The latest escalation between the Lebanese Hezbollah movement and Israel appears to have come to an end after fear that the two sides were headed for war.
A week after an Israeli airstrike in Syria killed two of its members on Aug. 24, Hezbollah retaliated. The movement targeted an Israeli military vehicle in the northern Israeli settlement of Avivim. Israel responded by shelling uninhabited Lebanese border areas. Calm was restored within hours and both sides claimed success.
Though Hezbollah’s retaliation operation resulted in no casualties, leader Hassan Nasrallah made it clear that he was satisfied.
In a Sept. 2 speech, Nasrallah noted that Hezbollah’s retaliatory operation was different from the one it carried out back in early 2015 after Israeli airstrikes killed six Hezbollah members in the Golan Heights district of Quneitra. Hezbollah retaliated by hitting an Israeli convoy and killing two Israeli soldiers in the Shebaa Farms area, which Lebanon considers Lebanese territory under Israeli occupation.
Nasrallah said that this time, Hezbollah had succeeded in retaliating on Israeli turf, declaring, “For dozens of years, infringing on the borders of 1948 has been one of the biggest red lines for the enemy. … There are no more red lines.”
Nasrallah went on, “Despite all the preparations and fake targets the enemy scattered along the border, we waited for our target and when it came, we hit it, without any doubt.”
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to see things differently.
“We acted responsibly yesterday,” Netanyahu said in a video message also delivered Sept. 2. “We kept our citizens safe and maintained the peace of our soldiers.”
Officials from the United Nations peacekeeping forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL), meanwhile, underscored that both sides want to avoid escalation.
In an interview with Al-Monitor, UNIFIL spokesperson Andrea Teneti said that the UN mission was in constant contact with the two sides after Hezbollah’s retaliation, and that “both showed an intent of de-escalation from the beginning.”
Teneti also noted that the flare-up lasted around two hours and that the traces left by the Israeli shelling of the Lebanese border areas indicated that "no heavy weapons" had been used.
Hezbollah officials insisted that the retaliation operation was defensive and that the movement's strategy continues to be defending Lebanon from Israel. “Hezbollah has always been in a state of defense,” Hezbollah spokesman Mohammad Afif told Al-Monitor. “Lebanon has always been the victim and it is Israel that threatens to send Lebanon back to the Stone Age.”
Israel, too, has reasons to refrain from escalation. Hezbollah has significantly increased its arsenal since the 2006 war. According to a report issued by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America back in November 2018, “Hezbollah possesses more firepower than 95% of the world’s conventional militaries.” Furthermore, the movement has gained valuable experience from its participation in the war in Syria.
But perhaps the biggest factor that Israel must consider is that Hezbollah may not be fighting alone if another war were to break out. According to The Soufan Group, there now exists “a growing army of Shiite foreign fighters with a network spanning Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and into South Asia.”
Hezbollah now has comrades from places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Shiite fighters from these countries joined Hezbollah in the fight in Syria and this has created a sense of shared identity.
Back in December 2017, the leader of the Iraqi Shiite group Asaib Ahl al-Haq Qais al-Khazali visited the southern Lebanese border dressed in military uniform and expressed his group’s readiness to participate in a war between Hezbollah and Israel.
“Any future war will expand regionally and regional players will get involved” warned Afif.
At the same time, global powers also seem eager to avoid a repetition of 2006. Well-informed sources in Beirut told Al-Monitor that ambassadors to Lebanon from member states in the UN Security Council were in contact with UNIFIL as tensions heated up. According to these sources, the ambassadors focused on de-escalating the situation.