A storm is brewing along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. In recent weeks, attacks by Hezbollah, Lebanon’s powerful Iran-backed Shiite militia, have intensified. At the same time, Israel has stepped up targeted killings of high-value Hezbollah militants. This escalation is raising concerns that the bitter enemies could once again slide into full-blown conflict.
Israel is not eager for an all-out war with Hezbollah right now. Its military remains mired in a complex offensive against Palestinian militant groups in Gaza that is far from over. Fighting on two fronts would stretch Israel’s resources thin. However, some factors indicate that Israel and Hezbollah are on a collision course, whether they want it or not.
One reason is economic. Hezbollah’s massive rocket barrage against Israel on October 7 terrorized civilians and triggered the displacement of some 260,000 residents from southern and northern border communities. Life near the Lebanese border has come to a standstill, with spiraling costs for the economy and society.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that Israel’s overriding goal is to enable these residents to safely return home. But with Hezbollah entrenched a stone’s throw from Israeli cities like Kiryat Shmona, Metulla and Shlomi, that seems unlikely absent a major shift in the balance of power.
A buffer zone in southern Lebanon enforced by Israel could allow northern residents home. However, creating one would necessitate military action to push Hezbollah farther from the border. Hezbollah currently violates the UN resolution that ended the 2006 war by maintaining militant networks inside this area.
Beyond economic factors, Israel’s strategic calculus regarding Hezbollah has also changed. Prior to recent events, complacency had crept into assessments of security threats. Gaza’s October 7 rocket offensive shattered the illusion that Palestinian groups were deterred by Israeli might or moderating due to economic growth.
In its aftermath, Israel gravitates toward more preemptive defense policies. Had the Gaza militant buildup been addressed earlier, much damage could have been averted. With Hezbollah, Israel now feels increased urgency to degrade massive rocket and missile stockpiles in Lebanon before they can be unleashed.
Surgically targeting arms shipments has not stopped Hezbollah’s military progress. The group now possesses over 150,000 projectiles, enough to paralyze Israel. Eliminating this arsenal has become an Israeli imperative. The looming decision is whether to act now or hope the problem goes away.
In truth, another Israeli-Hezbollah war appears inevitable. The question may just be one of timing. Israel would prefer to finish off Hamas first. But the growing threat in the north may force its hand sooner than it would like.
When hostilities do break out, expect them to be devastating for both sides. Hezbollah’s increased reach now puts all of Israel – from Metulla to Tel Aviv – within striking range. Meanwhile, Israel’s military has honed skills in Gaza for striking embedded forces and infrastructure that could be unleashed in Lebanon.
The extensive costs of fighting on its northern border while still battling Hamas underscores why Israel has avoided initiating conflict so far. But as tensions rise, its hand may soon be forced. Hezbollah seems unlikely to provoke war now either if it can be avoided. However, its actions show it is gearing up for future conflict on its timetable.
An outbreak of violence may not be imminent but appears inevitable. As enemies with mutually exclusive goals position themselves for the next round, fragile stability along the Israel-Lebanon border could unravel quickly. Both Hezbollah and Israel face growing pressure for action, despite the risks. Unless pragmatism prevails, dark clouds gathering in the north could soon unleash their fury.