June 10, 2024

IntelBrief: Diplomats Scramble to Contain Israel-Hezbollah Conflict

AP Photo/Leo Correa

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The conflict between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah since October 7 is part of a broader struggle between Israel and pro-Western Sunni Muslim Arab states on the one side and Iran and its mostly Shia “Axis of Resistance” on the other.
  • An escalation of the Israel-Hezbollah cross-border attacks has triggered high-level Israeli deliberations on whether to launch an all-out assault on Hezbollah.
  • U.S. officials are warning Israeli leaders that a major assault on Hezbollah will set off a significant war that will be difficult to resolve and cause massive damage in both Israel and Lebanon.
  • The visit of the head of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to Washington this week will support negotiations by U.S. and French diplomats to de-escalate the Israel-Hezbollah conflict.

An escalation in what had been relatively limited and contained cross-border clashes between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah since October 7 is now threatening to erupt into full-scale war that could draw in Iran and other parties and engulf the region. Since October, more than 300 Hezbollah fighters and around 80 Lebanese civilians have died, while at least 19 Israeli soldiers and eight civilians have been killed. In recent weeks, both sides have increased the range of their attacks; Hezbollah has been launching armed drones and rockets against Israel Defense Forces (IDF) targets as far as 50 kilometers (about 30 miles) from the border.

At the same time, Hezbollah started launching "Burkan" rockets with 1,000-pound to 2,000-pound warheads that have caused significant damage to IDF bases along the border. Whereas Hezbollah’s attacks had previously mainly concentrated on military targets, Hezbollah has also begun hitting Israeli cities that had not been evacuated, including Nahariya on the coast and Katzrin in the Golan Heights. In early June, Hezbollah attacks combined with scorching weather to ignite huge forest fires across northern Israel, which took more than 48 hours to extinguish.

Beyond the immediate concerns about the escalating exchanges, Israel sees its conflict with Hezbollah as part of an existential struggle against Iran and its “Axis of Resistance” to determine a future vision for the region. Hamas’ October 7 attack was intended, to some extent, to disrupt the emerging alliance between Israel and many Sunni Arab states in a coalition against Iran and its Axis. Corroborating that Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel are part of this broader struggle, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly said since October that “the Resistance Front in Lebanon” is achieving its goal of weakening Israel. “The war of attrition is eating [Israel] away at the human, security, economic, spiritual, moral, and psychological levels,” he said in a recent speech.

Amid the intensifying battles, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened an emergency meeting of his “war Cabinet” on June 4, reportedly to consider an all-out war with Hezbollah to try to stop its rocket and drone attacks and push its militia forces off the informal Israel-Lebanon border (the “Blue Line”). Among the options the IDF has presented for expanding the fighting includes a ground invasion aimed at pushing Hezbollah's elite Radwan force away from the border, an IDF official told journalists.

Still, the risks to Israel inherent in a determined assault against Hezbollah - which has been heavily armed by Iran with 150,000 precision-guided rockets and missiles, as well as sophisticated drones and anti-tank weaponry - prompted the Israeli war cabinet to defer a decision on escalation against the militant group. Other IDF sources indicated that, since October 7, the IDF's directive from political leaders has been to focus on defeating Hamas in Gaza and avoiding war in Lebanon, adding that changing this policy could have “far-reaching consequences.” IDF and other assessments indicate war with Hezbollah or a limited operation in Lebanon would cost many lives and drain Israeli resources while likely resulting in an agreement similar to that which the U.S., France, and other mediators are trying to broker between Israel and Lebanon.

For its part, Hezbollah also has an incentive to proceed cautiously. Its backers in Tehran do not want to compound the damage done to Hamas with an IDF offensive that might greatly diminish Hezbollah as well. And Hezbollah operates within a political and social structure in Lebanon that limits its freedom of action. For example, since October 7, nearly 100,000 Lebanese civilians have been displaced along the southern border, many of whom are farmers who survive on a $200 monthly subsidy from Hezbollah and question why the Gaza war should involve Lebanon. In April, a group of men in the mostly Christian village of Rmeish, near the border, rang the church bell to raise the alarm when some Hezbollah fighters arrived with a mobile rocket launcher and were preparing to fire at Israel. After a confrontation, the fighters left. On the other hand, the fighting has won some new allies for Hezbollah within Lebanon - some Sunni Muslims, who have traditionally supported the Palestinian cause, have endorsed Hezbollah’s military attacks on Israel. Other Lebanese are grateful that Hezbollah’s guerrilla warfare helped to end the Israeli occupation of parts of south Lebanon from 1982 to 2000.

U.S. officials are reinforcing the voices of caution within Israel about mobilizing a major assault on Hezbollah. U.S. officials told the news outlet Axios that senior U.S. policymakers have told Israel "a limited war" in Lebanon or a "small regional war" is not a realistic option because it will be difficult to prevent it from widening and spinning out of control. The Biden administration warned Israel that a ground invasion of Lebanon, even if it is only in the areas close to the border, would likely push Iran to intervene, U.S. and Israeli officials said.

One scenario U.S. officials reportedly raised with their Israeli counterparts is that Lebanon could be flooded with militants from pro-Iranian militias in Syria, Iraq, and even Yemen who would want to join the fighting against Israel. Appearing to support the U.S. assessment, the pro-Iranian Houthi movement in Yemen announced in May it was training volunteers who might be sent to areas near Israel to open a ground offensive against the IDF.

In addition to warning Israel of the consequences of escalation, U.S. and French diplomats continue trying to find a diplomatic solution to reduce tensions at the border. However, no breakthroughs in their efforts have been announced to date. Negotiators are said to be still working to advance a plan under which Hezbollah’s elite units, and perhaps other of its militia forces, would redeploy at least six miles north of the Blue Line. Most experts assess the plan would not be adopted by Hezbollah prior to the end of combat in the Gaza Strip. The U.S. and French plan, if agreed, would depend on the willingness and capability of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), in particular, to increase its presence in the border areas to provide security and fill the security vacuum left by departed Hezbollah militia units. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, adopted at the end of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, calls for the deployment of the LAF, as well as the peacekeeping U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), in southern Lebanon.

In an effort to advance talks on the de-escalation roadmap, the U.S. Defense Department requested LAF Commander Joseph Aoun to visit Washington the week of June 10. Aoun’s discussions in Washington will reportedly touch on the U.S. military and financial assistance provided to the Lebanese army, as well as the role of the Lebanese army in the border area in the event a version of the U.S. and French de-escalation plan is adopted. “Since 2006, U.S. investments of more than $3 billion to the LAF enabled the Lebanese military to be a stabilizing force against regional threats,” according to the U.S. State Department website.

Following the 2019 Lebanese financial collapse, the United States increased its aid to the LAF, including, in June 2023, rerouting $72 million in assistance to Lebanon to help pay the salaries of Lebanese soldiers and police officers for a period of six months. The LAF has also received U.S. military equipment, including armored vehicles. On the other hand, some in Congress, particularly Republicans, argue against substantial aid to the LAF on the grounds that the aid might fall into the hands of Hezbollah units. Still, because it is less capable than Hezbollah, even if it receives increased U.S. support, the LAF’s ability to help secure the Israel-Lebanon border will remain in question.