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Why both Israel and Hezbollah are eager to avoid tit-for-tat attacks escalating into full-blown war

Why both Israel and Hezbollah are eager to avoid tit-for-tat attacks escalating into full-blown war
Hezbollah commander Wissam al-Tawil, who was killed in an Israeli airstrike. Hezbollah Military Media, via AP

The killing of a Hezbollah commander in southern Lebanon on Jan. 8, 2024, has raised concern that the conflict between Israel and Hamas could escalate into a regional war.

Wissam al-Tawil, the head of a unit that operates on Lebanon’s southern border, was killed in a targeted Israeli airstrike just days after a senior Hamas leader was assassinated in Beirut and amid sporadic attacks by Hezbollah on Israeli targets.

But how likely is a full-scale conflict between Israel and Hezbollah? The Conversation turned to Asher Kaufman, an expert on Lebanon-Israel relations at the University of Notre Dame, to assess what could happen next.

What do we know about the latest strike?

We know that it was an Israeli drone that killed al-Tawil. Hezbollah has since released picture of him with Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s secretary general, and Qassem Soleiman, the former head of Quds Force – one of Iran’s main military branches – who was assassinated by the U.S. in 2020. This suggests that al-Tawil was a major target for Israel, as he clearly had connections with top figures in Lebanon and Iran.

The fact that it was a drone attack is also important. This suggests that the operation was based on good Israeli intelligence on al-Tawil’s whereabouts. This wasn’t a chance encounter. This was clearly a calculated and precise attack.

After the operation, Israel said al-Tawil was responsible for a recent missile attack on Israel’s Mount Meron intelligence base in northern Israel. That attack was in response to the earlier assassination of a Hamas leader in Beirut.

So what we are seeing is a pattern of tit-for-tat strikes.

So this doesn’t mark an escalation?

I don’t see the killing of al-Tawil as an escalation, as such. Rather, it is a targeted retaliation by Israel to the earlier Hezbollah strike on one of their facilities.

There are some important things to note in that regard. It was just 10 kilometers north of the Israel-Lebanon border. This is still within the geographical area where the two sides have been exchanging fire since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel. So this is still within the realm of border skirmishes, to my mind, and falls short of full war.

Is it in the interests of Israel to escalate conflict?

I don’t think either side is interested in full-blown war, for different reasons.

For Israel, the pressure is from outside the country. There is immense international pressure on Israel not to start a full-blown war with Hezbollah. Indeed, U.S. Secrtary of State Antony Blinken is currently in the region and visiting Israel with that message: Do not start a war with Hezbollah.

I think there is a realization, certainly in the international community, that a full-blown war between Hezbollah and Israel will decimate Lebanon and also lead to major destruction in Israel.

What about pressure within Israel?

Certainly within Israel there is a strong lobby for war with Hezbollah. The thinking among Israeli military hawks here is a powerful military blow against Hezbollah would allow people living in the north of Israel to return to homes they evacuated when it looked like war might be in the cards.

Indeed, the Israeli Ministry of Defense wanted preemptive war with Hezbollah after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas. But U.S. President Joe Biden stopped that from happening for the same reason that Blinken is currently trying to dissuade Israel from further escalating the conflict.

And what about Hezbollah? How might it respond?

Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, is between a rock and a hard place. The majority of Lebanese people clearly do not want a war. But any attack resulting in the deaths of high-ranking Hezbollah figures will be met by internal demands for action.

But there is a tipping point for Hezbollah, as there is for the Israelis too – which is why this tit-for-tat pattern is such a risky matter.

On the Lebanese side, if Israel hits strategic Hezbollah assets deep in Lebanon – that is, outside the border areas – or launch an attack that leads to mass civilian deaths then it might lead to full-blown conflict. But so far that has not been the case. The attacks by Israel have been surgical and precise. In the case of the Hamas leader killed in Beirut, it was only Palestinians killed.

A poster of a man with a beard hangs outside a destroyed building.
A banner of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah hangs on the Beirut site where a Hamas leader was killed in an Israeli attack.
Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images

It was a humiliation for Hezbollah for sure – it happened in Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Beirut. But it wasn’t on Hezbollah assets, such as personnel, strategic sites or command centers. Israel has limited its attacks largely to the border area.

Public sentiment is still very strongly against war in Lebanon. Certainly there is strong sympathy for Gazans. But the prevailing sentiment in Lebanon is that support cannot come at the price of Lebanese lives.

And that suits the Hezbollah hierarchy at present. They know that the threat of war is their most important card. Once played, they can’t use it again.

Is there a diplomatic way forward?

Both parties are looking at diplomacy. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has said that his country’s preferred path is “an agreed-upon diplomatic settlement.” Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the goal of returning Israeli citizens to their homes in the north would be done “diplomatically” if possible. But added, “If not, we will work in other ways.”

Similarly in Lebanon, the talk is of a diplomatic solution – notably by enforcing United Nations Resolution 1701, which calls for Hezbollah to withdraw north of the Litani River and for Israel to withdraw to the international border.

So it isn’t that there isn’t a credible diplomatic path. And the fact that both sides use the language of diplomacy suggests there is no appetite for full-blown war.

Indeed, the U.S. has long been trying to get Israel and Lebanon to resolve disputes over their shared borders.

Both sides signed a U.S.-brokered maritime agreement in 2022, and there have been attempts at a similar deal in regards to the land boundary. There remained disagreement over 13 spots along the border. But since Oct. 7, the U.S. has tried to use the prospect of a negotiated land solution based on U.N. Resolution 1701 to diffuse tension between Israel and Lebanon.

The Lebanese government has said it welcomes U.S. efforts to resolve the disputes. On the Israeli side, too, they are going along with U.S. attempts to keep U.N. Resolution 1701 on the table – I think, mainly to keep America on side.

Does Iran have any role in influencing Hezbollah’s response?

Iran has immense influence over Hezbollah – it pays for military operations and equipment.

But Hezbollah is not only an Iranian proxy; it has domestic considerations, and its interests lie with the Lebanese political scene. For that reason, Hezbollah is attuned to the domestic popular pressure in Lebanon against a war.

Also, I don’t think Iran wants to see an escalation. Like Hezbollah, Iranian leaders know that threat of war – through their proxies in the region – is their most valuable asset. And I don’t think Iran is ready to use it.

Iran might also be concerned that if fighting escalates, then it will be drawn into war. Iran has so far played a smart game since the Oct. 7 attacks – it has stayed away from the battlefield, while supporting the sporadic attacks on Israel by Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen and pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and Syria.

But a full war between Israel and Hezbollah may draw Iran into direct confrontation with Israel and the U.S. And that is something that leaders in Tehran will most likely not want, especially after a terror attack in Iran on Jan. 3 exposed how vulnerable Iran is internally.

The Conversation

Asher Kaufman does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.