As US pressures Iran, parallel tensions grow between Israel and Hezbollah

A decade of relative calm along the Israel-Lebanon border is being rattled as both Israel and Hezbollah threaten each other. The threats were provoked by the Trump administration signaling an intent to roll back the growing influence of Iran, Hezbollah’s sponsor. 

Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters through a screen during a rally commemorating the annual Hezbollah Martyrs' Leaders Day in Jebshit village, southern Lebanon Feb. 16.

The calm that has prevailed for more than a decade along the Lebanon-Israel border is being rattled by a flurry of fiery warnings from both sides that has many here concerned another war between the Jewish state and Lebanon’s Hezbollah organization may be drawing closer.

Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has threatened to hit Israel's nuclear reactor should the Jewish state attack. Israeli officials have warned that all Lebanon will be struck if Hezbollah attacks the Israeli home front. 

The prospect of a mutually destructive war unleashed on Lebanon and Israel continues to act as a deterrence, but it remains perilously vulnerable to a miscalculation that could spiral into a conflict before either side can dial it back.

"I don' think [a war] is imminent. But mistakes based on miscalculations and wrong messaging can happen," says Randa Slim, a scholar with the Washington-based Middle East Institute and an expert on Hezbollah. "Despite Nasrallah's blustery rhetoric, Hezbollah is in no position to wage this war now [and] Israel cannot afford to call Nasrallah's bluff about targeting the nuclear plant. The mutual deterrence regime that has been in place on the Israeli-Lebanese border has been beneficial to both Israel and Hezbollah and I don't think either side is ready yet to upend it."

The latest mutual threats were provoked by the new Trump administration signaling an intention to roll back the growing influence of Iran, Hezbollah’s sponsor, across the Middle East. But given the extensive influence Iran wields in Syria and Iraq and to a lesser extent in Yemen, a new US effort to dent the Islamic Republic's reach could have ramifications for the more pressing goal of defeating the self-declared Islamic State, and could incur a potent backlash against American interests from Iran-backed groups across the region.

Targeting several militant groups

On Tuesday, the Pentagon handed the White House a preliminary plan to defeat the self-declared Islamic State – which Trump has touted as a top foreign policy priority. While the proposal remains classified, some reports have suggested the recommendations include expanding the scope to other militant extremist groups operating in the Middle East, among them Al Qaeda and possibly Hezbollah.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hinted at a broader approach to trans-regional threats in the Middle East in comments made last week in which he described Iran as a “malign influence” in the region.

“They [the Iranians] have got a very aggressive proxy war,” he told an audience at the Brookings Institution in Washington on Friday. “We see that in Yemen. We see their influence in Syria. We see their malign influence in Lebanon, as well as in Iraq and the rest of the region.”

The renewed focus on Iranian activity in the Middle East has triggered some tough rhetoric from both sides of the Lebanon-Israel border.

Nasrallah sought to bolster his organization's deterrence capabilities by threatening to target Israel's nuclear reactor in Dimona, in southern Israel, and the ammonia storage facilities in Haifa in the north, should Israel attack Lebanon. While Hezbollah was not seeking a conflict with the Jewish state, Nasrallah told Iran's Channel 1 News, "Israel should think a million times before waging any war with Lebanon."

In return, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman dismissed Nasrallah’s warnings, saying “a dog that barks doesn’t bite.” Another Israeli minister said that if Hezbollah attacks, “all of Lebanon will be hit.”

A war to dwarf the last one

Despite the posturing, both sides understand that the scale of the next war will completely dwarf the last one in 2006. That grim reality has helped ensure 10 years of relative tranquillity along the Lebanon-Israel border.

Still, the risk of a miscalculation by one side or the other could quickly turn the calm into violence. Israel has pushed the envelope more than Hezbollah in recent years, with assassinations of Hezbollah personnel and airstrikes in Syria against suspected arms depots or convoys destined for the Lebanese group. Hezbollah has been careful to tailor its reprisal operations to deliver a slap to Israel, but not be hard enough to upset the “balance of terror.” 

In the past decade, the Lebanese group has expanded massively in terms of manpower, weaponry, and experience. Since 2012, Hezbollah fighters have learned a new set of battlefield skills in Syria, where the group has intervened to defend the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Hezbollah, Arabic for the Party of God, has become too small a name for what the organization has evolved into, says a veteran Hezbollah commander who has served multiple tours in Syria.

“We should be called Jaysh al-Allah,” the Army of God, he says.

With the Assad regime lately gaining an upper hand in the military struggle, some in Israel fret that Hezbollah might turn its attention back to its primary enemy.

“The fact that the organization is identified with the ‘winning side’ will only give it more confidence in its abilities to shift the fighting toward its main enemy – Israel,” wrote Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser, in the Yedioth Ahranot daily last week.

Among the tactics practiced by Hezbollah in Syria is offensive operations, hardening the view that in the next war the cadres will cross the border into northern Israel to conduct ambushes and raids, a development first revealed by The Christian Science Monitor in April 2008 and subsequently alluded to by Nasrallah in a speech three years later. The Israeli military is taking the threat seriously, and in recent months has bolstered its defenses along the northern border with Lebanon, placing concrete blocks at potential breach points and even excavating the sides of valleys adjacent to the frontier into un-climbable sheer cliffs.

Although much of the attention on Hezbollah in recent years has been on the organization’s activities in Syria, it has not abandoned the Israel front.

Many of its top fighters, especially anti-tank missile teams and the rocket units, have stayed in Lebanon rather than go to Syria. For the past two months, plain-clothed Hezbollah units have been conducting a thorough but low-key survey of the Lebanon-Israel border, taking extensive measurements of adjacent terrain, including slope gradients, and photographing Israel’s own new defenses on the other side of the fence, according to sources based in south Lebanon. The survey, which is part operational planning and part psychological needling of Israeli troops watching from the other side of the fence, underlines that Hezbollah’s anti-Israel activities have not slowed despite the involvement with Syria.

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