Hizbullah’s calculations on the northern front

Rabha Allam , Tuesday 10 Oct 2023

Hizbullah is adamant about supporting Hamas in its conflict with Israel, writes Rabha Allam

Hizbullah s calculations on the northern front
A Lebanese girl looks through a shattered glass window after Israeli shelling landed near her house, in Dahaira village, South Lebanon (photo: AP)


For three consecutive days, the border area between Israel and South Lebanon has witnessed an exchange of rockets.

“Rockets were fired from... southern Lebanon towards the Galilee” region in northern Israel, the official National News Agency (NNA) said.

On Monday night,  Israeli strikes on Lebanon resulted in the death of three Hezbollah members, according to the Iran-backed group.

Hezbollah said it retaliated by striking two Israeli barracks.

The two sides recall the 34-day war of 2006 that left more than 1,200 dead in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 160 in Israel, the majority being soldiers.

For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned, in his first statement following Hamas’ incursion into Israel, against taking advantage of the situation to open another front against Israel.

He was referring to the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah.

Israel has every right to fear a Hizbullah entry into the conflict. Israel’s leaders have often measured Hamas’ strength against the Lebanese resistance movement, which they recognise as many times stronger. When one considers the losses that Hamas inflicted on Israel in just a few hours earlier this week, it is not difficult to imagine the disaster Hizbullah could unleash from an incursion in the north.

As a result, it is little wonder that within hours of the fighting between Hamas fighters and the Israeli military on 7 October, Israel moved to reinforce its northern border and called up tens of thousands of reservists for the purpose.

Last Saturday, Hizbullah confined itself to congratulating the Palestinian people and the Hamas leadership over the launch of Operation “Al-Aqsa Flood” in response to the repeated Israeli violations of the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem.

The following morning it fired rockets and mortars at three Israeli military sites in the Occupied Lebanese Territories of the Shebaa Farms and Kfarchouba Hills, delivering direct hits against Ar-Radar, Zebdine, and Ruwaisat Al-Alam.

Israel fired back at the source of the missile fire and used drones to bomb Hizbullah positions. The exchange lasted less than two hours, during which two Lebanese fighters were wounded. There have been no reports of casualties on the Israeli side.

A similar brief exchange erupted again in the afternoon, after which calm returned to the Lebanese-Israeli border.

But the “calm” in this context did not last long. The rules of engagement seemed still intact and that they will not escalate beyond an intermittent breach.

Cross-border exchanges of fire of the sort described above are limited and rarely last more than a day or two. Even when skirmishes have flared up, as occurred when an Israeli drone carrying explosives struck the Hizbullah media centre in Beirut in August 2019, the situation at the border remained under control.

The same appears to apply to the shelling on 8 October. This was a limited exchange with the rules of engagement in place, according to the information available thus far. As time passed,

The Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beirut described the “developments on the ground” in Palestine as being a direct consequence of the ongoing Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, the recurrent Israeli assaults against Islamic and Christian holy sites in the Occupied West Bank and Jerusalem, and the continual violation of the basic rights of the Palestinian people.

In a statement released on Saturday, the ministry warned that the failure to end the occupation of the Arab territories jeopardises international peace and stability. It urged the international community to assume its responsibility in compelling Israel to return to the peace negotiations with its well known frames-of-reference, namely, the Arab Peace Initiative adopted by the Arab Summit in Beirut 2002, the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, and the return of the Palestinian refugees to their homes.

The ministry has not yet commented on Hizbullah’s actions in Shebaa Farms on Sunday.

As the situation stands, it is unlikely that Hizbullah will open a second front against Israel. While it supports the Palestinian resistance, this does not mean it is ready to go to war at its side at this stage.

Hamas had its own reasons for launching the Al-Aqsa Flood Operation at this point. In addition to the Israeli violations against the Al-Aqsa Mosque and other Islamic sites, the Gaza-based movement also wants to free its detainees in Israeli prisons.

For the Lebanese, on the other hand, that problem ended with the prisoner exchange in 2008, in which Hizbullah secured the release of all Lebanese POWs in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers whom it had taken prisoner in an attack that preceded the Israeli-Hizbullah war of 2006.

However, it is not just that Hizbullah has no pressing issue, such as prisoners, with which to justify an offensive against Israel. It has been careful to preserve the calm on the Lebanese front over recent years, avoiding any attempts to drag it into a battle parallel to an Israeli engagement in Gaza, no matter how brutal the assault might be.

Hizbullah probably does not see any cause to change its policy in the present case. Hamas also does not need another party to confuse Israel by diverting its attention northwards. It has succeeded in sowing enough confusion in Israel with its missile bombardments and cross-border incursion in the south.

All this helps to explain why Hizbullah’s strikes against Israeli targets have been limited to Lebanese territory. The fact that it did not fire across the border into the Occupied West Bank sends a signal that Hizbullah is sticking to the established rules of engagement while asserting its right to liberate the Lebanese territory that Israel still occupies.

Hizbullah is aware that the shock that Israel received from Hamas on 7 October has triggered many shifts in Israeli perceptions and the domestic political situation. Hizbullah does not want to give the Israeli leadership an opening to divert attention away from its own debacle.

According to some reports, the reason why Hizbullah has maintained the relative calm along the Lebanese-Israeli border is in order for it to be able to use the threat of war as a form of leverage. Its statement claiming responsibility for the strikes against Israeli targets in the Shebaa Farms should be read as a message that it is reserving its strategic weight for Hamas to use as leverage to level out the playing field in its negotiations with Israel.

It is a translation of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s principle of the “unity of the squares” or the loci of resistance.

This is also hardly the best time for Lebanon as a whole for a war with Israel. Despite the extent to which Hizbullah controls politics in Lebanon today, the domestic situation is precarious due to the ongoing vacancy in the presidency.

Hizbullah has played a strategic game in disrupting the presidential elections in Lebanon in order to advance its candidate of Suleiman Frangieh. But it has no interest in being held responsible for pushing the country into a war at a time of a vacuum in the executive and government paralysis.

This is not to mention the country’s economic plight, which has put it at the mercy of the Western-dominated international financial agencies and the Gulf.

Meanwhile Israel, still in the process of absorbing the shock of 7 October, is not ready for action along its northern border. It is probably eager to freeze the situation in the north while it tries to regain control of its southern front and girds itself for a possible uprising in the West Bank and even among some of the Palestinians who lost their homes in 1948.

Should Israel contemplate opening battles on every front at once to throw others off balance while appealing for US and Western support, it could not take such a decision on its own. It would need a green light from Washington, which would be forced to foot the bill for Israel’s campaign for as long as that takes.

But the chances of such a scenario appear to be remote at a time when Washington is working to promote regional calm and cooperation and when the war in Ukraine is draining much of the US and Western military and financial support.

As a result, the conflict in Palestine/Israel is unlikely to spread to the Lebanese front. Both Hizbullah and Israel have an interest in containing the tensions along that front, with the shelling that took place between the two sides on Sunday being a repetition of a familiar pattern and thus an affirmation that the rules of engagement have not changed.

However, Hizbullah is continuing to signal that it could take part in a broader, multi-front war so that Hamas can use this to put pressure on Israel to improve its negotiating position. In this manner, Hizbullah is performing one of the functions of its self-proclaimed role as a main arm of the axis of resistance in the region.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 12 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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