Hezbollah and Israel pull back from the brink – but spectre of conflict looms

Martin Chulov – Tyre, south Lebanon

The Guardian  /  April 8, 2023

The rocket attack that followed air strikes and mosque raids failed to provoke all-out war, but it must surely be inevitable

The groves of southern Lebanon had been quiet for nearly 17 years. But as farmers tended to orange trees and banana crops on Thursday, rocket men lurked among them, readying the biggest barrage fired into Israel since the war of 2006 and taking a startled region to the precipice of another conflict that leaders on both sides of the border fear will be worse than all before them.

Familiar sights of streaks through a clear blue sky, sirens and billowing smoke from impact sites were soon replaced by fear and trepidation. In Beirut and Tel Aviv, an escalation seemed imminent. But as a troubling afternoon wore on, the apocalyptic showdown between Hezbollah and Israel that had been widely predicted started to fizzle. Rhetoric was of measured responses. Israel was content to blame Palestinian groups and put a distance between them and Hezbollah. War could wait, for now.

But as two mortal foes continue to stalk each other across the battlefields of the Middle East, fighting shadow wars in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq and as far away as Yemen, the risk of even seemingly measured provocations spiralling out of control is perhaps greater than ever. The backdrop to Thursday’s flare-up was a mix of issues that was even more potent than usual.

Israeli police raids on the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan had played poorly across the region, as had military action in the West Bank that had claimed an unusually high number of casualties. A far-right Israeli government, beholden to ultra-nationalists and facing sustained dissent at home, had given added impetus to foes in Iran and their proxies in Lebanon to make their presence felt.

But perhaps the real reason for such a heavy barrage of rockets was in Syria, where Israeli jets had three times in the past week attacked airbases believed to be housing parts of a drone program sponsored by Iran but run by Hezbollah. On the Syrian border with Iraq, Israeli jets had frequently attacked elements of what its military leaders see as an even bigger threat – the transfer of components to convert rockets into precision-guided missiles that could wreak unprecedented havoc inside Israel.

Fired in large numbers, they could overwhelm Israel’s Iron Dome defence system, which appeared to perform well on Thursday, intercepting 25 of 34 rockets, according to the Israeli military. Five hit the ground across the Galilee, while another four could not be accounted for.

“We have many thousands of surprises for them,” said a Hezbollah member in Beirut. “They have hit some areas in Syria, this is true. But they haven’t hit them all. We are comfortable.”

The organisation had much to be satisfied about in the aftermath of the rocket fire. The Israeli response had ignored Hezbollah and all but ignored Palestinian factions that it was content to blame. A missile fired from an Israeli jet had destroyed a small viaduct about a mile from a Palestinian camp south of the Lebanese city of Tyre. The fragrant smell of oranges mixed with cordite at the scene, which had clearly been chosen to avoid the risk of casualties.

“If this is all they want to do, then we should not fire back,” said a local man wearing camouflage fatigues as he started into the missile crater. “This is a win for us.”

Throughout the shadow war of the last decade or so, both parties have been acutely sensitive about protecting deterrence. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has vowed to retaliate if any of its members are killed by Israel anywhere in the region.

But as Israeli air strikes mounted, Hezbollah has often been slow to respond, or not struck back at all. “They are burying their people quietly again, just like they did throughout the Syrian war, when they did not want to openly champion people dying fighting Sunnis as martyrs. Nasrallah can’t afford to hit the Israelis every time they hit him, or Iran,” said the Hezbollah member.

Israel too has been cautious. Its military officials know who holds power across southern Lebanon and realise it remains inconceivable that Palestinian groups could launch such a barrage of rockets without, at the very least, the tacit approval of Hezbollah. The organisation has a vice-like hold on areas of southern Lebanon, and its members were visible in the region on Thursday afternoon.

Over the horizon though, events that are bigger than either side’s ability to manage continue to gather steam. A detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia, brokered by China, is likely to lead to a declared truce in Yemen and reciprocal visits between heads of governments in Tehran and Riyadh. Until the surprise announcement of peace talks last month, Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman had been a staunch adherent of Israel’s stance against Hezbollah and had seen the Shia militant organisation as a strategic threat to the kingdom’s interests.

Though Prince Mohammed is unlikely to have tempered his views, his direct engagement with Iran, which is likely to be followed by regional heavyweight the UAE, heralds a surprising new approach that has worried Israel.

“There’s something in it for the Saudis that we have yet to figure out,” said an Israeli official in Europe. The move to re-engage Bashar al-Assad has also come out of the blue. “We’re not entirely sure what’s going on.”

In the meantime, Lebanese and Israeli citizens have drawn breath, but their lands will probably be a proxy battlefield over which a destructive war is fought at some time in the future.

“For now, we’ll just get on with our lives, “ said Haitham Rashid, a Sunni Lebanese enjoying a meal to celebrate the end of the Ramadan fast in Beirut on Thursday. “History is already written for us. We will accept our fate when it comes.”

Martin Chulov covers the Middle East for The Guardian