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Hezbollah’s plans, Israel’s threats – is either side ready for war? | Israel-Palestine conflict News

Hezbollah’s plans, Israel’s threats – is either side ready for war? | Israel-Palestine conflict News

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Beirut, Lebanon – Hezbollah is preparing for different scenarios as the low-level conflict between it and Israel threatens to spin out into something larger.

Feeding the idea of Israel shifting military focus from Gaza to Lebanon have been statements from officials including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who said on Sunday that Israel is winding down operations in Rafah and will redirect to Lebanon.

Serious Israeli military action on Lebanon would drag in regional and possibly international actors.

Israel’s attacks to date have displaced nearly 100,000 people from their homes in south Lebanon and killed at least 435 people, some 349 of them named by Hezbollah as its members.

Hezbollah appears to be sticking to its guns, matching Israeli rhetoric with its own, and intensifying its cross-border attacks – which have so far killed 15 Israeli soldiers and 10 civilians, according to Israel.

The two have been trading attacks across the border since the day after Israel launched a war on Gaza on October 7, the day a Hamas-led operation in Israel killed 1,139 people, according to the AFP news agency.

Ceasefire or bust

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has repeated in speeches since October that his group will stop its cross-border attacks on Israel only when the latter agrees to a ceasefire in Gaza.

Even if Israel turns the bulk of its military attention to Lebanon, analysts believe Hezbollah will stick to its position.

“I don’t think Hezbollah will accept [negotiations] in absence of a ceasefire [in Gaza],” said Amal Saad, the author of two books on Hezbollah. “The war will be ongoing.

“Nasrallah has said they will keep fighting until Hamas is victorious and if Hamas is weakened and undermined then Hezbollah won’t sit on [its] hands,” she said.

“There’s a strategic objective here … Hezbollah will not leave Hamas on its own.”

The idea of a ceasefire seemed to have hit a snag as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline coalition partners demanded a “complete defeat of Hamas” before an end to the war.

However, some Israeli officials have expressed doubts about the idea of a complete defeat of Hamas, underlining that Hamas is an idea and ideas cannot be eradicated.

Military spokesperson Daniel Hagari expressed such doubts on June 19, while National Security Council head Tzachi Hanegbi said the same on Tuesday, less than a week later.

INTERACTIVE - Israel-Lebanon cross-border attacks June-1719467423
[Al Jazeera]

Whether in tacit acceptance of that idea or for other considerations, Israel is now talking about a lower-intensity phase, in which, it claims, its military would continue to target Hamas in Gaza while looking for a political alternative to the group in the enclave.

A lower-intensity war in Gaza would, in theory, allow for a focus on Lebanon – though that would require the Israeli military to execute the challenging prospect of engaging on two fronts.

Projecting strength

For his part, Nasrallah has been displaying his group’s might and standing firm.

On June 19, he said his group has more than 100,000 fighters and that many heads of regional armed groups had offered more fighters to join the fight against Israel, offers he rejected as Hezbollah is “overwhelmed” with cadres already.

A day before his speech, Hezbollah released drone footage taken over the Israeli city of Haifa, an implicit threat that the city could be targeted.

Another recent video by Hezbollah showed what appears to be a series of targets inside Israel and the Mediterranean Sea.

“Hezbollah is displaying and simulating to Israel its options [to widen the] war … [this will make Israel] understand that the repercussions are seriously costly,” Imad Salamey, a political scientist at the Lebanese American University, said.

Nasrallah also threatened Cyprus, an island nation that is in the European Union but not NATO, should it support Israel in war.

Cyprus responded that it does not cooperate militarily with Israel in any conflicts.

“Since October 8th, Cyprus has been a key location where Israeli reservists fly into and then go on to Israel,” Seth Krummrich, a former special forces officer who is now at Global Guardian risk management firm, told Al Jazeera.

Israel has used Cypriot territory for training drills in the past.

The threat was Nasrallah’s way of signalling “to the European Union to refrain from supporting Israel in any way, which may implicate [its] member states,” Salamey said.

Contingency plans

While both sides escalate and lay cards on the table, Hezbollah will have a couple of contingency plans.

“Hezbollah most probably have a strategy ready in case of a limited, protracted war in south Lebanon and they have probably prepared a strategy in case there is a wider full-scale war,”  Karim Emile Bitar, professor of international relations at University Saint Joseph in Beirut, said.

A limited war would be what Salamey called a “low-intensity asymmetric warfare of attrition” that bleeds “the enemy through low-cost, efficient, and effective skirmishes” – basically a continuation of the current conflict.

Daniel Hagar in uniform
Israeli army spokesman Daniel Hagari, shown in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023, said the goal of ‘defeating Hamas’ was unrealistic because Hamas is an idea [Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP]

A full-scale war may intensify attacks across Lebanon, including on infrastructure like Beirut’s airport, as Israel did in 2006.

Some analysts believe a limited ground invasion of south Lebanon is possible, though it would lead to heavy casualties on both sides.

For Bitar, Hezbollah likely does not want that option. “Hezbollah, as well as the Iranian regime, realises [an escalation] would be extremely risky and devastating for Lebanon,” he said.

The intensified threats and military actions are running parallel to diplomatic negotiations.

US Special Envoy Amos Hochstein was recently in Tel Aviv and Beirut, where he allegedly passed Hezbollah messages through Lebanese parliament speaker, and Hezbollah ally, Nabih Berri.

According to unnamed Western diplomats who spoke to Axios, Hochstein told Hezbollah it would be mistaken to assume that the US could prevent Israel from starting a wider war.

At the same time, Hezbollah and Israel are passing messages through French diplomats, Bitar said, seeking “a face-saving exit or strategy”.

If these negotiations could result in “assurances to Israel that Hezbollah’s allies would not be present in a 6-10km [4-6 mile] radius [from the border] and that they have no intention of using the [Hezbollah’s elite] Radwan forces to attack Israel” Hochstein’s efforts may bear fruit, Bitar said.

Man stands in front of rocket attack site
Israeli forces on a road following a rocket attack from Lebanon, near Kiryat Shmona, Israel, June 14, 2024 [Ammar Awad/Reuters]

The parallel tracks of diplomacy and military action are interlinked.

Still, there is an oft-repeated fear that a miscalculation could force an escalation with neither side wanting to give their opponents an opportunity to declare a moral victory.

A war might still be prevented, save for said miscalculation or a political decision by Israel to push ahead, based on domestic considerations.

For their part, Hezbollah has stuck to their position of demanding a ceasefire as their sole precondition to stop the fighting.

“We’re in a situation where, on both sides, domestic political considerations take prevalence,” Bitar said.

“Hezbollah is conscious that most Lebanese, including a significant part of their own supporters, do not want a new war,” he added.

“Both parties are taking these factors into consideration however we are in a situation that is extremely volatile and any miscalculation by either side could lead to a new full-fledged [escalated conflict] in the region.”

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