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The inevitable war between Israel and Hezbollah

Israel has consistently warned Hezbollah to stay out of Gaza war. (Reuters/File Photo)
Israel has consistently warned Hezbollah to stay out of Gaza war. (Reuters/File Photo)
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10 Feb 2024 06:02:22 GMT9
10 Feb 2024 06:02:22 GMT9

While the world remains focused on Gaza, a senior Israeli official recently claimed that the country stands “closer to war than ever” on its northern border, as an ongoing low intensity conflict heats up. Hezbollah started its war on Israel on Oct. 8, according to its chief Hassan Nasrallah, to pin down a portion of the Israeli forces in the north, away from where they were needed the most: in the south, fighting Hamas.

By tying his war to Gaza, Nasrallah hoped that it would end whenever Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire. But it is unlikely that Israel will let Hezbollah get away with a war that the Iran-backed militia started. Israel will stop only when its security is restored and its interests are served.

From Gaza, Israel’s lesson has been that fences do not work. In the absence of peace treaties and trust, Israel must establish a no-man’s land that delays attackers and allows its security time to scramble and stop surprise attacks. Hezbollah’s war on Israel, alongside a few cases of infiltration from Lebanon, forced more than 100,000 Israelis in the north to take refuge further south.

Israel has 80 km of fenced borders with Lebanon, with many Israeli communities living only hundreds of meters away from the fence. For these Israeli refugees to return home, Hezbollah must be disarmed, as per UN Security Council Resolution 1559 and the Lebanese constitution as amended in the Taif Agreement. If disarmament is impossible, Hezbollah must abide by UNSC Resolution 1701 and withdraw its fighters to the north of the Litani river, 32 km away from the Israeli border.

Both resolutions look good on paper. Their enforcement, however, has proven elusive.

It is unlikely that Israel will let Hezbollah get away with a war that the Iran-backed militia started. 

Hussain Abdul-Hussain

In 2006, the UN expanded a small peace force contingent that was formed in 1978, the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, to a 10,000-strong army and instructed the Lebanese Armed Forces to deploy south of the Litani, overriding a six-year-old Hezbollah veto against such a deployment.

Global and local measures fell short of enforcing 1701. Since Hezbollah dominates the Lebanese state, the army has often done its bidding, helping the militia obstruct and limit UNIFIL’s work.

Over the past few years, both the US and Israel have lobbied the UNSC to amend UNIFIL’s mandate and allow it more freedom of movement and inspection. No matter how hard Washington tried, both the Lebanese army and UNIFIL have remained ineffective and unable to enforce 1701. Israel has been watching.

But Oct. 7 changed the Israeli security perspective. Gone are the days when it would bet on the rationality of its adversaries, calculating that they were more interested in improving things for their people rather than engaging in devastating wars.

For Israelis to go back home to the north, Tel Aviv must enact preemptive measures and early warnings. But before doing so, it must go through Washington, which has made it clear that it does not want to see the Gaza war expand to Lebanon or elsewhere in the region.

Iran, for its part, had a different idea. Its proxies across the region — in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen — have launched attacks on Israeli and American targets, presumably in support of Gaza.

Israel shared its concerns on Hezbollah with Washington, which deployed Amos Hochstein to Jerusalem and Beirut. Having lost more than 170 members of its Radwan special force to surgical Israeli strikes, Hezbollah’s position seemed to have softened. Both Nasrallah and the Lebanese have offered to settle the border dispute with Israel, as per UNSC Resolution 1701, but both made a deal incumbent on the end of the Gaza war.

“Lebanon has a new and historic opportunity to liberate every inch of its land, from B1 in Naqoura to Ghajar, to Shebaa Farms and Kfarchouba Hills,” Nasrallah said. “But any negotiation will not yield any results until the war in Gaza has stopped.”

Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati reiterated Nasrallah’s position, saying: “We don’t accept that our brothers suffer genocide and destruction (in Gaza), while we discuss our own deal” with Israel.

Israel is hoping the UN comes up with a ‘new 1701,’ one with a verifiable enforcement mechanism. 

Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Given the opportunity Nasrallah mentioned, Beirut sent a proposal to the UN stipulating that, in return for Israel conceding 13 disputed border points, in line with 1701, Lebanon would agree to revive the 1949 truce with Israel. However, the Lebanese did not mention Hezbollah’s disarmament or deployment, as outlined by the UN resolution. In return for Tel Aviv conceding the disputed border points, Hezbollah would agree to stop its war on Israel. But even then, only after a permanent ceasefire in Gaza.

Lebanon’s offer and America’s inability to rein in Hezbollah through diplomacy have left Israel with one choice: an inevitable all-out war that pushes Hezbollah northward to the Litani.

For its conclusion, an Israeli war with Hezbollah requires a new UN Security Council resolution, in which case Israel is hoping for a “new 1701,” one with a verifiable enforcement mechanism.

If the world fails to offer such a resolution, Israel will likely unilaterally carve out a no-go zone along the border, while 1701 will be enforced by the same “unknown” forces that have been hunting down Hezbollah and Iranian assets in Syria and preventing them from setting up a military infrastructure with which they can threaten and wage war on Israel.

  • Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. X: @hahussain
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