How to Avoid a Second Front Between Israel and Hizballah

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Israel is in a crisis. Last Saturday, the country experienced its most horrific terror attack in history — we still don’t know how many lives it claimed (the count so far is more than 1,000 deaths and thousands of injured). As Israel prepares for a full-scale war against Hamas, the terrorist organization that controls Gaza, violence may explode along another front: Israel’s northern border with Lebanon.

It’s been 17 years since the 2006 Lebanon War between Israel and Hizballah. Events on the Israeli-Lebanese border since the Hamas attack threaten to spiral out of control, bringing the two sides closer to war. Hizballah is a terrorist organization that is, de facto, in charge of southern Lebanon. Since the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, there have been a number of exchanges of fire between Hizballah, Palestinian factions in Lebanon, and the Israeli Defense Forces. These exchanges resulted in at least three Hizballah fighters dead and a number of Israeli casualties. The Hizballah casualties are significant because they are one of the only times the group’s fighters have been killed from direct Israeli fire since 2006.

The question on everyone’s mind right now is: Does Hizballah actually want a full-blown war with Israel? For now, it appears that Hizballah is still sitting on the fence and wants to avoid a war. However, as war in Gaza looms, the probability of miscalculation remains high, and there is an increased chance of escalation. 

 

 

To avoid the worse-case scenario — a full-blown war between Israel and Hizballah — two key things should happen: The United States should continue its crucial signaling to Hizballah and Iran that they should not take advantage of the situation and that the United States has Israel’s back. The second is that Israel needs to restore its deterrence quickly. That can be achieved only by going all out in Gaza and showing Hizballah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, that such attacks have a price. 

Shots Fired

The first shot has already been fired. Ibrahim al Amin, the al-Akhbar journalist who is very close to Hizballah, wrote on Oct. 10 that the “resistance” (i.e., Hizballah) will support the Palestinians, but did not say anything about opening another front against Israel. The group certainly has the means with which to target Israeli territory. Hizballah has stockpiled weapons that can strike targets throughout the country. Israel is also distracted and in crisis. The security forces are in disarray, focused on the southern front and recuperating from a devastating attack. There is no doubt that Hizballah sees this perceived weakness. Yet, it has been days since Israel was attacked, and fighting between the Israeli Defense Forces and Hizballah have been relatively constrained.

There are a number of reasons why Hizballah, thus far, has chosen not to escalate the situation further and risk war. First, mutual deterrence. After the 2006 war, the “red lines” for each side were established and enforced, and it appears that these unofficially accepted terms have held to some extent. Hizballah has an arsenal of more than 150,000 rockets and missiles, including precision capabilities, advanced drones, and surface-to-sea missiles. The group also has around 50,000 fighters, many of whom are battle experienced from their fight in Syria. This is why Israel has, for years, avoided operating extensively in the Lebanese arena against Hizballah. 

Hizballah leadership, despite all of its grandiose rhetoric against Israel, also knows well that any war with Israel will result in enormous losses to the organization and to Lebanon. Israel has prepared for a war with Hizballah ever since 2006. As a soldier serving in intelligence in the Israeli Defense Forces, I still remember being called to serve many times as Israel conducted exercises preparing for a war in Lebanon. The Israeli army trained, gathered remarkable intelligence, built obstacles on the border to avoid infiltrations, and improved its missile defense capabilities, anticipating that such a war would come eventually. And Hizballah knows that. 

Second, Hizballah leadership may have concluded that it has lost the element of surprise. After suffering one of the harshest blows in its history, Israel is mobilizing its reservists, and the entire country is on war footing right now. As part of the mobilization, Israeli Defense Forces are being sent to the northern border, including reservists from elite units and battalions. Tanks and artillery were also mobilized in the north in preparation for escalation.

Hizballah’s leadership may have concluded that the United States is prepared to support Israel, raising the potential cost of any escalation. President Joe Biden has issued several statements in recent days about open-ended U.S. support for Israel. This includes a warning to regional actors against taking advantage of the situation. Biden ordered the USS Gerald R. Ford to move to the eastern Mediterranean to support Israel. This carrier strike group, which U.S. officials have indicated is meant as a signal to regional actors, is equipped with systems that could help defend Israel from a Hizballah missile attack. This show of force, while perhaps ancillary to the forthcoming war with Hamas, could signal to Hizballah leadership that any escalation with Israel could be far more intense than in the past — and could include much more concrete U.S. support for Israeli military actions

Conclusion

Deterrence can always break down. Hizballah’s leadership may feel compelled to show solidarity with Hamas or to take advantage of Israel’s current situation in order to try and inflict losses on Israel. This could result in another full-blown war or a few days of heavy fire exchanges on the border and beyond. Iran, which created and supports Hizballah, may also use the group to pressure Israel should tensions between the two countries escalate. 

What to do now to affect Hizballah’s decision-making and make sure that it won’t cross the line?

The first thing is to keep projecting the strength of the U.S.-Israeli relationship and emphasizing the support that Israel has from other European powers. Hizballah is powerful, and it relies on its missile force to cause significant damage in Israel. If it believes that this achievement will be minimized as a result of American military involvement, it might choose not to use it. The same message of American and international support should also be repeatedly conveyed to the leadership in Tehran, to induce it to stop pressure on Hizballah to open a second front in the north.  

Second, Israel needs to restore its deterrence quickly, which is not an easy task. The image of Israeli military strength was damaged this past week. To restore it, Israel needs to show excellent results from its war in Gaza and fast, especially when it comes to taking out Hamas leadership. Unfortunately, it also needs to show that it is willing to cause unprecedented damage to Gaza’s infrastructure. Hizballah’s leadership needs to look at Gaza and be made to think twice before being responsible for that level of destruction in Lebanon. 

The war in Gaza will be destructive and hard for both sides. And yet, it will result in a fraction of the damage that a war between Israel and Hizballah would cause. It is in all parties’ interests to make sure that a second front does not open between Israel and Hizballah. This should be on the top of everyone’s agenda. 

 

 

Nadav Pollak is a lecturer on Middle East affairs at Reichman University and a former research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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