Changing rules of engagement in Lebanon

Rabha Allam , Tuesday 9 Jan 2024

The conflict between Hizbullah and Israel is taking on new forms following the assassination of Hamas leader Saleh Al-Arouri in Beirut.

Changing rules of engagement in Lebanon
The funeral of Hamas officials killed in Beirut (photo: AFP)


Saleh Al-Arouri, the second-in-command in Hamas, was killed in a missile attack carried out by a drone on a multi-storey building in a southern suburb of the Lebanese capital Beirut on 2 January that also resulted in the deaths of six other military commanders of the Al-Qassam Brigades.

Although Israel has not officially claimed responsibility for the assassination, it aligns with a previous warning that it would target Hamas leaders by carrying out such assassinations in various capitals abroad.

The Israeli-Lebanese front has been experiencing daily escalations and reciprocal missile attacks, and the last thing it needed was an attack of this magnitude that has disrupted the previously stable rules of engagement that were relied upon to maintain control.

The attack would ordinarily have been enough to prompt a reciprocal response from Hizbullah. However, the nature of the response may not necessarily be similar.

In its initial reaction to the assassination, Hizbullah launched 62 missiles of various types against Israel’s Mount Meron base in the north of the country near the Lebanese border. Mount Meron is Israel’s primary air-traffic control base in the area, overseeing espionage, jamming, and airborne military operations against Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Cyprus, and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Israeli army radio reported damage to the base without specifying the extent, following its customary practise of concealing army losses since the beginning of the war on Gaza.

Hizbullah’s retaliation came a few hours after a speech by its Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, in which he said the assassination of Al-Arouri was a major crime that would not go unanswered.

Nasrallah emphasised Hizbullah’s careful calculations during the war, taking into account Lebanese interests to avoid a broader escalation.

However, he cautioned that if Israel contemplates waging a war against Lebanon, Lebanese interests would necessitate Hizbullah’s engagement in a war “without a ceiling, without rules, and without limits and controls.”

Immediately after the speech, Hizbullah disrupted operations at Israel’s air control base from which it conducts its operations against Lebanon.

While many observers anticipated that the attack would disrupt the established rules of engagement between Hizbullah and Israel, the former’s response aligns with its self-imposed rules focusing on military targets from the coastline in the west to Mount Hermon in the east.

In his recent speech, Nasrallah provided a detailed account of Hizbullah’s attacks over the past three months along the southern border of Lebanon. It has executed more than 670 attacks on military sites along the 100 km border, averaging seven attacks per day, with some days witnessing up to 23 missile attacks, he said.

Although these attacks have inflicted substantial losses on the Israeli army in terms of officers, soldiers, and equipment, it remains determined to conceal its losses, because as Nasrallah put it, these were “humiliating losses” to Israel.

A Hizbullah statement said that an estimated 2,000 Israeli soldiers and officers have been killed or injured in the attacks.

Nasrallah said Hizbullah’s intensified attacks had not only compelled about 100,000 residents of Israel’s northern settlements to evacuate but has also led Israeli soldiers and officers to position themselves around their military bases rather than inside them, anticipating the possibility of multiple bombings.

This had prompted Hizbullah to monitor groups of soldiers near these bases and within abandoned settlements and to target them with various missiles. Nasrallah said that Israel’s stationing of soldiers outside the bases without entirely abandoning them was an indication of its fear that they could be occupied by Lebanese and Palestinian resistance fighters from Lebanon.

Nasrallah thus subtly conveyed the threat of potential offensive operations within Israeli territory, suggesting that the risk of crossing the border and occupying sites was not something only taken on by Israel and implying that Lebanon also poses a threat to Israel as a result of Al-Arouri’s assassination.

In response to the Hizbullah attacks, Israel targeted the Lebanese town of Kawthariyat Al-Siyad on the outskirts of the Sidon district, marking its deepest incursion into Lebanese territory since the start of the Gaza conflict and some 40 km from the shared border.

While the Israeli raid resulted in damage to some buildings, its significance lies in the extent of the incursion into southern regions of Lebanon beyond the immediate border areas and indicating Israel’s seriousness in implementing its threats.

As Israel continues to threaten a potentially broader assault on southern Lebanon to compel Hizbullah to withdraw north of the Litani River, international diplomatic efforts, including a recent visit by EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell, are advocating political solutions to avert a military escalation.

During his visit to Beirut, Borrell explored diplomatic solutions with a Hizbullah delegation. However, the group declined to discuss the details of these until a comprehensive ceasefire to the war in Gaza and on Lebanon had been achieved.

Nasrallah’s speech, outlining the achievements of the Lebanese resistance over the past three months, seemed like a conclusive account of a war that is nearing its end. Yet, the recent assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) Field Commander Reza Mousavi in Damascus, followed by the assassination of Al-Arouri in Beirut and the bombings targeting visitors to former IRG commander Qassem Suleimani’s grave in Iran suggest that the war is intensifying and taking on new dimensions.

The conflicting messages of escalation and calm in the war may stem from the divergence between Israeli and US desires to either expand or contain the conflict.

The Israeli government seeks to escalate the conflict to gain military advantages and to restore the Israeli army’s capacity for regional deterrence, which has suffered significant damage since 7 October. In contrast, the US administration advocates de-escalation in Gaza, followed by a similar de-escalation on the Lebanese front and returning to the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.

This approach may pave the way for diplomatic solutions, including the potential demarcation of the land border through US mediation, as was the case with the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon.

Although the current situation in the field is not in favour of Israel, a cessation of the war in the near future could force it to concede some occupied Lebanese territory, such as the Shebaa Farms, the Kfar Shuba Hills, and the town of Ghajar, in future negotiations.

Hizbullah’s decision to respond proportionately to Al-Arouri’s assassination reflects its desire to avoid being drawn into attempts by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ignite additional fronts.

Netanyahu wants to prolong the war, thereby extending the life of his fragile government and shielding him from a potential prosecution that could end his political career. Hizbullah’s response may manifest as a series of border escalations that do not target civilians to prevent Israel from exploiting the opportunity to broaden its attacks on Lebanon.

In return, other allied parties, especially the Al-Qassam Brigades, will be permitted to broaden their targeting of Israel from Lebanese territory to avenge the assassination of Al-Arouri. Additionally, Iranian-axis parties like the Houthis in Yemen and militias closely aligned with Iran in Iraq are being encouraged to contribute to a multi-dimensional response, ensuring that Lebanon alone does not bear its full repercussions.

Nasrallah said Hizbullah’s primary objective in supporting the Gaza front is to apply pressure on the Israeli army across multiple fronts, dispersing and exhausting its military capacity and compelling the Israeli government to halt the war on Gaza.

At the same time, Hizbullah knows that in its attempt to save itself the Israeli government also wants to open a comprehensive front in Lebanon, a goal Hizbullah is determined not to allow.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 11 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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