The Lebanese-Israeli front has flared up again as Israel resumed its war on Gaza following the end of the seven-day truce with Hamas. Hizbullah’s more precisely targeted missile fire is being met by larger-scale strikes from Israel.
The truce began two weeks ago after Israel struck a building in the village of Beit Yahoun, killing several Hizbullah field officers, including the son of the leader of Hizbullah’s parliamentary bloc, Lebanese MP Mohamed Raad.
Hizbullah responded decisively in the hours before the truce came into effect, firing some 50 Katyusha rockets at the Israeli Ein Zeitim Military Base near the town of Safed. It was the most intensive and deepest strike into Israel since the beginning of the war.
The intensity of the exchange led some observers to doubt whether the two sides would abide by the truce. However, Hizbullah made it clear that it would maintain calm on this front as long as the same applied to the Gaza front and Israel abided by the truce.
The Lebanese-Israeli border thus remained calm until reciprocal shelling resumed on 1 December.
The brief respite gave an estimated 30,000 people from southern Lebanese villages the chance to return to their homes to inspect the damage caused by the Israeli strikes. Hizbullah took the opportunity to regroup, redeploy personnel, and assess its losses. It also investigated the pre-truce strike that killed several officers to determine whether there had been an intelligence leak or whether the Israeli forces had merely had a stroke of luck.
According to a preliminary assessment, Hizbullah lost more than 80 operatives in the period before the truce, though Israel failed to halt or even slow Hizbullah’s strikes against Israeli military targets.
Nevertheless, it continued its intensive fire combining pinpointed targeting of sources of Hizbullah firing with random strikes against open areas in the hope of hitting Hizbullah fighters, missile launchers or arms depots belonging either to Hizbullah or to contingents of the Al-Qassam or Jerusalem Brigades in southern Lebanon.
Israel’s indiscriminate strikes targeted farmhouses and civilian vehicles and killed civilians and journalists. Israel also did not spare Lebanese Army and UNIFIL forces in southern Lebanon, with the result that they sustained casualties as well, albeit minor ones.
During the first phase of the war, Israel seemed to be most focused on bombarding towns and villages south of the Litani River to drive resistance fighters away from the border with Israel. However, it failed to achieve this objective, and barely had the truce ended than Hizbullah struck an armoured personnel vehicle at the Beit Hillel Base near Kiryat Shmona with a short-range armour-piercing missile.
The missile, which must have been fired from a position close to the border fence in order to reach that far into Israel and wound at least 11 soldiers, was Hizbullah’sway of telling the Israeli Occupation Force (IOF) that the resistance forces had not retreated beyond the Litani River, as Israel had wanted, and that their military capacities were undiminished.
Israel’s concerns for the northern front prompted a visit by French envoy Jean-Yves Le Drian to the country during the period of the truce. In his meetings with Lebanese leaders, Le Drian expressed his country’s eagerness to help Lebanon revive the long-stalled process of electing a new president. But he also made it clear that he was there to discuss arrangements related to the war in Gaza.
One major point of discussion had to do with what Le Drian described as the international community’s desire to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1701 of 2005 calling for a demilitarised zone south of the Litani River, which implies the withdrawal of Hizbullah’s military influence to the north of it as well.
Le Drian was surprised to find how much his country’s influence among the Lebanese political forces has declined as a result of the pro-Israeli bias expressed by French President Emmanuel Macron and his foreign minister who personally conveyed her government’s threats during a visit to Beirut in the first week of the Israeli assault on Gaza.
Hizbullah’s short-range anti-tank missile, not intercepted by the Israeli Iron Dome defence system, was also a message to Le Drian, rejecting the demands that he brought with him to Beirut.
According to reports, Israel had been preparing for an extensive pre-emptive strike to degrade Hizbullah’s military capacities in southern Lebanon, but the truce intervened.
The reports may have been intended as a form of ultimatum to compel Hizbullah to de-escalate along the Lebanese front. If so, the resumption of missile barrages after the truce suggests that the threat did not work.
Hizbullah has taken care to keep its salvos generally within the same range as before, however, and to only strike Israeli military targets. But this has not prevented it from carrying out simultaneous attacks in several directions, in a demonstration of its ability to increase the quality and intensity of its military preparations south of the Litani River.
The precision of the strikes is also indicative of the efficiency of Hizbullah’s intelligence efforts, for clearly its missiles can reach civilian infrastructure and population centres.
Israeli intelligence has so far failed to take out major Hizbullah military installations, despite its repeated threats. Most recently, the head of the Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet warned that it would hunt down Hamas leaders in Arab capitals, including Beirut.
European officials have echoed or tacitly backed Israeli threats during their visits to Beirut, saying that they could not guarantee how far Israel would go in its strikes or that they were unable to restrain Israel from targeting Lebanese infrastructure, including in Beirut, should the war expand.
Nor would their governments commit to funding reconstruction in the event of a possible war between Israel and Hizbullah, they said.
The skirmishes that have occurred during the war show a certain parity in terms of mutual deterrence, something which Hizbullah has sought to create. A battle on the northern front is no longer the cakewalk that Tel Aviv once thought it was, and Israel knows that it must factor in serious repercussions before embarking on an adventure in that direction.
On the other hand, Hizbullah does not have an entirely free hand when it comes to strikes against northern Israel. There are certain rules of engagement that it must adhere to, though these still leave it room for manoeuvre in flexing its increasingly strong and more diverse military muscle, giving it the confidence to reject pressures to evacuate from the main area of operations and retreat beyond the Litani River.
There is also a moral reason why Hizbullah would reject this demand. Creating a buffer zone that lies entirely inside Lebanese territory and that does not require Israel to make any concessions on its side is considered to be unfair and unjust.
In practical terms, even if it is prepared to show flexibility regarding de-escalation on the northern front in tandem with de-escalation on the Gaza front, Hizbullah cannot agree to withdraw from its positions in southern Lebanon.
Having scored a major victory against Israel on that front, it cannot agree to a step that would make it appear weaker than Israel or anything less than equal.
Hizbullah’s actions are subject to the framework that its Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, earlier outlined in a televised speech. Escalation on the part of Hizbullah is contingent on developments on the ground in Gaza and the scale of Israeli strikes against Lebanon.
However, it is impossible to predict how far Israel would be willing to go in expanding the war and opening new fronts, if only to prove that it can take on all its enemies at once. As a result, as clear as the current rules of engagement are and as committed the two sides have been so far not to break them, there are still some wild cards.
Fears that the war could expand as a result of miscalculations in responses and counter-responses are thus not unwarranted.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly