Targeting Hezbollah: On Israeli attacks in Lebanon

Israel and the Shia militia should not risk a wider war by engaging in targeted attacks

Published - August 29, 2020 12:02 am IST

The Israeli attacks on Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon following what it called “cross border fires” mark a significant escalation in the crisis that has been building up along the border in recent years. Hezbollah, a Shia militia-cum-political party in Lebanon, and Israel, which have fought two wars before, have been observing a tenuous ceasefire for 14 years. Tensions began after Israel’s targeting of Iranian weapons and supplies within Syria. Israel fears that Iranian supplies to Hezbollah via Syria, where the Shia militias fought alongside regime fighters against rebels and Sunni jihadists, would leave them stronger, enhancing Israel’s security challenges in the northern border. In July, a Hezbollah commander was killed in an Israeli raid in Syria for which the group had vowed retaliation. Since then, there have been attempts to target troops on Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Syria, according to Israel. In Tuesday’s attacks, Israel targeted an observation post, which the Israeli Defense Forces claimed was used by Hezbollah for intelligence collection. The raid, at a time when Israel was carrying out an air campaign in Gaza, shows the growing appetite of the newly formed unity government of Netanyahu, under fire at home over its handling of the COVID-19 crisis, for war as a means to address the simmering border problems.

Hezbollah has been a tough target for Israel. In 2000, after 18 years of occupation of southern Lebanon, Israel was forced to withdraw mainly due to the fighting of Hezbollah. In 2006, Israel invaded Lebanon, aimed at destroying Hezbollah’s military capabilities. But after a month of Israeli aerial and land attacks, even on the day of the ceasefire, Hezbollah fired hundreds of short-range rockets into northern Israel. Ever since, both sides have been wary of another open conflict. Israel, which has bombed Gaza several times since its 2005 withdrawal from the strip, had been careful when it came to Hezbollah. The militants, on the other side, turned their focus to capacity building after the 2006 war, and, since 2011, to the civil war in Syria. The Baathist Syria has been a vital link between Hezbollah and Iran ever since the group was founded in the early 1980s. Mr. Assad has survived the civil war, and Iran has substantially increased its footprint in Syria, bolstering the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis. Israel sees this axis as a growing security challenge and hence, started the bombing operations in Syria, risking another conflict with Hezbollah. The past two wars suggest that it would not be easy for Israel, despite its military might, to defeat the battle-hardened Hezbollah fighters at their base. Hezbollah, on the other side, might resist an Israeli attack, but risks pulling Lebanon, already battling an economic crisis, political instability and the after-effects of the Beirut blast, into a wider war. Both sides should avert such an outcome and stick to the ceasefire.

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