebaa's particularly murky status is due to the fact that the colonial powers who preceded the current states in the region never agreed to who owned it.
Meir Javedanfar, an analyst based in Tel Aviv, told the Monitor in 2010 that Ghajar "is a symbol of Israel's power struggle with Hezbollah. It’s a security headache for Israel when it's difficult to demarcate and it's on the border with an enemy country."
Hezbollah has long complained that Israel's presence in Ghajar and the Shebaa Farms mean that it continues to occupy part of Lebanon.
Why was a UN peacekeeper in harm's way?
The unintentionally ironically named United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon dates back to 1978. The force was created to keep the peace after Israel withdrew from its first invasion of the country, which sought to drive militant Palestinian organizations from the border area. It's mandate and precise mission were substantially adjusted in 1982 following Israel's second invasion, in 2000 during the Israeli withdrawal, and again after the 2006 war with Hezbollah.
The UN force currently has about 10,000 peacekeepers from nearly 40 countries in the area. It patrols areas in the south with the Lebanese army, and its mandate extends to monitoring the Israeli withdrawal and cessation of fighting along the border, coordinating with both Israel and Lebanon, and taking "steps towards the establishment between the Blue Line and the Litani river of an area free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the Government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL deployed in this area." That refers to Hezbollah, which is the most powerful armed force in the south of the country.
Was Iran involved?
The Shiite movement Hezbollah has long received financial, political, and military support from the Islamic Republic of Iran. While not precisely an Iranian cat's paw, the movement is in constant contact with senior Iranian officials, whose ongoing support has been a major component in its steady accumulation of military strength. Hezbollah units have been coordinating closely with Iranian officers in efforts to dislodge the Islamic State from parts of Iraq and Syria, as well as to help Syria's Assad in the fight against his other enemies in the country.
While Iran needn't have ordered Wednesday's attack by Hezbollah – an attempt at vengeance became inevitable after the Israeli killing of the Hezbollah men, among whom was the son of the former commander of their army – if it had strongly urged against retaliation, the group probably would have listened.
But Iran is likely to play a staying hand on a major escalation such as the firing of long-range missiles at Israeli population centers, something that would make another Israeli invasion all put inevitable. Both Iran and Hezbollah have a full plate with the fights in Iraq and Syria, and a war with Israel would prove a boon to the enemies of both Assad and the Shiite-dominated central government in Iraq.
The war in Syria has undoubtedly taken a toll on Hezbollah. In August, the group lowered the required fighting age for members from 18 to 16, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah indicated at a commemoration of the 2006 war with Israel that for now Hezbollah is focusing on its north.
"We have to believe that there is a real existential danger threatening us all and it is not a joke,” Nasrallah said then. "The so-called [IS] is a group that has now seized large geographical areas in Syria and Iraq and taken control of [oil and gas] fields and main water dams.… The massacres that have been committed harmed Sunnis primarily, and [IS] did not spare anyone in Iraq like Kurds, Yazidis, Shiites, Christians, Turkmen.”