Hezbollah and the Jewish state this month marked the 12th anniversary of the end of Israel’s 34-day war on Lebanon in July 2006 with threats to destroy each other if a new round of hostilities erupted.
The Israel-Hezbollah war of words, which reached alarming levels in the past few weeks, heightened fears of a new military confrontation. In 2006, the two archfoes fought a devastating war in which more than 1,200 Lebanese, the majority civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers, were killed.
However, despite the saber-rattling and exchange of threats – coupled with serious military preparations for battle – a new war between Israel and Hezbollah does not appear to be imminent or inevitable, at least for now, political analysts said. But some warned that this situation could suddenly change if the United States or its strategic ally Israel decided to carry out a military strike against Iran, either over its nuclear program or in response to Tehran’s threat to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz in the volatile oil-rich Gulf region.
“Any American or Israeli military strike on Iran will risk igniting the generally calm southern Lebanese front and prompt Hezbollah to launch missiles at Israel,” a source close to Hezbollah said. “Furthermore, Iranian officials have warned that U.S. military bases and warships in the Gulf region would be targeted if Iran was attacked.”
Raising the stakes of a possible Israel-Hezbollah confrontation are the escalating tensions between the United States and Iran as U.S. President Donald Trump is bent on throttling Tehran after imposing new tough sanctions on the Islamic Republic to punish it for its ballistic missile and nuclear programs, its involvement in regional conflicts and its support for Hezbollah and other militant groups labeled “terrorist” by Washington.
The Trump administration slapped sanctions back on Iran this month after withdrawing from the 2015 international nuclear deal, saying it was too soft on Tehran and would not stop the country from developing a nuclear bomb. Trump has said the U.S. will issue another round of tougher sanctions in November that will target Iran’s oil sales and banking sector.
Dr. Imad Salamey, associate professor of political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University, ruled out the possibility of an all-out regional war but said Hezbollah would join the battle if Iran was attacked by the U.S. or Israel.
“It is highly likely that Hezbollah will join any battle waged against Iran. Yet, I don’t think the region is drifting toward an all-out war between the U.S.-Israel and Iran,” Salamey said. “At the moment there are different proxy wars taking place in different parts of the Middle East in conjunction with economic and political pressures exerted against Iran,” he said, referring to the 7-year-old war in Syria, the 3-year-old war in Yemen and sectarian turmoil in war-torn Iraq.
Salamey said the exchange of threats between Israel and Hezbollah were merely “psychological warfare that meant to test both parties’ resolves,” but that would not lead to a military flare-up.
Political analyst Kassem Kassir agreed with Salamey, saying, “If America or Israel attacked Iran over its nuclear program, oil sales or for any other reason, this attack would trigger an all-out devastating war in the region,” he said. “Hezbollah, which has battle-hardened fighters in Syria and a massive missile arsenal in south Lebanon, will definitely join the battle in defense of Iran.”
Kassir added that while present circumstances are not conducive to war, “any extraordinary development or a sudden dramatic decision by any leader could lead to war.”
“The war fronts in the Middle East region are intertwined. This means that any war on any front will not be confined to one area,” he said. “The outbreak of any major war will be destructive for all the parties.”
Kassir recalled a speech by Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah last year in which he warned that “hundreds of thousands of Arab and Muslim fighters” would be ready to fight against Israel if it waged a new attack on Lebanon.
The threat of a regional war stems largely from America’s attempts to choke off Iran economically by cutting its oil exports. Since Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal in May, Washington has told countries they must stop buying Iranian oil from Nov. 4 or face U.S. financial measures, with no exemptions.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hinted last month that Iran could block the Strait of Hormuz, a major oil shipping route, if the U.S. attempted to stop the Islamic Republic’s oil exports. Trump responded by noting that Iran could face serious consequences if it threatened the United States.
On the Lebanon-Israel front, it is no secret that since Israel failed in the 2006 war to achieve its declared goal to destroy Hezbollah’s military infrastructure, it has been preparing for a new battle with the Iranian-backed Shiite party.
Similarly, Hezbollah, as part of its own preparations for another war with Israel, has replenished its arsenal with sophisticated weapons, including medium and long-range missiles that can hit any target in Israel, including nuclear plants, according to Nasrallah.
While Hezbollah keeps Israel guessing on whether it has acquired anti-aircraft missiles, the party had sent drones to the Jewish state to collect intelligence information on potential targets in the event of a new war.
In a worrisome development that raised concerns in Lebanon, the past few weeks saw an upsurge in Israeli military drills, some of which were conducted near the border with Lebanon, simulating a major military confrontation with Hezbollah. The Israeli maneuvers coincided with a series of explicit warnings by Israeli political and military leaders that Israel would devastate Lebanon should Hezbollah launch another war on the Jewish state.
Lebanese leaders have been alarmed by the latest threat against Lebanon made by Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, chief of Israel’s military staff, who warned of “a devastating war” against Hezbollah before the end of the year.
“The chances exist this year for the outbreak of a bigger war than what happened in the past three years during my term. It is possible that I will lead the army in a war that will erupt during my last two years in service,” he was quoted as saying by the Israeli Al-Masdar website in April.
Declaring that Israeli airstrikes in Syria, some of which targeted arms shipments destined for Hezbollah, will not stop, Eizenkot said: “The picture of devastation to be caused by the war will not be forgotten by anyone in the region ... Civilians will not be immune.”
The latest Israeli military drill staged earlier this month with the participation of units from the ground forces command simulated a military confrontation with Hezbollah in makeshift villages similar to those in south Lebanon.
Israeli media said the drill, in which mobile batteries of the Iron Dome system to protect Israeli forces against Hezbollah’s missiles were used, was aimed to “improve the offensive and defensive capabilities” of Israeli troops.
Israeli media also reported on Aug. 13 that the Israeli army a few weeks ago presented to the mini Cabinet for political and security affairs a scenario of the next possible war on the northern border with Lebanon in the event of a short war erupting with Hezbollah lasting from 10 days to more than a month.
No details of the reported war scenario were given. But Lebanon’s An-Nahar newspaper carried a front-page report from its correspondent in Washington recently, warning of what it said was “a scenario [entailing] a devastating and lightning Israeli invasion reaching Beirut.”
The paper said the military clashes in Syria between Israeli and Syrian troops in March, which led to the downing of an Israeli F-16 fighter jet and an Iranian drone and Israel’s destruction of an important part of Syrian air defenses, in addition to Iran and Hezbollah continuing to reinforce their military presence south of Syria are all indications that a military confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah was “a matter of time only.”
It added that a former U.S. official quoted Israeli officials holding sensitive intelligence political posts as saying that Israel is planning for the war as if it is happening tomorrow and that the next war would include a front from the Mediterranean Sea to the Syrian-Jordanian border.
It added that the former U.S. official said the Israelis were planning a big military operation that includes a lightning invasion of Lebanese territories reaching areas around Beirut. “The [Israeli] invasion will be destructive and swift, leaving behind it a scorched land up to Beirut,” the official was quoted as saying.
The Jewish newspaper Haaretz said the Israeli army had thrashed out plans for the possibility of an outbreak of a comprehensive battle with Iran and with Hezbollah joining the fight against Israel from south Lebanon.
The newspaper Maariv quoted a senior Israeli Defense Ministry official as saying that hundreds of thousands of Israeli residents would have to be evacuated if a war broke out with Hezbollah which, he said, would fire hundreds of missiles on Israel’s northern region.
“The missiles Hezbollah has acquired pose a real danger to Israel and can reach the heart of Tel Aviv,” the official was quoted as saying.
Israel estimates Hezbollah possesses between 120,000 to 130,000 short and medium-range missiles whose range can reach 45 kilometers.
There has been heightened concern in Israel about what it describes as increasing Iranian efforts to fit precision-guidance systems onto Hezbollah’s longer-range missiles – improvements that could potentially allow the fighters to knock out key Israeli infrastructure.
A senior Iranian cleric warned Washington last week that if it attacked Iran, the U.S. and Israel would be targeted.
“The price of a war with Iran is very high for America. They know if they harm this country [Iran] and this state in the slightest way, the United States and its main ally in the region, the Zionist regime [of Israel] would be targeted,” Ahmad Khatami told worshippers attending Eid al-Adha prayers in Tehran.
In a televised speech Aug. 14, Nasrallah warned Israel against launching a new war, saying his party was “stronger than at any time since it was founded.”
He warned Israel and the U.S. against military action against Hezbollah and Iran. “No one should threaten us with wars ... We are ready for war and if God is willing, we will win,” he said.
His remarks appeared to confirm Hezbollah’s potential participation if Iran was attacked by the U.S. or Israel and were reported to have sent shockwaves across Israel.
Military experts said the latest Israeli threats against Lebanon were linked to a long-simmering dispute between the two countries over their maritime border and huge natural gas and oil reserves beneath the Mediterranean Sea.
“The main aim of the Israeli threats is to exert pressure on Lebanon to abandon its rights to oil and gas within its maritime boundaries,” said Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese Army general and director of the Middle East Center for Political Studies and Research Beirut-based think tank.
“The second aim is to exert pressure on Lebanon to sever the Lebanese state’s links with Hezbollah because the party is the main issue for Israel and America.”
“In addition to the psychological war, there is an [Israeli] media campaign aimed at distorting Hezbollah’s image both at home and abroad,” Jaber said. He ruled out the possibility of a new Israeli invasion of Lebanon because of its heavy costs.
“Israel cannot bear the grave consequences of retaliation by Hezbollah’s arsenal of 150,000 long-range missiles that can hit any target in Israel. Israel’s anti-missile system, the Patriot, can only intercept 30 percent of Hezbollah’s incoming missiles,” he said.
Amid heightened tensions between Israel and Lebanon earlier this year over oil and gas exploration and a cement wall Israel has started constructing along the Blue Line – the United Nations demarcated land border – Hezbollah has threatened to use force to protect Lebanon’s natural wealth.
In a televised speech on Feb. 16, Nasrallah warned Israel against trying to steal Lebanon’s maritime resources, saying Hezbollah would retaliate against any Israeli attack on the country’s oil and gas installations. Israel disputes some of Lebanon’s oil and gas rights, particularly Block 9 in Lebanon’s Exclusive Economic Zone in Lebanese territorial waters.
Lebanon has signed contracts with a consortium comprising energy giants Total, ENI and Novatek that has pledged to begin drilling for oil and gas off Lebanon’s coast by 2019, including the disputed Block 9.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
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