1 of 8 | Israeli forces deploy to the settlements near the border with Lebanon in the north of Israel, where they exchanged missile strikes with Hezbollah on October 11. Photo courtesy of Israel Defense Forces/UPI | License Photo
BEIRUT, Lebanon, Oct. 27 (UPI) -- Israel-Hezbollah border clashes, which broke out with the raging Israel-Hamas war, were relatively contained, with new rules of engagement. But a full-scale war cannot be ruled out, Lebanese analysts told UPI.
It wouldn't be the first wide military confrontation between the two arch-enemies. However, it is feared that it would be much more devastating -- for both sides this time -- and could lead to a broader regional war.
Lebanon cannot afford another war while it is still on the verge of collapse amid a years-long financial crisis. It has been without a president since October 2022, with only a caretaker government to run the country, a paralyzed public sector, a fragile healthcare system and 80% of the population living in poverty.
Meanwhile, the stunning Hamas "Operation Al-Aqsa Flood" on Oct. 7 has Israel in disarray and limited its ability to fight on multiple fronts. Iran-backed Hezbollah, which has grown in power since the last round of fighting with Israel in 2006, can now inflict much more damage to Israel, armed with 100,000 fighters and a vast arsenal, including precision missiles.
Triggers for a full-scale war may include Israel's planned ground operation in Gaza, Hamas' defeat or Israel initiating a war in Lebanon.
Neither wants war
Firas Maksad, senior fellow and director of Strategic Outreach at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said neither Hezbollah nor Israel wants a full and destructive war, for their own reasons.
"Obviously, Israel has a lot on its hands in Gaza and it is not in its interest to open a second or a third front," Maksad told UPI.
Hezbollah "is achieving one of its key objectives without having to incur the cost of a full-on war; primarily harassing, distracting and forcing Israel to redeploy resources away from Hamas and Gaza," he said.
Israel has moved more than 100,000 soldiers onto its northern front.
"I don't see a push for a direct confrontation, at least one that goes beyond the scale of what we are currently seeing," Maksad said. "That said, there are lots of room for errors."
Hezbollah is not likely to risk another war with Israel due to Lebanon's precarious situation and the large destruction and the number of casualties (nearly 1,200 dead and 4,400 wounded, mostly civilians) and displaced (975,000) during the 2006 war.
Today, 29,000 Lebanese have moved out of the southern border areas where clashes have so far killed 52 Hezbollah fighters.
"I am convinced that Hezbollah will not trigger a war because it knows the price for this... In 2006, he was the hero," said Sami Nader, Middle Eastern affairs analyst and director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs.
Nader referred to many "hurdles" that would obstruct any military adventures, naming the country's financial collapse, the 2020 Beirut port explosion that killed 251 people and destroyed large parts of the capital, the economy that shrunk 60%, in addition to the burden of hosting some 2.5 million displaced Syrians and Palestinian refugees.
Footage showing the high casualty toll and destruction inflicted by Israel's relentless bombing on Gaza since Oct. 7 is another factor.
"It depends on where the Israelis will stop and what's the aim target of their operation," Nader told UPI.
The United States, which has dispatched an aircraft carrier group to the eastern Mediterranean, and other European countries have been exerting pressure on the Lebanese government to keep Hezbollah away.
Nicolas Nahas, adviser to caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, said the expansion of the Israel-Hamas war is in no one's interest.
"We asked all parties to exert self-restraint... We want to keep Lebanon away from any implications, anything that happens in Gaza," Nahas told UPI, emphasizing that Israel should refrain from any "reaction" against Lebanon.
However, it is not the government but rather Hezbollah, Lebanon's most powerful group, which decides on war. This is a reality that the world knows well.
Lebanon's resilience and ability to survive any war is almost zero.
"In 2006, we were in a much better situation. Today, it is clear that the government has limited capacities. It is clear what the Lebanese's conditions are," Nahas said. "In 2006, Lebanon's state budget was $17 billion. We are now at $2 billion to $3 billion. It is bad."
Israel is equally under a lot of pressure -- despite a green light from Washington -- to delay and contain its operation in Gaza, as well as to allow for "hostage diplomacy" by the Biden administration, Maksad said.
"The U.S. has lots of interest in freeing not only the American hostages but also international and possibly Israeli civilian hostages," he said. "Also, they are using the pretext of justifications that the Israeli war plans are not adequate."
Maksad cautioned that an Israeli invasion of Gaza would be "a very complicated urban warfare" that "does not solve their Hamas problem."
Iran and Hezbollah, too, have "a very difficult choice ahead" once a ground offensive commences in Gaza: Hamas finding itself on its back foot and Israel making progress toward destroying or significantly degrading Hamas' military infrastructure.
"That very much then would undermine Iran and Hezbollah's multi-front strategy," Maksad said. "They fear that they would be that much more exposed if Hamas is destroyed or degraded. So they will have very difficult choices whether to enter a full-scale war on behalf of Hamas with perhaps futile effort to try and save it, or to sit back and allow it to happen."
Stepping up attacks on Israeli and U.S. targets from various fronts is an option, but they will remain "just below the threshold of a full-scale war," he said. "Again it would be a risky situation that is rife with possible unintended consequences."
Meanwhile, mediation efforts involving the United States and many other regional parties are underway to contain the conflict, release the Hamas-held hostages and achieve a cease-fire.
"We are still in the process of threats and counter-threats.... Diplomacy still has a way to go," Maksad said. "For now, there is no light at the end of the tunnel, with significant risks ahead in the days and weeks to come."