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Fears Grow of All-out Israel-Hezbollah War as Fighting Escalates

Many in Israel see Hezbollah as a greater threat than Hamas and consider a new war in Lebanon to be inevitable

When the news first broke of the Hamas attack early on 7 October, Itai Reuveni and the other reservists in his paratrooper battalion packed their bags and arrived at their muster point well before their call-up came from the army.

The paratroopers did not head south to Gaza, but to the northern border, where they believed a far greater threat than Hamas was poised to join the fight: Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia movement backed by Tehran.

“We’re here to make sure that no one does to us in the north what they did to us in the south,” said Reuveni, 40, a master sergeant who in his civilian life does thinktank research on terrorist financing.

“We understand that Hezbollah is much more sophisticated [than Hamas]. We understand it’s not 3,000 fighters that come over the border, it will be much more, and you’ll also have Iran in the equation. We are here to deal with that.”

Reuveni is not alone in seeing Hezbollah as the greater danger to Israel. The Israeli defence minister, Yoav Gallant, and other hawks in the cabinet argued for a pre-emptive strike against the militant group in the immediate aftermath of the 7 October attack. That caused alarm in Washington, fearful of a regional war that could pull in Iran. With US backing, Benjamin Netanyahu fended off the proposal, but the conviction has taken hold among Israeli politicians, generals and a widening slice of the public that a new war in Lebanon is inevitable. An opinion poll carried out in late November found that 52% of those surveyed favoured an immediate strike against Hezbollah, and only 35% were opposed to opening another front in the north.

Since they arrived at Rosh Hanikra, where the border meets the Mediterranean coast, the paratroopers of Reuveni’s 7056th paratrooper battalion have been involved in a low-intensity conflict. All along the border, Hezbollah has fired on Israeli border towns and villages in a show of support for Gazans, and Israel has struck back with artillery and airstrikes.

In recent days, the fight has escalated, and the civilian death toll is rising: four Israelis and at least 14 local Lebanese. Three journalists have been killed by Israeli drone and tank strikes.

“We have this exchange of fire between Israel and Hezbollah and the trend line is one of escalation,” said Orna Mizrahi, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser for foreign policy, now at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “This is the most worrying thing about the situation, this trend of escalation. Nobody wants to have a full-scale war but we can get there anyway.”

Smoke billows over a hilltop village
Smoke billows after Israeli strikes on the southern Lebanese village of Majdal Zoun on 15 December. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

A radio mast on the Israeli side of the line at Rosh Hanikra has been hit 13 times by anti-tank missiles. Last week, a missile landed on the roof of a building in the 7056th battalion’s base, improvised in a hastily abandoned village resort where tourists came until recently to see Rosh Hanikra’s famous grottos in the cliffs below.

Several times in a typical day, a security alert is sounded whenever a Hezbollah fighter is seen preparing a missile or a drone, sending the soldiers scuttling for cover. The battalion has a network of reinforced trenches just a few metres from the concrete border wall, which is topped by a high metal mesh intended to stop missiles. On the other side is a concrete command post that belongs to the Lebanese army, but Reuveni said Hezbollah fighters had been spotted nearby. He believes they have the free run of Lebanese army facilities in the area.

The wall rises upwards from the sea cliffs towards the east, following the line of the high ridge of the Ladder of Tyre mountain range which straddles the border, and the curve in the ridge lines provides a pocket of Lebanese territory a vantage point to look down on Rosh Hanikra.

The paratroopers are keenly aware of which parts of their base are visible from that pocket of mountainside. They believe they have driven Hezbollah spotters and snipers away with artillery fire that has left that section of ridge scorched black, but the Israelis’ concern is that the Hezbollah fighters will return at night.

The yellow metal border gate blocking the clifftop coast road is unmanned but overlooked by a machine-gun nest on the roof of the resort restaurant, and 30 metres on the far side of the gate is a concrete hut with a blue roof, where Italian soldiers with the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) are stationed. Unifil was set up in 1978 to keep the peace but there have been two major conflicts since then, after Israeli invasions in 1982 and 2006.

Since Israel’s second Lebanon war there have been 17 years of relative calm, but the key peace terms in 2006, laid out in UN security council resolution 1701, have never been implemented. Hezbollah was supposed to pull back from the border across the Litani River, about 20 miles away, and to disarm. It has done neither, and instead built up a fearsome arsenal, with Iran’s help, estimated at well over 100,000 rockets, with the potential to overwhelm Israel’s Iron Dome defences and inflict significant damage on the country’s cities. Unifil has observed the buildup but has not prevented it.

A Unifil armoured vehicle in Lebanon across the border from Metula (in background)
A Unifil armoured vehicle near the Israeli town of Metula on 11 October. Photograph: Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

After the Hamas attack, Hezbollah fired on border villages and sent raiding parties across the border, in what appear to have been calibrated operations to show solidarity with the Palestinians, without going far enough to provoke a full-scale war.

“Their escalation along the border has been proportional and incremental in a tit-for-tat pattern,” said Randa Slim, a senior fellow and director of conflict resolution at the Middle East Institute. “At this point, the decision to go into an all-out war is totally Israel’s to make. Hezbollah and Iran do not want the escalation.”

In Israel, perspectives have changed dramatically on tolerating the Hezbollah presence on the northern border. “In the morning of 7 October, you had 2,000 people waking up knowing that it could easily have been them,” said David Azoulay, the council head of the town of Metula, towards the eastern end of the Israel-Lebanon border. Metula has been evacuated and its residents are being sheltered in hotels and private homes, mostly in Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee.

In order for those people to return home, Azoulay said, something “radical” would have to change on the border. “The minimum would be pushing Hezbollah behind the Litani River,” he said.

As the displacement of 80,000 northern Israelis continues, along with a deep economic slump, the calls for a military solution are getting louder. At a meeting with northern mayors on 6 December, Gallant, the defence minister, said Israel would “act with all the means at its disposal” if the international community could not force Hezbollah to withdraw.

Benny Gantz, a former prime minister who is serving in Netanyahu’s war cabinet, made a similar promise to displaced northerners by the Sea of Galilee on Friday. ​​“If the world doesn’t get Hezbollah away from the border, Israel will do it,” Gantz said.

The US and France are pursuing diplomatic efforts. According to Arab press reports, the US envoy Amos Hochstein is proposing a deal by which Israel and Lebanon resolve longstanding territorial differences on their border, in the hope it would drain support and purpose from Hezbollah. However, the government in Beirut is in crisis and in no position to make agreements, let alone enforce them. Lebanon has no president, only a caretaker government, and a long-running, debilitating financial crisis.

The vacuum in Beirut only exacerbates the growing risks. Emile Hokayem, the director of regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said: “Both Iran and Hezbollah are uninterested and deterred at the moment. For them this is not the big one. But if Israel decides to go in, then it’s going to be interpreted by Hezbollah as an existential war, and then all hell will break loose.”

Source : The Guardian