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War on Gaza: Is a full-scale war between Lebanon and Israel on the horizon?

Northern Israeli communities have received little reassurances from the army as Hezbollah continues tit-for-tat assaults in response to the war on Gaza
An Israeli Air Force helicopter hovers over the border area with south Lebanon in northern Israel on 22 February 2024 (AFP)
An Israeli helicopter hovers over the border area with south Lebanon and northern Israel, 22 February 2024 (AFP)
By Peggy Cidor in Jerusalem

The eyes of most Israelis are directed towards the south. They seek news of the elusive Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar and they hear the cries of families of Israelis held captive in the Gaza Strip, begging for the Israeli government to accept a deal to free them.

Yet in these cold winter days, the northern border with Lebanon is getting dangerously hotter day by day.

Officially, the Israeli government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu broadcast that they do not intend to open another military front and enter into a conflict with Hezbollah, the armed Lebanese movement that has engaged Israel with skirmishes for four months as a sideshow to the war in Gaza.

Israeli tit-for-tat attacks have so far killed at least 280 people in Lebanon, including 44 civilians and over 200 Hezbollah fighters. It reached targets up to 60km (37 miles) deep inside Lebanon, and targeted the east of the country for the first time on Monday, killing two Hezbollah members. 

Meanwhile, the daily rocket and missile attacks from Hezbollah positions continue to wreak havoc in Israel, most recently killing a 20-year-old soldier serving in the Israeli army’s Northern Command.

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As of Monday, Hezbollah’s assaults have killed 10 Israeli soldiers and six civilians. The group’s attacks appear to be targeted at Israeli bases and informed by solid intelligence. 

But who actually wants a full-scale war with Lebanon, including a ground operation, more than 20 years after Israel’s retreat from there under Ehud Barak’s government?

The Israeli public seems inclined to support a military offensive against Hezbollah. 

According to a public opinion poll by the daily Ma'ariv published on 16 February, 71 percent of respondents support military action to remove Hezbollah from the border, while 17 percent support the army’s "containment" approach towards the group.

Another poll, conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute between 12-15 February, showed that a small majority of Jewish respondents supported an all-out offensive on Hezbollah, while a large majority of Arab respondents supported an internationally mediated political agreement to end hostilities. However, when the Jewish sample is broken down based on political orientation, left-wing respondents favour a political agreement, as opposed to a solid majority among right-wing respondents supporting a military solution.

Mixed messages from the army

The heads of the local authorities of the settlements of northern Israel, representing 120,000 residents of the north, gathered to discuss the situation last week, in the presence of army chief of staff Herzi Halevi. They represented settlements that were evacuated by a military order, or whose residents made the unilateral decision to leave to protect their lives. 

Amit Sofer, chairman of the Marom Hagalil Regional Council, said at a press conference following the meeting that participants received mixed messages from the army, which expects them to return to their homes even without a clear plan to protect them from the ongoing cross-border attacks by Hezbollah.

'No one - not us, not Hezbollah, not Iran, not the US, certainly not the Lebanese themselves - are interested in all-out war right now'

Reserve Major General Giora Iland, Israeli army

Halevi invited the residents to return to their homes and at the same time told them the army is preparing for war in the north. But, according to Sofer, northern Israeli communities are not convinced that they can safely return before the Israeli army significantly neutralises the threat of Hezbollah's elite Radwan force near the border. "If this force remains intact, we cannot rule out another 7 October," he said.

Israeli researchers and former military personnel do not sound particularly optimistic about de-escalation. 

Reserve Major General Giora Iland, who was the head of the National Security Council during the second Lebanon war in 2006, did not show much optimism regarding a ceasefire deal with Hezbollah. 

"I think there is a chance that it will succeed. I don't give it a high chance, but neither is it negligible, something like 30 percent,” he told Israeli reporters.

“This is mainly due to the fact that no one - not us, not Hezbollah, not Iran, not the US, certainly not the Lebanese themselves - are really interested in all-out war right now,” he added. 

France, which has historic ties with Lebanon, has recently stepped in with a proposal to end the conflict. Reportedly presented as a written document to the Lebanese government earlier this month, the proposal involves the withdrawal of Hezbollah fighters, at least ten kilometres from the border.  

The document, designed to prevent a potentially uncontrollable conflict, envisages a "potential ceasefire" and, subsequently, the opening of discussions on the demarcation of the land border between Lebanon and Israel. The plan has yet to obtain the approval, or green light, of any other country involved, including Israel.

The French ambassador to Lebanon, Herve Magro, reaffirmed on 12 February that his country “remains committed to Lebanon” during this crisis.

Magro emphasised France's desire to prevent a regional escalation which would be catastrophic for the country, recognising France’s decisive role in preserving the stability of South Lebanon, in particular through its contribution to Resolution 1701 of the United Nations Security Council on Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2006.  

Hezbollah won't benefit from war

According to Iland, Hezbollah will not stop unilaterally. It needs to receive something in return, to justify the withdrawal before its supporters.

Iland added that one of the reasons Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah may accept a ceasefire deal is that a war will not only target the group, but Lebanon as a whole, including the state's infrastructure.

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“A war could destroy entire neighbourhoods and districts in Beirut,” he said. 

Israel raided and occupied Beirut in the 1980s, during the Lebanese civil war, and besieged the western half of the city in its search for Palestinian fighters. The invasion killed thousands of civilians and was one of the most devastating events in modern Lebanese history. 

“As someone who defines himself as a Lebanese patriot, as a defender of Lebanon, Nasrallah understands that such heavy destruction, when the country is also in a difficult situation, is something that the entire Lebanese society, including his own community, will blame him for,” Iland said.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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