Concern is rising that Lebanon will be dragged into a new and debilitating conflict between the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah and Israel at a time when both sides are suffering from domestic crises.
In Lebanon, the government backed by Hizbullah is facing a dire situation, and in Israel domestic turmoil could fuel an escalation in tensions leading to a situation like that in the 2006 War.
Recent reports have revealed that the Israeli army has mobilised large numbers of troops near Lebanon’s southern border and is in a state of heightened alert unprecedented since the 2006 War when it invaded southern Lebanon.
On 27 July, the border between Israel and Lebanon saw bombings and gunfire in the Shabaa Farms region, as well as other skirmishes between Israeli forces and Hizbullah.
There are conflicting accounts about what occurred. Israel claims it fired at Hizbullah fighters who had infiltrated the border from Lebanon, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu describing this as “a serious security incident”.
Hizbullah denied Israel’s claims, saying in a statement that “all claims in the enemy media about foiling an infiltration operation from Lebanon into Occupied Palestine and killing and injuring resistance fighters during attacks near Occupation positions in the Shabaa Farms are utterly false. They are an attempt to contrive false and delusional victories.”
The Israeli army said about four armed men crossed the border at the Shabaa Farms in the Occupied Golan Heights, but they had returned to Lebanon after they were fired at.
Netanyahu held a meeting to evaluate the situation at the headquarters of the Israeli northern command, after the Israeli army had announced it had foiled an operation by Hizbullah on the border. The meeting was attended by various senior Israeli officers.
“Our operations were critical in foiling the infiltration of our territory,” Netanyahu told the gathering. “This is happening because of attempts by Iran and its proxies in Lebanon to gain a foothold in the region.”
Tensions were already high due to the assassination of a Hizbullah combatant in what is believed to have been an Israeli air strike in Syria.
Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah’s secretary-general, said his group would respond to avenge “every fallen soldier.” The climate is similar to last year when two Hizbullah fighters were killed in Syria, also after an airstrike attributed to Israel on southern Beirut.
The group retaliated by using anti-tank missiles to attack an Israeli military ambulance on the border with Lebanon.
In April, Hizbullah cut the border fence between Lebanon and Israel at three points in response to an air strike on the Syrian side of the border. It appears the same tactics were used over the past two weeks after a Hizbullah fighter was killed in Syria and a group of fighters penetrated the border with Israel at Har Dov, according to Israeli sources.
Israel soldiers opened fire to force the group to retreat, which it did without injury.
The Israeli military is now on the alert, and there are worries about Hizbullah’s retaliation at a time when there are other concerns on people’s minds. Tourist areas in the north of Israel are among the few escapes the Israeli public has to escape the Covid-19 pandemic, but the actions of the Israeli army last week have raised anxieties that these areas might be targeted in a response from Lebanon.
There are also concerns that Israel military action might take place across the Lebanese border after 14 years of calm following the decision to allow an armed group to flee without injury even after it had come a mere 10 metres from an Israeli army outpost.
Some Israeli leaders have tried to spin the incident of not dealing more effectively with the infiltrators as a calculation, as casualties among Hizbullah fighters could drag Israelis into a more serious confrontation.
The Israeli army had showed “self-control” during this incident, such leaders say, a rare occurrence in recent years and one that could lead to the erosion of Israeli deterrence of Hizbullah.
The events at Har Dov resulted in another outcome the Israeli army did not anticipate, as during last summer’s escalation the Israeli northern command pretended to evacuate alleged victims by helicopter after Hizbullah had attacked an ambulance, leading to confusion on both sides.
In any event, Hizbullah’s statements indicate that the score is not settled yet and that there could be other revenge attempts in the coming weeks.
Netanyahu thus finds himself in a predicament, and he could be willing to take major risks. Israeli Army Spokesman Avichay Adraee said on social media that “the Israeli army is ready for all possibilities,” and Israeli army sources estimate that the state of high alert on the northern border will continue and military reinforcements will remain in place.
According to the Israeli newspaper Maariv, the status quo will continue until it is clear whether Hizbullah will attempt another attack, with Israel sending the message that Lebanon will pay a high price if there are any further attacks.
The newspaper said the Israeli army had deployed a commando brigade along the border, with the aim of foiling any possible attacks. The reinforcements could facilitate a quick response aiming at vital targets in Lebanon.
Some commentators believe that Hizbullah is pursuing a new strategy by deliberately not giving details of its intentions to sow confusion in Israeli ranks.
They believe that Israel does not want to start a war with Hizbullah at a time when the country is facing the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, serious divisions in the ruling coalition, tens of thousands of demonstrators demanding Netanyahu’s resignation, and his prosecution on charges of corruption.
Others believe that Israel could be trying to entrap Hizbullah at a time when the group is also facing an economic, political and social crisis.
Israel will likely continue to measure the pulse of Hizbullah and in the next few days will likely define a new formula for dealing with the group, either by enforcing the rules of engagement or carrying out its threat of a harsh response and risking a wider conflict.
Israel’s message may be that Syria and Lebanon will pay the price for Iranian ambitions in the region, with Netanyahu saying in recent statements that “Israel will continue working against Iran’s attempts to position itself militarily in the region” and “embroiling Lebanon in the interests of Iran.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly