Israel and Iran and its allies have maintained a low intensity and largely shadowy conflict for years now. Rather than set piece battles, single incidents define the course of the struggle; assassinations, targeted airstrikes or missile launches, cyber-attacks and more. The rules of this conflict are defined by the arenas in which they are fought; in Syria any Iranian presence or that of their Hezbollah allies, that Israel considers too overt or threatened can be attacked, in Lebanon the rules of the game have been different. Lebanon’s Tinderbox
All sides are conscious of the devastation wrought by the 34 days of violence that took place in the war of 2006. Fighting killed some 1,191 people – mostly civilians – in Lebanon, and 121 soldiers and 44 civilians in Israel. It was a bloodletting where all sides claimed victory but could equally be described as having lost, and it is this strategic murkiness that has defined the tense status quo that the two countries enjoy ever since.
Could the rules be about to change? Over the past week, supposedly in response to the killing of their fighters in Syria, Hezbollah was reported to have attempted to cross over into Israel from Lebanon. Whatever their objective was is unclear and Israel claimed to have repelled the incursion responding with artillery fire into the country. They also warned their citizens in the north of the country to stay indoors as concerns of escalation spread. Lebanon’s Tinderbox
Following the flash point embattled Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab called for “caution in the coming days because I fear things are slipping into the worst amid high tension on the border.” In more normal times the lessons of 2006 and the futility of another short and sharp fight would suggest that de-escalation is the more likely scenario, however we’re not in normal times.
Lebanon is writhing in an economic paroxysm that has seen its currency collapse by some 80% battering the middle classes and sending huge numbers into poverty. The political system, that Hezbollah is a central player in, is coming under incredible pressure as it faces off against protests linked to the economic collapse and the spiking rates of COVID. Whilst and IMF deal may be in the making it could require political concessions that the Lebanese elite is simply unwilling to stomach to be agreed. Lebanon’s Tinderbox
Indeed, the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian made this clear earlier in the month when he said that “France is ready to fully mobilise alongside Lebanon and to mobilise all of its partners, but this requires serious and credible reform measures to be implemented. Concrete actions are long-overdue.” An ‘overdue’ reform of Lebanon’s politics is of course a risk to those who currently hold the lion’s share of what power there is and the Hezbollah leadership may consider it an opportune time to remind the country of their role as an effective military opponent to Israel.
Thus the equation that has kept the southern Lebanese border quiet for so long may no longer be applicable. On the other side of the border Israel’s politics have likewise changed. Prime Minister Netanyahu is struggling to fight back against corruption charges, keep a fragile coalition government together and deal with street protests against his Coronavirus response. Could it also be in the Israeli leadership’s interests for a limited conflict against Hezbollah that they would hope could address mistakes made in 2006?
Thankfully there is a UN presence in the area that has traditionally helped as a factor in mediation. However, the UNIFIL mandate expires this month and pressure from Washington and Tel Aviv to give it a firmer mission to limit Hezbollah’s control of the south could add further fuel to the tinderbox that I’ve already described. Lebanon’s Tinderbox
Netanyahu was quick to visit Israeli military outposts in the country following the border skirmish and explained to the media that ““All that is happening now is the result of an attempt to establish a military foothold in our area by Iran and its satellites in Lebanon.” This rationale of denying a military foothold in sensitive locations has been the crux of Israel’s Syria policy, but until now that same logic hasn’t applied to Lebanon. Could that be about to change and could the south of Lebanon again find itself on the front pages of the news? levant