Border clashes prompt fears of Hizbollah joining Israel-Hamas war

In the days since Hamas’ surprise assault on Israel, the Jewish state has also been fighting on another front: its northern border with Lebanon, where light artillery exchanges have killed three members of militant group Hizbollah.

The violence there has so far broadly observed informal red lines that have prevented that conflict from spiralling in recent years. But its growing intensity has raised alarm among diplomats that Iran-backed Hizbollah may fully commit to conflict, triggering a broader regional conflagration.

Israel’s expected ground invasion of Gaza is likely to prompt public outrage across the Middle East, leading to pressure on Hizbollah, a staunch enemy of the Jewish state, for greater action. That possibility has dominated a flurry of crisis diplomacy by the US this week.

“If it’s a ground invasion and Israel goes too far regarding Hamas’ destruction, [Hizbollah] will feel compelled to join, if only to save face and try to preserve political gains made by the offensive,” said Joseph Daher, an author and academic studying Hizbollah.

“How far is Israel willing to go in Gaza and how much can Hizbollah afford to intervene?”

A Merkava battle tank in an armoured column amassed in northern Israel near the border with Lebanon on Wednesday © Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty Images

Since Hamas began its deadly attack on Saturday, Israeli forces have mobilised to fend off the militant group in five of the bloodiest days in Israel’s history. On Wednesday, the Israeli military said it had also deployed tens of thousands of units to the north.

“The message to Hizbollah [from Israel] is very clear,” Jonathan Conricus, a spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces said on Wednesday. “If they will try to attack, we are ready and we are vigilant along our border.”

Many in Lebanon were bracing for impact this week, fearing their country could soon get dragged into the war. People queued for petrol and bread, while some residents of the country’s south, close to Israel, began fleeing towards Beirut.

Experts and senior diplomats in the region say Iran and Hizbollah, which is Lebanon’s most formidable political and military force, have not yet decided how to respond if Israel mounts a prolonged offensive in Gaza, home to more than 2mn Palestinians.

A funeral for Hizbollah members killed during Israeli shelling of southern Lebanon © Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

US officials have this week sought to bring regional powers to bear on Hizbollah to hold back. “We are deeply concerned about Hizbollah making the wrong decision and choosing to open a second front to this conflict,” said a senior US defence official.

The US has sent a carrier strike group and military aircraft to the eastern Mediterranean in what General CQ Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Financial Times was a “strong message of deterrence to contain this particular conflict”.

Hizbollah responded to the US moves by saying that it considered Washington “a deeply entrenched partner in the Zionist aggression and hold it wholly accountable for the bloodshed, lawlessness, blockade, destruction of homes, and horrifying massacres perpetrated against vulnerable [Palestinian] civilians”.

But a Lebanese official said Hizbollah had so far shown restraint on the ground. “On our side, there’s no interest in joining the belligerent crowd,” they said. But “things could get out of hand if the mutually communicated red lines are crossed”.

Hizbollah is one of the world’s most heavily armed non-state actors. In 2006, it withstood a 34-day conflict with Israel. Its thousands of fighters have since been hardened by the group’s involvement in Syria’s civil war.

Much more powerful than Hamas, Hizbollah’s arsenal includes increasingly accurate missiles which its leader boasts can reach anywhere inside Israel. It could potentially send precision missiles and rockets deeper into Israeli territory or allow Palestinian militants in Lebanon to launch more severe cross-border attacks.

Since Hamas’ offensive began, Iran and Hizbollah have mostly cheered the Palestinian group from the sidelines, celebrating the “victorious operation” along with other proxy militant groups in the region that form the so-called Axis of Resistance.

“The discussion happening among Hizbollah leaders right now is about whether they can afford not to intervene,” said one Lebanese politician familiar with the group’s thinking. “I think they are hoping, along with Iran, that Israel won’t go too far in its response in Gaza, so they can avoid being dragged in.”

Hamas’ presence in Lebanon is another factor, said Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Center in Beirut. Though Hamas and Hizbollah once fought on opposite sides of Syria’s civil war, the two groups have close links: senior Hamas leaders live in Lebanon and hold frequent meetings with Hizbollah counterparts.

“Hamas’ senior leadership is in Lebanon. How can you assume that Lebanon will stay out of it if Israel has in the past threatened to target [them]?” said Hage Ali.

Damage to a house in the Lebanese village of Dhaira from Israeli shelling © Marwan Naamani/dpa

Hizbollah’s entry into the war would have profound implications not just for Lebanon, which suffered extensive infrastructure damage in 2006, but for the wider network of Tehran-backed militant groups. Hizbollah’s participation could also trigger retaliation in Syria, Iraq and even Iran itself. It could risk dragging in the US, which has hundreds of troops stationed in Syria and Iraq, both countries home to Iran-backed Shia militias.

Iran has worked hard to strengthen its ties with Palestinian militants at a time when several Arab countries have been moving to normalise relations with Israel. In recent weeks, Axis members have proclaimed their intention to “unite and escalate”. But they have also distanced themselves from taking credit for planning the Hamas offensive.

Joining the war would be the alliance’s first real test, experts and diplomats say: Hizbollah, born as a resistance movement against Israel, and Iran are walking a tightrope, balancing their credibility as champions of Palestinian rights with their own strategic interests.

For Iran, one question is whether the fight is worth involving its best-equipped and most valuable deterrent force on Israeli borders. A reform-minded Iranian analyst said: “Iran and Hizbollah are on the same page, and Hizbollah would not do anything without Iran’s permission.”

So far, Hizbollah has largely contained the violence to a narrow strip of disputed territory. “Hizbollah hitting the Shebaa Farms and Israel shelling some areas in the south — these are within the expected rules of engagement,” said David Wood, Lebanon analyst at Crisis Group.

Ahead of Hamas’ offensive, some Hizbollah MPs privately told allies in Lebanon last week they were not angling for a war. Hizbollah could also continue to help Hamas by simply holding their ground.

“Hizbollah is already lending Hamas assistance by forcing the Israeli military to maintain parts of its troops on the Lebanese and Syrian borders on high alert,” said Rym Momtaz, consultant research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Yet Hamas’ offensive follows months of Hizbollah testing the limits of the agreed-upon red lines, tampering with the border fence and erecting tents in disputed territory. A roadside bombing in Israel in March marked a significant departure from Hizbollah’s usual tactics.

Since Hamas’ offensive, Iran has sent cautious signals. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said those linking his regime with the Hamas’ attack on Israel were “mistaken”, even if his country continued to “back Palestine and its fighting” against Israel.

The Iranian analyst said Tehran “does not seek a war in the region”; conscious of its own vulnerabilities, it “cannot afford to even lose one oil refinery” under current circumstances, he said.

Hizbollah would also have a great deal to lose domestically, with an increasing number of Lebanese blaming them for many of the country’s deep political woes and economic paralysis. If Lebanon enters the war, Daher said, Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah “won’t be celebrated in the Middle East like he was in 2006”.

Additional reporting by Andrew England in London


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