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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Israel and Hezbollah play a risky tit-for-tat, leaving region on edge



A Spanish soldier with of the United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon patrols the Christian corridor in Marjayoun, southern Lebanon, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. (Diego Ibarra Sanchez/The New York Times)

By Aaron Boxerman and Hwaida Saad


As the war has raged in the Gaza Strip, another battle has unfurled in parallel along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon — a risky game of tit-for-tat that has intensified in recent weeks, with a far stronger foe.


In a measure of the danger of a full-scale war erupting, President Joe Biden dispatched one of his senior aides, Amos Hochstein, to Israel on Monday and to Lebanon on Tuesday to press for a diplomatic solution.


Unlike Hamas, the Palestinian militia fighting Israel in Gaza, Hezbollah has troops who are battle-hardened combatants, and the group possesses long-range, precision-guided missiles that can strike targets deep inside Israel.


Despite apparent efforts by both sides to keep the cycle of strikes and counterstrikes from spiraling into a full-blown war beyond the one raging in Gaza, civilians in Israel and Lebanon have been killed, and more than 150,000 people have been forced from their homes along the border.


But as the fighting in recent days has intensified, so too have fears that a miscalculation could draw the sides into deeper conflict. Hezbollah has said it will not negotiate a truce until Israel ends its military campaign in Gaza, which is likely to continue for weeks or months.


A stronger, better armed militia


Israeli military officials had long anticipated that well-trained assailants might one day tear across their border, heading for towns and military bases, as Hamas did on Oct. 7. But they tended to look to the north, fearing Hezbollah’s elite fighters rather than the relatively weaker Palestinian armed group.


In the wake of the Hamas-led attack, the Israeli military began rushing forces by convoy and helicopter to cover its northern border, fearing that Hezbollah would take the opportunity to invade. The following day, Hezbollah began launching strikes on northern Israel in a show of solidarity, leading Israel to counterattack in Lebanon.


Analysts say Hezbollah is much stronger now than it was in 2006, the last time the group fought a major war with Israel. That war, which lasted about five weeks, killed more than 1,000 Lebanese and more than 160 Israelis, and displaced more than 1 million people. But a war between the two sides today, they said, could devastate both Israel and Lebanon.


During the 2006 war, Hezbollah fired roughly 4,000 rockets, mostly toward northern Israel, over the course of five weeks, said Assaf Orion, a retired Israeli brigadier general. The group could now likely fire just as many, including heavy missiles that cause serious damage, all over Israel within only a day, he added.


Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom, a former top Israeli military strategist, said the sheer number of munitions in Hezbollah’s arsenal — particularly its cache of drones — could overwhelm Israel’s formidable aerial defenses in the event of a full-scale war. Hezbollah’s troops are also experienced fighters; many of them fought in the Syrian civil war on the side of the Assad regime, which is also backed by Iran.


“In a no-holds-barred war, there will be greater destruction both on the civilian home front and deeper inside Israel,” Brom said. “They have the ability to target more or less anywhere in Israel and will aim for civilian targets, just as we will target southern Beirut,” he added, referring to capital districts known to be Hezbollah strongholds.


For Hezbollah, a major escalation is similarly concerning. The Lebanese economy was slumping even before the current crisis, and many Lebanese have little desire for a reprise of the 2006 war. Moreover, analysts say Iran, Hezbollah’s patron, may not be interested in an escalation, preferring to deploy its proxy at a more opportune moment.


Last week, an Israeli strike killed a senior Hezbollah commander, Taleb Abdallah, prompting Hezbollah to step up its attacks on Israel in retaliation. Over the next few days, Hezbollah fired hundreds of rockets and drones at Israel in coordinated strikes, wounding several soldiers and civilians.


“Both sides are constantly challenging the other’s red lines. For now it seems neither side wants full-blown war,” Orion said.


“But you can easily stumble into it, even if it’s not something they want in principle,” he added.

Despite the risks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has faced rising pressure at home to intensify the country’s military campaign against Hezbollah. In the wake of the Oct. 7 attack, Yoav Gallant, the Israeli defense minister, endorsed a preemptive war in Lebanon but was overruled. On Tuesday, the Israeli military announced that top commanders had approved operational plans for a potential offensive in Lebanon, without specifying when or if the plans would be used.


Tens of thousands of Israelis from northern border communities remain scattered across the country with no timeline for returning to their homes. And far-right members of Netanyahu’s coalition have called for more muscular action, including the establishment of an Israeli-run “security zone” inside Lebanese territory.


Since October, more than 80 Lebanese civilians and 11 civilians in Israel have been killed in the fighting, according to U.N. and Israeli government statistics. About 300 Hezbollah fighters have been killed, according to the group, as have at least 17 Israeli troops, according to the Israeli government.


A US diplomatic push


Hochstein, a senior adviser to Biden, met with senior Lebanese officials in Beirut to press for a diplomatic solution Tuesday, a day after meeting with Netanyahu in Jerusalem.


Israel has demanded that the group withdraw its forces north of the Litani River in Lebanon, in accordance with the Security Council resolution that ended the 2006 war — a demand Hezbollah is unlikely to grant. The resolution stipulated that only United Nations forces and the Lebanese army would be allowed in the area, but both sides have accused the other of violating it.


While in Beirut, Hochstein did not meet with the leaders of Hezbollah, which the United States and the European Union consider a terrorist organization. Instead, he met with members of Lebanon’s government — including the prime minister, Najib Mikati — whose influence on Hezbollah is limited.


“The situation is serious,” Hochstein told reporters in Beirut. “We have seen an escalation over the last few weeks, and what President Biden wants to do is to avoid a further escalation to a greater war.”

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