November 16, 2023
IntelBrief: Northern Front Remains Tense as Israel and Hezbollah Calibrate Responses
Tensions along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon remain high, as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Lebanese Hezbollah have continued to exchange fire on a regular basis since the conflict kicked off between Israel and Hamas in early October. The exchanges have been the deadliest since the July 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah and threaten to escalate the conflict into a broader, region-wide war. Hezbollah claims that seventy of its fighters have been killed, while the IDF reports seven of its soldiers have died in combat on the northern border. For the first time in Israel’s history, all civilians along the border with Lebanon have been evacuated, making the total number of displaced Israelis, including those that have evacuated villages close to Gaza, 200,000, according to the Associated Press. In Lebanon, at least 28,000 have been displaced due to the clashes, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Hezbollah’s unmanned aerial systems routinely enter Israeli airspace, occupying the IDF’s bandwidth and leaving the Israelis guessing whether these are decoys or attack drones. The psychological impact on Israel’s civilian population has been palpable. The United States has repeatedly attempted to dial back tensions, calling for restraint and moving in military assets as a deterrent signal to Hezbollah and Iran not to move down the path toward further escalation and war. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also reportedly appealed to Iran to pressure Hezbollah to curb its escalation, stating that if the group launches a massive attack inside Israel, “Lebanon would not survive.” Hashem Safieddine, a senior Hezbollah leader and the head of the group’s Executive Council, noted early on in the conflict that Hezbollah would not remain neutral and would support the Palestinians fighting against Israel. Hezbollah’s Deputy Chief Naim Qassem has echoed these sentiments, suggesting that attempts by Israel, the U.S., and others “directly and indirectly telling us not to interfere will have no effect.” Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah suggested in one of his speeches that a “red line” for Hezbollah would be if Hamas were on the verge of being militarily defeated, with Hezbollah’s posture serving as a support front in the conflict. Hezbollah has not escalated beyond the current status quo of tit-for-tat cross-border exchanges, aiming to push the envelope with Israel to the maximum point without triggering a full-scale war with Israel or a U.S. response. Hezbollah also recognizes that, to keep Israel off balance and force it to commit manpower and materiel to the northern border, it does not need to do much more militarily than it has been doing thus far. As Nasrallah made clear in his long-awaited speech from early November, “Our operations on the border have forced the IDF to divert forces, weapons, and equipment from Gaza and the West Bank to the Lebanese front. One-third of the IDF is now amassed on our border.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised to continue attacking Hezbollah, commenting recently that “Hezbollah will take more hits” and suggesting that Hezbollah will pose far less of a threat once the war is over, hinting that the IDF may be gearing up for a more comprehensive response along Israel’s northern border. Netanyahu went on to say, “This is playing with fire. Fire will be answered with much stronger fire. They [Hezbollah] should not try us, because we have only shown a little of our strength." From the beginning of the conflict, Israel has attempted to balance between fighting Hamas in Gaza and preventing a two-front war from developing with Hezbollah. At the same time, the Houthis in Yemen have been targeting Israel, while Iranian-backed Shia militia groups in Iraq and Syria have been attacking U.S. personnel and infrastructure in those two countries, evoking a U.S. response that, at least to date, has been measured. As a result of being targeted so frequently and by so many different groups at once, all of Israel’s air defense systems are being used simultaneously “for the first time,” according to a November 11 IDF press release.
Hezbollah had approximately 150 thousand rockets at its disposal in 2019, according to a U.S. intelligence report, and with Iranian support, its inventory has improved significantly in the years since. Nasrallah confirmed as much, boasting, “a quantitative improvement in the number of operations, the size and the number of targets, as well as an increase in the type of weapons.” One of these weapons is the “Burkan” missile, which carries an explosive payload of 300-500 kg. Hezbollah also employs weaponized drones and was able to strike the town of Kiryat Shmona recently, located in northern Israel, in retaliation for an Israeli air strike. Nasrallah has delivered two speeches laying out his group’s stance on the conflict, attempting to calibrate Hezbollah’s response while balancing the line between fiery rhetoric and avoiding provoking Israel into a more full-throated offensive. Yet even while Hezbollah has been careful to stay within what are the accepted “rules of the game,” one miscalculation could lead the situation to spiral out of control, locking Hezbollah and the IDF into a deadly cycle of reprisals that could easily turn the northern front into a full-fledged conflict.