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7 June 2024

Israel is on the brink of a second war

Benjamin Netanyahu is under pressure to take the fight to Hezbollah.

By David Swift

Ever since the Hamas attack of October last year, Israel has been waiting for the second front to open. For the past eight months, the Lebanese militia group Hezbollah has exchanged fire with Israeli forces over their shared border. Thus far, tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced from the north of Israel and southern Lebanon, with ten Israeli citizens, 15 soldiers and at least 400 Lebanese killed so far. But given the carnage in Gaza, these relatively low levels of casualties have not attracted much attention.

The violence over the past few days, however, suggests that this is about to change. On Monday, Hezbollah missiles and drones sparked large fires in the tinder-dry fields of Galilee, and on Wednesday, ten Israelis were injured and another killed in a drone strike on the northern town of Hurfeish. On a visit to Kiryat Shmona, which has been regularly hit by Hezbollah missiles since 7 October, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu assured local residents that Israel will not “sit with our hands clasped” in response to these latest attacks.

An extra 50,000 reservists have also been called up, and deployment notices are going out across Israel. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff Herzi Halevi recently announced: “We are approaching the point where a decision will have to be made, and the Israeli army is prepared and very ready for this decision.” It looks as though another war is imminent.

Hezbollah are notably more formidable opponents than Hamas, both in terms of strategic calculation and materiel. It has amassed a large arsenal: some estimate its stock of rockets at almost 150,000, including ballistic missiles. And it will have spent the past eight months carefully pondering its options and plan of action in the event of a full-scale Israeli attack.

Such a conflict would be a very different proposal to the Gaza War. For a start, while any attack would inflict immense damage on southern Lebanon, IDF commanders will be equally aware that their relatively low casualty rate since 7 October would be hard to sustain in any war with Hezbollah. There are also political considerations with regards to the local population: of the Jewish inhabitants of northern Israel (the area is also home to large numbers of Arab and Druze Israelis), many are natural supporters of Netanyahu and his Likud party.

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In his visit to Kiryat Shmona, Netanyahu pointedly avoided meeting local mayor Avichai Stern, who has been critical of the prime minister’s inaction in the north despite being a member of Likud. Tens of thousands of northern residents – who have spent the last eight months as effective refugees and living in hotels – have been pressuring the government to make the area safe so they can return home. Many complain that they have effectively been abandoned by Netanyahu, and insist they need some kind of resolution by September, when the school year begins.

At a recent forum to discuss the impact of eight months’ dislocation on the economy and businesses of the north, not a single member of the Knesset bothered to attend. “The State of Israel is breaking away from us,” the mayor of the northern town of Margaliot, Eitan Davidi, said in a radio interview: “We don’t need to secede, because the government has already done that for us. The citizens here are currently more exposed than the army.”

The situation in the north has also exacerbated the growing split between mainstream conservatives and far-right politicians such as Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, of whom the former accuse of obsessing over Gaza and the West Bank at the expense of actual Israeli territory. This has encouraged right-wing and centrist Israelis to become more supportive of an end to the war against Hamas so that the military can concentrate fully on defending the north. Yet at this moment, with no end to the horror in Gaza in sight, Israel looks ready to embark on another, more dangerous battle with a far better-equipped opponent than Hamas. The long-predicted escalation in this regional conflict seems on the brink of taking place.

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