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25 June 2024updated 03 Jul 2024 5:33pm

Israel and Hezbollah are destroying the meaning of red lines

Neither side wants a war but both are rewriting the rules of engagement.

By Lina Khatib

The Gaza conflict has changed the rules of engagement between Israel and Hezbollah. Prior to 7 October, they both adhered to a de facto code of conflict that had been in place since their 2006 war. The unwritten rules limited the scope of Hezbollah’s attacks to Israeli-held territory like the Shebaa Farms (territory purported to be disputed in terms of state ownership but which the government in Beirut says is Lebanese) rather than areas inside Israel itself. Over the past nine months, however, these rules have become elastic.

Hezbollah – a heavily armed, Iran-backed force – entered the fray of the Gaza conflict by launching rockets on Israeli-held territory in October. Its involvement quickly expanded to include strikes deeper inside Israel. The latter retaliated by initially striking Hezbollah military targets close to the Israel-Lebanon border, but later also widened the scope of its attacks to cover a greater area of southern Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley. On 2 January, Israel launched a strike in the Hezbollah-dominated southern suburb of Beirut, targeting and killing a Hamas spokesman.

Since then, tension between Hezbollah and Israel has only escalated, often leading to intense media speculation that full-on war between the two sides was imminent. In recent weeks, both Israel and Hezbollah have been engaging in psychological warfare against one another, with each side publicly releasing or hinting at intelligence gathered about the other.

Last week, Yossi Cohen the former head of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, was quoted as saying, “We know the exact location of the secretary-general of the terrorist organisation [Hassan Nasrallah], and we can take him out at any moment.” The next day, on 18 June, Hezbollah published video footage collected by one of its drones, showing sensitive sites inside Israel like Haifa port, while the Israel Defence Forces issued a statement saying that it has approved plans for a Lebanon operation. The day after, Nasrallah gave a televised speech during which he threatened Cyprus for the first time based on its military cooperation with Israel. Meanwhile, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu told local media on 23 June that he was prepared to send Israeli troops to the Lebanon border once the current phase of the Gaza war had finished. ″We can fight on several fronts,” he said, “and we are prepared to do that.”

But a change in the rules of engagement, and the increasingly threatening rhetoric, does not automatically translate into escalation on the ground. After all, psychological warfare is not necessarily a sign that all-out war is coming, but can also be compensation for its absence.

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Both sides are acutely aware that neither Israel nor Hezbollah would benefit from such a scenario. Hezbollah knows there is no popular appetite in Lebanon for war with Israel and that if such a war breaks out then it is likely to drag other Iran-backed groups as well as Iran itself into the fight – something that Iran wants to avoid.

Israel will not want to engage in war with Hezbollah – thought to be the world’s most heavily armed non-state actor – while its stated objectives in Gaza have not been achieved. Despite what Netanyahu tells the media, he knows Israel is not able to handle a two-pronged fight single-handedly. But the US, especially with an election coming up in November, will not want to be dragged to support Israel in what would likely become a new Middle East quagmire.

This explains why the US continues de-escalation talks with Israel and, indirectly, with Hezbollah. On 18 June, Amos Hochstein, the US’s deputy assistant to the president, travelled to Lebanon, where he met with Hezbollah ally Nabih Berri – a meeting that officially took place in Berri’s capacity as Lebanon’s speaker of the parliament. That both Hezbollah and Israel made their public revelations on the same day is not accidental. Israel and Hezbollah are likely to continue to play an increasingly reckless game of chicken while using psychological warfare as both an effort at mutual deterrence and a supposed message of defiance to the US.

All this is also geared towards their respective domestic audiences. Netanyahu wants to affirm his military and political determination to eradicate Hamas to a population that is growing frustrated that several hostages haven’t been released. He wants the Israeli public to see him as a strong leader who is pursuing an Israel-first strategy and not as bowing to US pressure motivated by Joe Biden’s interests. Hezbollah wants to maintain a sense of credibility as a member of the Iran-backed, anti-Israel, anti-US “axis of resistance” in the eyes of a constituency that is bearing a rising cost in terms of loss of lives, property and livelihoods.

That the Israel-Hezbollah stand-off will continue for as long as the Gaza conflict perseveres is certain. The more time passes, the greater the likelihood that both sides will keep pushing boundaries and rewriting their rules of engagement, demonstrating once again that the notions of red lines have become utterly meaningless. 

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