Analysts: Hezbollah reluctant to fall into Israel's all-out war trap in Lebanon

Mourners carry the coffin of Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri, who was killed in an Israeli strike, during his funeral in Beirut, Lebanon, on Thursday. Photo by Abbas Salman/EPA-EFE
1 of 4 | Mourners carry the coffin of Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri, who was killed in an Israeli strike, during his funeral in Beirut, Lebanon, on Thursday. Photo by Abbas Salman/EPA-EFE

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Jan. 5 (UPI) -- Iran-backed Hezbollah, whose fighters have been battling Israeli forces along the Lebanese border since the Gaza war broke out in October, is not willing to go into a full-scale war with Israel, preferring to maintain the status quo of a "gray-zone warfare," analysts said.

Israel is disposed to risk such a large confrontation to achieve its objectives of pushing Hezbollah from its border and securing the return of its displaced people in the north, even if it could lead to a regional war, analysts told UPI.


However, diplomatic efforts spearheaded by the United States could create a window of opportunity to reach a deal for de-escalation along the Israeli-Lebanese border -- no easy mission as long as the war on Gaza continues.

Israel and Hezbollah have been engaged in daily fighting, mostly restricted to parts of southern Lebanon and northern Israel, since the Lebanese militant group joined the battle a day after the Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel sparked the war on Gaza.


Hezbollah leader Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah has maintained that opening the Lebanese front, which resulted in numerous deaths, destruction and displacement on both sides, was meant to support the Palestinian people and resistance in Gaza.

On Friday, Nasrallah announced that his Islamic Resistance fighters have carried out more than 670 operations in three months, and 48 border sites were targeted more than once, forcing Israel to stay within the rules of engagement, consolidating the equation of deterrence.

'Tricky moment'

Pushing Hezbollah fighters away from the border and securing the return of some 75,000 to 80,000 displaced Israelis to their homes in the north are Israel's conditions for a de-escalation on the Lebanese front and for averting -- at least for now -- an overall war that may be inevitable in the future.

"Hezbollah will not be the one to start the first strike and will not be dragged to open the large [war] front because this is a big responsibility...In my talks with Hezbollah officials, they said their group will not be responsible for a big regional war," said Hisham Jaber, a Lebanese military expert and former army general.

But Hezbollah, Jaber told UPI, will be ready with all its weapons if Israel decides to open a wide war front, "and for example it bombs Beirut at a large scale." He insisted Israel would not "launch a ground offensive because its ground invasion during the 2006 war failed."


On Tuesday, senior Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri and six of his companions were killed in an Israeli strike on Beirut's southern suburbs. It was the first such attack on Hezbollah's stronghold since 2006, when Israel destroyed large parts of the southern suburbs during a 33-day war with the heavily- armed group.

Nasrallah vowed that the assassination of the Hamas group will not go unpunished; but clearly not in a way that would disturb the current rules of engagement.

"It is a very tricky moment for Hezbollah," Firas Maksad, senior fellow and director of strategic outreach at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, told UPI.

Maksad said it is increasingly difficult for the group to maintain the status quo while Israel "is not just willing to tolerate that."

" right now choosing not to retaliate, perhaps capitulate momentarily," he said. "That's a risky bet for them, too, because it undermines their established deterrence and allows Israel to potentially redraw the rules of the game and potentially even allows and encourages it to carry on with further assassinations, future assassinations in Lebanon."

Israel will not back away from its objective of hunting down every Hamas member involved in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, no matter where they are, as David Barnea, chief of Israel's Mossad intelligence service, reconfirmed this week.


Riad Kahwaji, who heads the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said the Israelis "are taking advantage of the situation where it has become clear to them that Iran and Hezbollah do not want an escalation and are avoiding it."

To Israel, Hamas commanders are not within the rules of engagement, Kahwaji said. "It is embarrassing to Hezbollah...which is finding itself cornered more and more."

Maksad said Hezbollah "very much prefers the status quo of a gray-zone warfare," meaning border skirmishes, "harassing" Israel and forcing it to divert forces from Gaza by deploying 120,000 troops to the north.

"It really doesn't want to be dragged into full-on war," he said. "The Israelis, on the other hand, are very clearly messaging that they need to change the status quo and are willing to risk war in the process...[to achieve] their stated goals of going after Hamas officials...and pushing Hezbollah off that [northern] border."

Maksad has doubts that Israel is capable of achieving its objectives militarily, "given their performance in Gaza so far," while Hezbollah "is certainly a much more capable military organization."

"Pushing Hezbollah north of the Litani [River] is a tall task that would require significant commitment of troops in Lebanon. That would be a horrific war and Israel would face significant international backlash," he said.


Diplomatic options

Israel is, however, leaving a door open for diplomacy, knowing that achieving its objectives militarily won't be an easy ride due to its failures in the Gaza war.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told visiting U.S. envoy Amos Hochstein on Thursday that time was running out for a diplomatic solution to moving Hezbollah's elite Radwan forces in southern Lebanon away from the border with Israel and up to the Litani River in line with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 that ended the 2006 war.

Kahwaji told UPI that diplomatic efforts led by the United States and France are being exerted to try to reach a compromise, noting that the Israelis are still "within shock of Oct. 7" and would be pushing for a major change on its border with Lebanon to avoid an attack similar to the one Hamas carried out last October in the future.

Resolving the longstanding border dispute between Lebanon and Israel, including 13 disputed points along the U.N.-demarcated Blue Line, and ending the Israeli occupation of the Shabaa farms, would pave the way for the complete implementation of Res. 1701 that calls for the full cessation of hostilities, the deployment of Lebanese forces to southern Lebanon and the establishment of a demilitarized zone between the Blue Line and the Litani River.


Jaber said Lebanon is ready to implement the resolution on condition that Israel respects it, saying that "if Israel withdraws from the occupied Lebanese territories, Hezbollah will be ready to pull out to the Litani River."

Nasrallah on Friday spoke of "a historic opportunity" to liberate Lebanese-occupied territories and "establish a balance of power that prevents the enemy from once again violating the sovereignty of our country."

Kandice Ardiel, spokeswoman for the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, said that "if a solution can emerge on the 13 points and Shabaa-Ghajar areas," it will pave the way for "a greater foundation for more stability."

Ardiel noted that Res. 1701 secured "relative stability most of the time" since its adoption.

"Anything that resolves some of the differences between Lebanon and Israel will obviously go far for returning to that stability we had before; a lot of the conflict is due to some of these disagreements," she told UPI.

Latest Headlines