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Escalating Tensions on the Israel-Lebanon Border: Are We Headed for War?



Conflict along the Lebanon-Israel border has recently intensified, despite diplomatic efforts to restore peace to the region. In recent days, Israel has conducted a series of airstrikes that have resulted in the deaths of Hezbollah fighters, including some senior officers, and Lebanese civilians. On February 19, Israel targeted two warehouses in Ghaziyeh, which is located just south of Sidon and around 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of the border. Israel claimed that the warehouses were Hezbollah arms depots, and the airstrikes were in response to an apparent suicide drone that crashed and exploded earlier in the day near Tiberias, around 28 kilometers (17 miles) south of the border. If the drone was sent by Hezbollah from Lebanon, it would mark the deepest attack into Israel since the clashes began along the Lebanon-Israel border on October 8, 2023, which followed Hamas' devastating assault on Israeli communities and military bases adjacent to the Gaza Strip, resulting in the deaths of around 1,200 Israelis. Lebanese media reports suggest that the targets in Ghaziyeh were a cement factory and an oil production plant.


An Israeli military member lost his life and eight others sustained injuries on February 14 when rockets were fired from southern Lebanon and struck the vicinity of Safed. Safed is home to the headquarters of the Israeli military's Northern Command and has been targeted previously by Hezbollah. In retaliation, Israeli jets carried out raids deeper than usual into southern Lebanon, which resulted in the death of a mother and her two children in the village of Sawwaneh, and at least five members of a family were killed when their house was partially destroyed in the town of Nabatiyeh. The target of the airstrike was Ali Deeb, a senior Hezbollah field commander who was killed in the attack on his house. He had been wounded a few days earlier when an Israeli drone fired a missile at his car, also in Nabatiyeh. In a tit-for-tat manner, Hezbollah fired Grad rockets into Kiryat Shmona on February 15, claiming that the attack was a response to the deaths of civilians the previous day. Since fighting broke out more than four months ago, approximately 268 Lebanese, mostly Hezbollah fighters, have been killed. Ten Israeli soldiers and six civilians have also lost their lives during the conflict. Tens of thousands of Lebanese and Israeli civilians have been displaced as a result of the fighting. Hezbollah launched its campaign with the stated goal of providing "support to the Palestinian people and the resistance in Gaza," and has asserted that its actions are directly related to the ongoing conflict in Gaza. "When the war in Gaza ends, we will cease our offensive," Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah stated on February 13. "If the enemy resumes hostilities, we will act in accordance with the rules and formulas," he added.


Despite the recent intensification of violence, the conflict between Hezbollah and the Israeli military has yet to reach a level that could trigger a full-scale war. Hezbollah's actions demonstrate that they and their patron, Iran, have no appetite for a war with Israel. Generally, Hezbollah operates reactively, only escalating their attacks in response to increased Israeli aggression or when Lebanese civilians are harmed. On average, Hezbollah has launched around five to six attacks per day, as indicated by their daily statements. Their targets primarily consist of Israeli border posts. Hezbollah uses mostly outdated anti-tank weapons, such as 106-millimeter recoilless rifles, wire-guided AT-3 Sagger missiles, and second-generation AT-14 Spriggan missiles (known as "Kornet" in Lebanon). These anti-tank systems require the operator to have a direct line of sight to the target, such as an Israeli outpost. Given their limited range, Hezbollah attack squads must be within 5 kilometers (3 miles) of the target, the maximum range of the second-generation AT-14. This limitation makes Hezbollah units particularly vulnerable to Israeli drones patrolling overhead in the skies of the south Lebanon border region.


At the outset of the conflict, Israeli drones targeted missile units in the open. More recently, the drones have been used to locate and track Hezbollah units, which are subsequently targeted by drones or jets. This tactic resulted in the death of Hussein Yazbek, a local Hezbollah official, who was killed when his home was destroyed in an airstrike in the coastal village of Naqoura. The attack also claimed the lives of three additional Hezbollah fighters from different villages, suggesting that they may have been on a mission when they were spotted and tracked back to Yazbek's home. Despite suffering heavy casualties in the early stages of the conflict, sources close to Hezbollah have reported that the fighters' morale remains high, at times even recklessly so. On several occasions, fresh recruits in attacking squads have refused to withdraw and instead pressed ahead with their mission, resulting in their death or injury by overhead drones. To mitigate this, Hezbollah has reduced the size of attack squads from five or six members to two or three, and sometimes sends an older fighter to chaperone the younger recruits, ensuring that they follow orders. To maintain a tactical advantage and demonstrate new capabilities to a domestic and foreign audience, Hezbollah has introduced new weapons systems into the battlespace. In early November 2023, Hezbollah launched its first attack against an Israeli border post using a Burkan rocket. The Burkan is a rocket packed with between 100 and 500 kilograms of high explosives and is mounted on a rocket motor. It is fired in pairs from a double-barreled launcher and has a range of only 10 kilometers. However, its powerful punch makes it a formidable weapon.


On November 20, Hezbollah fired four Burkan rockets at the Biranit military post, which serves as the headquarters of the Israeli army's 91st Division. One of the rockets struck the center of the base, causing considerable damage, as seen in footage uploaded to social media. Despite this, no soldiers were injured. The base had been evacuated earlier in the conflict, which Hezbollah, who closely monitors Israeli troop movements along the border, must have known. When asked why Hezbollah had targeted an Israeli base they knew to be empty, a former Hezbollah fighter and official explained sheepishly, "We did it for the video." A day after the attack, Hezbollah released a video showing the rocket launch and explosions at the Israeli outpost.


Hezbollah's arsenal includes various weapons, such as the Falaq-1 heavy rocket, which has a 10-kilometer range and carries a 50-kilogram warhead, a weapon used during the 2006 war with Israel. In recent weeks, Hezbollah displayed its Almas anti-tank system, a reverse-engineered Iranian version of the Israeli Spike missile with a range of 8-10 kilometers, which it has used in at least three attacks on Israeli border positions and a tank. The Almas has a television camera mounted in the nose, allowing the operator to launch the missile without directly viewing the target. The missile can be pre-locked onto its target or guided onto the target during flight using its camera and fiber-optic link. Hezbollah has also employed its drone fleet for both attack and reconnaissance missions. On January 24, a drone was dispatched into Upper Galilee to observe an Iron Dome anti-missile battery near Kfar Blum, and the following day, Hezbollah used the footage to mount suicide drone strikes against the battery and an air-defense facility. The Israeli military did not detect the drone, and Hezbollah's use of drones in this way highlights the group's technological capabilities.


Israel appears to be escalating its attacks against Hezbollah in terms of frequency, target range, and depth into Lebanon. While it does not seem to be seeking a war with Hezbollah, it has been targeting senior field commanders. In November 2023, an Israeli airstrike on a house in Beit Yahoun killed four members of Hezbollah's elite Radwan Brigade, including Abbas Raad, son of a Hezbollah lawmaker. More recently, on January 8, Wissam Tawil, a senior commander, was killed in a roadside bomb ambush near his home village of Khirbet Silm. Hezbollah cadres have reportedly changed their tactics, avoiding the use of sports utility vehicles and Renault rapid vans and opting for smaller and older cars to avoid being targeted by the Israelis.


The recent wave of targeted killings has raised concerns within Hezbollah about the extent of the Israeli intelligence services' reach. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, addressed this issue in his speech on February 13, stating that the interception and tracking of cell phones pose a greater threat than human collaborators. He urged residents and business owners in south Lebanon with internet-connected closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras to disconnect them, as Israeli cyberwarfare units reportedly hack into them to collect valuable information. Despite ongoing border clashes and the escalating conflict in Gaza, efforts to establish a humanitarian ceasefire have proven unsuccessful. Israeli politicians have stated that they prefer a diplomatic solution, but are prepared to launch a major operation against Hezbollah if necessary. The Israeli government faces pressure from approximately 80,000 residents of northern Israel who have evacuated their homes and refuse to return until Hezbollah is pushed back from the border. A poll conducted by Israel's Maariv newspaper on February 16 revealed that 71% of respondents favored a large-scale military operation to drive Hezbollah away. However, there is no clear military solution for dealing with Hezbollah, and a full-scale war would result in significant loss of life and physical damage to both Lebanon and Israel, potentially escalating into a regional conflict. Israel could consider a limited ground conflict restricted to the area south of the Litani River to destroy Hezbollah infrastructure and kill as many fighters as possible, but this would not constitute a lasting solution.


A limited offensive in south Lebanon would not be easy for the Israeli military, as demonstrated by the 2006 war, which showed the limitations of relying primarily on airpower to fight Hezbollah. A ground invasion would be a risky endeavor, given Hezbollah's capabilities, the eighteen years it has had to prepare for such an eventuality, and the fact that the topography of south Lebanon favors the defender, not the invader. Furthermore, a limited conflict can quickly become unlimited if the Israeli army is struggling to meet its objectives, taking too many casualties in south Lebanon's hills and valleys, and chooses to escalate. Even if the Israeli military were to inflict some form of defeat against Hezbollah in south Lebanon, it would eventually have to withdraw into Israeli territory. Hezbollah would then slip back into the south and prepare for a future confrontation, which is not conducive to encouraging the return of Israeli evacuees to their homes along Israel's northern border. Despite several diplomatic proposals from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France to bring about a cessation of hostilities, Hezbollah refuses to negotiate until the war ends in Gaza. As a result, if the war drags on for much longer and clashes continue to persist along the Lebanon-Israel border, the pressure on the Israeli government to launch some form of offensive into south Lebanon will be hard to resist, even if it has little chance of achieving long-term success.


Alex Gavrishuk

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