The Guardian / April 7, 2023
Israeli jets struck targets in Lebanon and Gaza on Friday following rocket attacks on Thursday.
Israeli jets have bombarded Gaza and Lebanon in response to Palestinian rocket fire from the two territories the previous day. Palestinian factions in southern Lebanon had launched 34 rockets towards north-western Israel on Thursday – the largest cross-border barrage since the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel.
For several hours, fears were high of a broader conflict between the two arch foes, which have faced off on various battlegrounds across the Middle East with increasing frequency over recent months.
Israel and Hezbollah’s shadow war has focused on the valleys of southern Lebanon and the skies of northern Israel, but airstrikes have also taken place in Syria and Iraq, where Hezbollah has an extensive presence, and even as far away as the waters off Yemen, where shipping linked to both sides has come under fire.
How did the current round of violence begin ?
Palestinian groups and Hezbollah have been angered by an Israeli police raid on Wednesday on Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. The raid took place against a backdrop of increasing violence in the West Bank, the overlap of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan with the beginning of the Jewish Passover holiday, and the formation in December of the most rightwing and anti-Arab government in Israel’s history.
What is Israel saying about the Lebanon strikes ?
The Israeli Defence Force was careful in its targeting and rhetoric not to draw Hezbollah into a conflict that neither side especially wants at this point. While an Israeli response was widely expected, perhaps more can be drawn from the limited scope of the attack and the pains taken to keep Hezbollah at bay. Both parties remain anxious to retain deterrence during standoffs. But Israel’s readiness to accept the implausible position that Hezbollah did not know of, or could not control, Palestinian rocket fire from its heartland is perhaps the biggest takeaway from an event that could otherwise have dramatically escalated.
What is Hezbollah ?
Hezbollah is the most powerful non-state actor in the Middle East. It was formed about 40 years ago in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, nominally as a bulwark to Israel’s presence in Lebanon, though it quickly became opposed to its arch-foe’s very existence. The group is financially and politically beholden to its backer, Iran, and is the most important arm of Iran’s foreign policy projection in the Middle East. Its members are Shia Muslims, whom regional Sunni leaders consider a formidable challenge to their own ambitions – so much so that they have been prepared to draw closer to Israel to combat Hezbollah threats.
How are events in Syria linked to the crisis ?
Israel has repeatedly attacked targets linked to Iran inside Syria. Iran, through proxies, including Hezbollah and the Syrian army, has used Syrian bases to smuggle and store parts for precision guidance systems to be fitted to crude rockets and for importing drones that could be used to fight Israel. Combatting these threats has been a preoccupation of the Israeli army, and has led to several thousand attacks inside Syria in recent years, many from airstrikes. At times Hezbollah members have been killed, raising tensions on the border. It is believed that at least five Hezbollah members were killed in Syria during airstrikes during the past week.
What has been happening in Gaza ?
Palestinian factions in Gaza have been under pressure to respond to the violence in Al-Aqsa, with rockets fired into southern Israel thought to be its comeback. The fire and the Israeli response has been limited and does not appear to herald a broader flare up.
What might happen next ?
For now, the threat in southern Lebanon and northern Israel appears to have passed. Israel is content to stick to a charade that Hezbollah were not involved in Thursday’s rocket strikes, and Hezbollah will let the Israeli attacks on Palestinians slide. The clashes, however, were a wake-up call to just how close all-out war could be.
Martin Chulov covers the Middle East for The Guardian