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The Future of Hezbollah and Israel: A Predictive Analysis

HomeWARThe Future of Hezbollah and Israel: A Predictive Analysis

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The rumble of artillery and the wail of air raid sirens have become a dreaded part of daily life again in southern Lebanon and northern Israel. After months of rocket barrages and bombing raids across the volatile border, analysts now grimly warn that a full-blown military invasion by Israel to cripple the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah appears all but inevitable.

With the ferocious Israeli assault on Gaza already stretching into its seventh month and leaving over 33,000 Palestinians dead, the new front that has erupted with Hezbollah’s guerrilla force in Lebanon threatens to ignite a regionwide conflagration of incalculable proportions. Tens of thousands of Lebanese civilians have already fled the south, while Israel has evacuated border towns. And each side is trading apocalyptic threats even as the death tolls continue ticking upward.

“The resistance has used only 1 percent of its qualitative weapons so far,” Hassan Ezzeddine, a Hezbollah official in Lebanon’s parliament, defiantly declared last week with a tone of menace. “If the enemy goes far, it will lead to a broad and global war.”

Israel has issued its own ominous signals about its determination to severely degrade and disarm the militia.

“We are resolute in bringing about fundamental change along our border with Lebanon, ensuring our citizens’ safety and restoring peace to our north,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed in January.

A Question of Timing

While no one disputes the grave dangers for the region should all-out war erupt between Israel and the formidable Hezbollah militia, the key question appears to be one of timing: Will the violence escalate to a tipping point in the coming weeks? Months? Or can the colossal clash somehow be averted?

In a televised briefing on April 3, Benny Gantz, Mr. Netanyahu’s chief domestic political rival and a member of the war cabinet, demanded that new Israeli elections be scheduled for September while forebodingly warning, “a year to the war if you will.”

The prospects of the showdown may depend on Mr. Netanyahu’s own political fortunes. The prime minister, who is on trial for corruption and faces mounting public protests demanding his resignation over his handling of the Gaza invasion, may view a new military offensive as crucial to shoring up his political survival.

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But the menace Mr. Netanyahu confronts extends well beyond Israel’s borders. With Iran’s fighters actively supporting both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian militias in Gaza, any major escalation with Tehran’s proxies risks drawing the Islamic Republic into a direct confrontation that could rapidly spread across the region.

And the dangers are compounded by the United States’ recent authorization to send Israel shipments of some of the Pentagon’s most potent weapons, including over 25 F-35 stealth fighter jets, nearly 2,000 tons of bombs and other munitions.

“The risks remain quite significant,” said Karim Emile Bitar, an international relations professor at St. Joseph University in Beirut. “It’s an election year in the U.S., and there’s not much leverage the U.S. is ready to use to restrain things even though they have enormous leverage.”

Harrowing Echoes of 2006

For many in Lebanon, the ominous signs of a new confrontation revive harrowing memories of the last time Israel fought a major conflict with Hezbollah, in the summer of 2006.

That 34-day war killed over 1,100 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and displaced nearly a million more as Israeli warplanes pounded communities across the country’s Shiite heartland. Hezbollah’s guerrillas, in turn, fired thousands of rockets into Israeli cities and villages, killing dozens of civilians.

The bombardment left whole towns in southern Lebanon reduced to fields of rubble and traumatized generations of Lebanese families. Although Israel ultimately emerged militarily stronger, the inability of its armed forces to inflict a decisive defeat on the militia left both sides proclaiming a measure of psychological victory.

Now, nearly two decades later, Hezbollah has substantially rebuilt, rearmed with help from Iran, and further entrenched its power across Lebanon as a dominant political force in addition to its role as a state-within-a-state military juggernaut.

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“Hezbollah is stuck now because they were not aware of the gap between them and Israel, which is now clearly unbridgeable,” said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.

Barriers to an Israeli Invasion

Numerous military analysts say Israel is highly unlikely to risk a full-blown re-invasion and reoccupation of Lebanon, given the painful toll of the 2006 war and the militia’s deep-rooted support in the villages along the border.

Maneuvering within Lebanon’s rugged terrain against Hezbollah’s disciplined guerrilla force is universally seen as a recipe for heavy casualties. Israel suffered nearly 120 dead the last time it waged a ground invasion of Lebanon during an 18-year occupation that ended in 2000.

Qassem Kassir, a political analyst close to Hezbollah’s leadership, said a full Israeli invasion was highly improbable.

“There won’t be a ground invasion,” Mr. Kassir said. “There will be more targeted attacks. Civilians will be killed, but it won’t be a full-scale invasion.”

Even so, an Israeli push to clear a wider buffer zone along the border through a more limited ground incursion remains possible, some analysts believe.

“Israel may attempt a limited ground offensive that wouldn’t even reach the Litani River to clear the area closest to the border,” Professor Khashan predicted.

Air War More Likely

Most observers say Israel appears more likely to continue broadening a relentless air campaign meant to degrade Hezbollah’s capabilities through precision strikes while seeking to avoid civilian casualties that could cost it crucial diplomatic support.

Israel has claimed to have killed several senior Hezbollah military commanders and specialists over recent months, including Saleh al-Arouri, a top Hamas operative who was slain by a drone strike in Beirut. However, the militia has replenished many of its battlefield losses through recruitment across Lebanon’s Shiite-dominated areas and villages near the border.

Any major uptick in civilian deaths from an intensified Israeli air campaign could prove a perilous miscalculation, some analysts warn. That raises the risks that the violence could metastasize — and rapidly spiral out of control.

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“An opinion poll in Israel indicated that over 70 percent of Israelis are in favor of attacking Hezbollah,” Professor Bitar said. “This could incite Netanyahu to go on some sort of headlong rush and attack Lebanon and widen the scale of conflict considering that many Israelis would like to seize the opportunity to attack Hezbollah and curtail Iran’s wings in the entire region.”

Public Support in Israel

Indeed, polls have clearly shown powerful public sentiment among Israelis in favor of an assault on Hezbollah. A survey published in an Israeli newspaper in February found over 70 percent of citizens supported a major military offensive against the Iran-backed militia — suggesting widespread backing for the Netanyahu government to take such a drastic escalation.

The prime minister, facing widespread protests over his crumbling political standing, appears determined to address that frustration with a military triumph over a longstanding foe in a conflict that many Israelis believe is long overdue.

“Netanyahu was clear right away after the Hamas attack that he would turn to the northern front and by the time it is over he will transform the Middle East,” said Professor Khashan, describing the prime minister’s threats.

In a chilling sign of the spiraling rhetoric, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards commander, Gen. Hossein Salami, recently warned that in the event of an Israeli strike on Iran, “We will pursue the eradication of Israel.”

For many Israelis living under the shadow of rocket attacks from Gaza, the Lebanese border remains a terrifying front that few would welcome opening — but that Mr. Netanyahu may feel existentially compelled to confront.

A retired Lebanese army source, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, summed up the analysis of many about the level of force Israel may employ: “There will be more targeted attacks,” the source said. “Civilians will be killed, but it won’t be a full-scale invasion – at least at first.”

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Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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