Tensions escalate between Israel and Hezbollah in border region

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  August 3, 2023 

Lebanese militant group appears to be trying new tactics to test Israel’s resolve.

Tensions between Israel and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah are at their highest level in years after a series of inflammatory incidents on the UN-controlled boundary between the two countries.

Seventeen years after the Iran-backed movement’s last devastating war with Israel, Hezbollah appears to be trying new tactics in the volatile border region to test Israel’s resolve. Such brinkmanship is not unknown, but the increasing frequency of the border skirmishes is raising the likelihood of miscalculation – and escalation.

“I believe this is Hezbollah seeing what they can get away with. There is no desire on either side to return to full-scale fighting, but also, the context has changed,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre.

“[Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin] Netanyahu, has historically been cautious when it comes to all-out conflict, but coordination between Hezbollah and the Palestinian factions is better than it was. The US administration is wary of the current Israeli government, and Iran is not on the defensive any more, the way it was in the Trump years,” he said, referring to the former president’s policy of “maximum pressure” towards the Islamic republic.

In June, Hezbollah erected two military-style tents south of the Blue Line, the demarcation line between Israel, Lebanon and the Golan Heights created by the UN after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. The militants claimed the area home to the tents as Lebanese, a small, but provocative and unprecedented step. After diplomatic intervention, one was removed, but the other remains.

And last month, men on the Lebanese side of the border – some wearing face masks and military fatigues, or carrying Hezbollah’s yellow flag – approached or climbed the security barrier separating the two countries on at least four separate occasions, in one case destroying an Israeli surveillance camera, and in another, throwing stones and starting a fire.

An anti-tank missile was also fired towards the town of Ghajar, an Alawite Syrian village in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights that was split in two in 2000 after the creation of the Blue Line.

“In recent months it has been intense. There are more and more incidents [on the Blue Line]. Six months ago, one patrol was enough, and now we need four and we are on higher alert. The possibility of violent engagement is higher,” an Israeli security official said.

UNIFIL, the UN peacekeeping mission that patrols the Blue Line, has called the situation “extremely sensitive”, urging all parties to “cease any actions that may lead to escalation”.

There were two serious incidents earlier this year: in March, a militant managed to cross into Israel, detonating a roadside bomb 57km (35 miles) south of the Blue Line that injured one person. It is not clear whether the blast was a cross-border attack by Hezbollah, which would be the first of its kind in years.

And in April, the biggest salvo of rockets since the 2006 war was fired from Lebanon into Israel in response to Israeli police raids on Jerusalem’s holy Aqsa mosque compound. While it is believed the missiles were launched by Palestinian factions based in Lebanon, they almost certainly acted in coordination with Hezbollah, which controls much of the country’s south.

Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general, has said the group’s recent activity is a response to Israeli actions in Ghajar, which until last September was a closed military zone. Without notice or explanation, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and police withdrew from the village, after which Ghajar’s Arabic-speaking, Israeli citizens built a fence around the urban perimeter.

This means that the Hasbani River has become the de facto demarcation line, rather than the official Blue Line, and the half of the village claimed by Lebanon is now under further entrenched Israeli control.

“Israel occupies parts of Lebanese territory and has the gall to speak about Hezbollah provocations on the border when it itself is the side that engages in provocations,” Nasrallah said in a speech this week.

But it is also the Israeli military intelligence directive’s assessment that Hezbollah and its Iranian allies see Israel’s political crisis as a “historic opportunity”.

Rather than give Israel’s government the chance to distract from internal woes by focusing on external threats, Nasrallah is believed to be happy to “sit on the fence and let Israel bleed”, the IDF’s chief of staff is reported to have told Netanyahu.

Tying up already stretched Israeli soldiers and resources in dealing with new incursions from the north is perhaps part of this strategy of attrition.

Israeli society is in the grips of an unparalleled internal schism, triggered by last November’s election of the most rightwing administration in the country’s history. The coalition quickly announced a judicial overhaul that many people fear will set Israel on a path of democratic backsliding.

Huge protests across Israel over the past eight months have been buoyed up by support from military reservists. Units such as pilots are a crucial element of the IDF’s operational capabilities, and 10,000 or more have said that they would ask to be released from service if the government went ahead with a Knesset vote on the first major element of the legislation last week.

The IDF has insisted that it is able to contain the escalating dissent within its ranks, but in a public statement after the Knesset showdown, admitted that “if reservists do not show up for reserve duty in the long term, there will be damage to the military’s readiness”.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian