A careful dance: How Hezbollah and Israel are controlling a wider war

Accompanied by upbeat electronic music, a recent video clip shows what the Hezbollah militia says is a drone firing missiles, a new weapon in its arsenal as it steps up attacks on Israel.

The show of new weapons was a show of force touted by the group's enigmatic leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who said in a speech earlier this year: “What protects you is your strength, your courage, your fists, your weapons, your missiles and your presence on the battlefield.”

Hezbollah's attacks, which began in October in a joint attack with Hamas in the Gaza war, have intensified as the group strikes more frequently and deeper into the Israel-Lebanon border, using larger and more advanced weapons. Israel is also striking targets deeper inside Lebanon.

Hezbollah's latest offensive came this week as the militia launched a series of daily drone strikes against civilian targets in Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior officials have threatened Hezbollah, suggesting a day of reckoning is coming.

Yet whenever fighting escalates, Hezbollah and Israel appear to adjust their tit-for-tat attacks to avoid a larger conflict. While concerns about a wider war remain, both sides appear to be constrained to varying degrees to exercise restraint.

The video was released by Hezbollah’s military media office in May, and by some measures the group has never been stronger. Its main backer, Iran, has provided increasingly powerful missiles. In addition, Hezbollah has deployed at least 2,500 special forces in Syria over the years to help consolidate President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, gaining valuable battlefield experience.

But Hezbollah is more than just a fighting force; it has evolved into a broader Lebanese political movement that must weigh whether to drag the country into another war as a conflict-weary population continues its long struggle. financial crisis.

Lebanese officials say border violence has cost the country billions of dollars in lost tourism and agricultural revenue. The last war in 2006 left the country devastated and displaced at least 1 million people. Arab countries and Iran helped pay for reconstruction. It is unclear whether they would do so again, and countless Lebanese have since been plunged into poverty as the Lebanese pound has fallen from 1,500 to 89,000 to the dollar.

Since October, some 100,000 Lebanese civilians have been displaced across the southern border. Many are farmers whose harvests have been disrupted and who are struggling to survive on $200-a-month subsidies from Hezbollah. There are widespread questions about why the war in Gaza should involve Lebanon.

Khodor Sirhal, 60, a farmer in the border village of Kafr Kila, sells olive oil soap in Souk El Tayeb, a market where Beirut hipsters flock every Saturday to buy organic produce. He described how he and his wife were picking olives last October when a violent explosion nearby forced them to flee to Beirut, where they remain.

“If you ask me why this war happened, I don’t know the answer,” he lamented. He was unsure whether his house and the dream cafe he opened in the village a week before the war broke out were still intact.

One small business owner, who was forced to abandon about 100 jars of olive oil and other goods, said Hezbollah officials he questioned could not explain why Lebanon was involved. “They either speak in poetry or prophecy,” he said, declining to give his name for fear of reprisals. “They themselves have no answers.”

More than 300 Hezbollah fighters and about 80 Lebanese civilians have died since October, and at least 19 Israeli soldiers and eight civilians have been killed.

The bustle of Tyre, the coastal capital, was muted, with the sound of muffled explosions heard in the distance. Three local schools have taken in displaced families.

Salva, 49, said she abandoned her house and moved into a small room in a school, where 25 families share three bathrooms and one shower. Residents frequently make the trek to the south to survey the devastation, from flattened homes to furniture gnawed to pieces by rats. A local mayor estimated that 6,000 homes in the south were fully or partially destroyed.

On her final trip home, Salva, who declined to give her full name for fear of retaliation, discovered that only one of her 10 cats and 15 dogs was still alive. “I asked myself why we were in this war,” she said. “They say it’s because of Palestine, but it will take a long time for Palestine to be liberated. God bless the Palestinians.”

Israel faces obstacles. Its military is already struggling to achieve its stated goal of eradicating Hamas from Gaza, and Washington has warned Israel not to provoke the region. Israel also needs to consider its own demographics.

Netanyahu has threatened that Israel would launch an all-out war in Lebanon, repeating its destruction of the Gaza Strip. In response, Hezbollah has gradually deployed more advanced weapons, as shown in the video.

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“The Israelis have made it clear that they will do whatever it takes, and this will be a massive operation,” said Mona Yacoubian, director of the Middle East and North Africa Center at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. “Again, this is a much more powerful force than Hezbollah.”

“This is a conflict that could involve much of Israel,” she continued, “and I think it actually gives both sides pause. This is going to be a conflict that has never been seen before.”

Despite frustration over the prolonged evacuation, Lebanese border residents are often reluctant to criticize Hezbollah, fearing its security apparatus and remaining grateful that its guerrilla warfare helped end Israel's 1982-2000 occupation.

Some villagers who haven’t fled have rallied to try to stop Hezbollah from bringing the war to them. In early April, in the village of Rmeish, near the border, a group of men rang church bells as a warning as some Hezbollah fighters arrived with mobile rocket launchers and prepared to open fire. After a standoff, the fighters left.

The dizzying sectarian dynamics of Lebanese politics reflect the ambivalence of the population; the war has won Hezbollah some new allies while alienating others, including some Sunni Muslims who traditionally support the Palestinian cause.

But Hezbollah has long drawn the ire of other factions for having its own army and pledging allegiance to Iran.

“The problem today is that the Lebanese state has no control over its territory, no control over decisions about war and peace,” said Samy Gemayel, a member of parliament and leader of a right-wing, mostly Christian party whose father, Amine Gemayel, was Lebanon’s president.

Iran created Hezbollah at least in part to deter Israel from attacking the Islamic Republic. So, Gemayel said, Iran does not want to sacrifice Hezbollah to save Hamas, but it could also take the destruction of Lebanon lightly.

“The militia’s logic is that as long as they survive the battle, then they have won — no matter how much they lose,” he said.

Other border disputes between Lebanon and Israel over land and possible gas reserves in the Mediterranean have also strained relations. indirect An agreement was reached with Hezbollah on maritime borders and land issues were being addressed, but the group suspended its involvement as the Gaza war continued.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly said since October that the Lebanese Resistance Front is achieving its goal of weakening Israel. In a recent speech, he said: “The war of attrition is eroding Israel's human, security, economic, spiritual, moral and psychological aspects.”

Israel has evacuated some 60,000 residents from the north, and top officials have repeatedly vowed to ensure the security they need to return, but have not specified how this will be implemented.

“This is part of Hezbollah’s aggressive behavior, with more and deeper firing into the Israeli mainland,” Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Nadav Shoshani said at a recent press conference.

In Israel, fears of a repeat of Hamas's bloody October 7 raid in the north have led some to support a preemptive war.

Sima Shine, a former senior official at Israel's foreign intelligence agency, Mossad, who oversaw Iran issues, said security agencies were discussing the pros and cons of the escalation. “People feel insecure because of the situation in the south,” she said. “And Hezbollah is much better than Hamas.”

With the recent intensification of daily drone strikes, talk in Israel of a possible all-out war has intensified. While such attacks have previously focused on military targets, this time Hezbollah struck cities that had not yet been evacuated — such as Nahariya on the coast and Katzrin in the Golan Heights. It also sparked wildfires in the north.

The Israeli military said it had responded by striking Hezbollah positions with artillery and fighter jets.

Ultimately, border wars are always accompanied by a larger question: who will shape the future narrative of the Middle East.

Decades ago, Egypt and Jordan proposed a vision that would have included Israel as a neighbor and Saudi Arabia as the ultimate destination. The bloody attack by Hamas, Tehran's ally, derailed that once-accelerating train.

Another option is Iran’s so-called axis of resistance, an alliance of proxy forces in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen that is mostly made up of Shia Muslims and advocates armed conflict with Israel. Hezbollah is the most powerful force Iran has created for this purpose.

“They are competing for leadership in the region,” said Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Johnson Rice Israel provided coverage.

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