I have twice written about the possibility of another war between Israel and Hezbollah, noting that any provocation between the two could easily drag Hamas, Syria and Iran into the conflict as well. Of course, we all hope that such a conflict can be avoided. Considering the mass damages and casualties occurred in 2006 and 2008/9 (in Gaza) as well as the Israeli threat to hold all of Lebanon accountable for Hezbollah’s actions, it can be assumed that a second round of war between Lebanon and Israel would be incredibly destructive. Unfortunately, saber-rattling on both sides is getting more frequent and more intense.
Apparently, President Michel Suleiman and PM Saad Hariri were both informed by various international sources of an imminent attack on Lebanon by Israel. The international sources – in the US, France and Turkey – have told Lebanese officials that Israel is planning a surprise attack similar to the offensive in Gaza in 2008 and that they would target LAF forces before moving to Hezbollah targets. Other reports claim that Turkey is worried of an attack while France has ruled one out. If this claim is true, however, and Israel plans to attack LAF forces first, it is a good indication that PM Netanyahu is intent on following through on his threat to hold all of Lebanon accountable for Hezbollah. In response to the rumors, Hezbollah has confirmed the deployment of Syrian made surface to surface missiles with a range of 250 km, capable of hitting any target in Israel.
[tweetmeme] The Naharnet source cited above quotes a French source as saying “There are no signs that Israel would make such a move. It is not in the interest of either side to destabilize the existing stability.” As there have been no significant events that could cause a conflict recently, the French view seems the most
logical. While Hezbollah is certainly a worry and an annoyance for Israel, there is little incentive for Israel to act against the organization. Save for an initial Hezbollah attack – something that is unlikely – the only reason Israel would have to launch an attack on Lebanon would be to completely destroy Hezbollah. While this is probably impossible (ideas only grow stronger in the face of adversity), it would probably require brutal tactics that would result in the complete destruction of most of Lebanon, something that Israel cannot afford after the disaster of the Goldstone report after the Gaza war. For Hezbollah, any preemptive attack on Israel would validate a vicious response.
Despite these very logical reasons for restraint, some still believe in the possibility of what would certainly by folly for both sides. It is hard to imagine either side starting a war without provocation. Lebanese blogger Qifa Nabki has listed several possibilities that could act as a catalyst for war:
But just for argument’s sake, I thought I’d ask several well-known Lebanon-watchers for their opinion on the question of how the next war, la sama7a Allah, would likely start. I agreed to publish their comments anonymously, but trust me: they have something like 489 years of experience studying Lebanon, they’ve had university chairs and graduate programs named after them, and there’s a move afoot to chisel their faces into Mount Sannine. Here are their thoughts:
Commentator 1: I think the most likely trigger is the old 1982 scenario. Hizballah takes some action outside the conflict zone which Israel then uses as an excuse to “finish the job” north of the border.
Commentator 2: I still think the trigger is going to be: the muqawama shoots down a jet on overflight. This is followed by botched search and rescue à la Mogadishu except it ends with not only a day-long gunbattle but around 11 IDF hostages that trigger a full bore invasion.
I pick this one because it’s the scenario most likely to benefit Hezbollah, while simultaneously wrecking Lebanon. Say what you will about Nasrallah but things tend to break his way.
Commentator 3: Three potential triggers and in no particular order:
(1) Commentator 2’s suggestion, which for Hezbollah is probably the best as they can explain it within the role of defending Lebanese sovereignty against Israeli aggression. “We gave the UN and international community a chance to stop the overflights by diplomacy, but they did nothing so we decided to act”. But they would have to be damn sure of a successful hit first time around. If they fire a missile from a newly installed SA-8 and it misses, the game is up.
(2) Mughniyah revenge: an Israeli embassy goes up in smoke or someone important gets assassinated. No claim of responsibility, but everyone knows who it is and the Israelis attack Lebanon. Hezbollah can claim “Hey it wasn’t us. We’re the only enemies Israel has?” to offset domestic backlash.
(3) Something related to an attack on Iran – the Israelis hit Lebanon before hitting Iran/Hizb retaliates to an attack on Iran/Iranian retaliation to an Israeli attack sparks regional conflagration etc etc.
While these commentators undoubtedly have more expertise that I, I have several qualms with their hypotheses:
(1) Hezbollah takes action outside the security zone and Israel reacts
Hezbollah has historically followed very strict rules in its actions against Israel. In the 1990’s during Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon, both Israel and Hezbollah followed several unwritten rules; namely, Hezbollah only attacked the security zone while Israel refrained from attacking citizens. This policy was continued by both sides from the Israeli withdrawal in 2000 to the 2006 war – with Hezbollah mainly focusing its attacks on the Sheeba farmland in Golan Heights (considered to be occupied land by Lebanon and Syria). After the 2006 war, relations between the two sides have been more or less maintained these rules – Hezbollah has spent the time rearming while Israel has concentrated on Syria (2007) and Gaza (2008/9). It is improbable that Hezbollah, which has a very intelligent leadership, would suffer not only the devastation of an Israeli (disproportional) response, but also the media blitz that would accompany an unprovoked attack on Israel.
(3b) An Israeli embassy gets attacks; Hezbollah is blamed
Hezbollah was involved in several attacks on Israeli sites outside of the Middle East in the 1990’s, but have largely avoided such attacks since then. If an attack on an Israeli embassy in, say Argentina (Hezbollah attacked the Israeli embassy there in 1992 and another Israeli site in 1994), chances are that they were organized and perpetrated by Iran. Like an unprovoked attack on Israel, such an attack by Hezbollah would be political suicide for Nasrallah and would lead to international condemnation of Hezbollah, once again justifying an Israeli attack on Lebanon.
(3c) Lebanon is attacked in conjunction with some attack on Iran
Firstly, I assume that the US would disapprove of any Israeli attack on Iran as
that has the capacity (and probability) of destroying all hopes for peace in the region. Secondly, with Hezbollah apparently strong enough to cause damage to Israel proper, it would be folly to purposely open two fronts of war simultaneously. Finally, if Israel attacked Iran, the US would certainly – and more in words than actions – support Israel. The Obama Administration would be hard-pressed to condemn Israeli actions, but rather would need to tacitly support Israel’s war in Lebanon, as it is connected to Iran. Not only would this push the pro-American faction of the Lebanese government (Hariri et al.) into the minority, therefore raising Hezbollah’s popularity in Lebanon and giving the Shi’i group more ammunition in its anti-Israel/America mandate, but it would also mobilize many in the Middle East. American support for Israel in Lebanon would be seen as yet another American war against an Arab country, increasingly extremism throughout the region.
I agree with the second commentator and the first option by the third commentator (Hezbollah shoots down an Israeli plane in Lebanese territory, causing a search and rescue operation by Israel, escalating to war). The LAF has already started shooting at Israeli planes that enter Lebanese airspace (something that is both illegal under UN resolution 1701 and continuously occurring). In this situation, Hezbollah would be able to cultivate the opinion that Israel was the aggressor and that the organization was simply protecting Lebanese sovereignty.
Still, I see war between Israel and Lebanon as very possible, but unlikely. Israel knows that Hezbollah is much stronger than in 2006 and has the capabilities of striking Israel. Thus the only way to engage Hezbollah militarily without incurring damage in Israel proper would be to overwhelm Lebanon with force – a strategy that would certainly result in myriad civilian deaths and the second coming of the Goldstone Report. Without serious miscalculations by either Hezbollah or Israel, a very unstable peace should remain between the two. That, of course, is far from guaranteed.