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Fears of violence between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon increase

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The sounds of fighting echo from both sides of Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. Sirens sound in Israeli towns, warning of rockets fired by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Lebanese civilians have fled their villages, fearing Israeli bombings and the possibility of a new war.

Since Hamas launched its deadly attack in southern Israel, tensions have risen along Israel’s northern border, increasing fears of a new conflagration between Israel and Hamas ally Hezbollah. supported by Iran, in neighboring Lebanon.

Such a war poses great risks for everyone involved, experts say. Israel, which appears poised to launch a ground invasion of Gaza, may struggle to fight on two fronts and defend itself against skilled Hezbollah guerrillas. Lebanon, already reeling from a deep economic crisis, could face intense Israeli airstrikes that destroy infrastructure and could kill large numbers of people.

The potential for international participation further raises the stakes. The United States sent two aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean to support Israel, capable of striking land targets. And other groups belonging to the so-called axis of resistance, the network of Iranian-backed forces across the Middle East, could be drawn into a new war.

“Calculations in big wars are not calculations about states,” General Abbas Ibrahim, Lebanon’s former security chief, said Monday. “It’s a war of existence: either Israel stays, or this axis stays. »

Leaders on both sides of the divide have issued stark warnings, highlighting the stakes.

On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Hezbollah not to get involved. “I have a message for Iran and Hezbollah: Don’t test us in the north,” he told Israeli lawmakers. “Don’t repeat the same mistake, because today the price to pay will be much heavier.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian warned in an interview on Iranian state television on Monday that regional militias allied with Iran could attack Israel if it continues its attacks on Gaza.

“Time flies,” he said. “If the war crimes against the Palestinians are not immediately stopped, other multiple fronts will open and this is inevitable. »

One of the Biden administration’s motivations in moving aircraft carriers closer to Israel is to try to convince Hezbollah to stay out of the fighting to avoid possible U.S. intervention.

Changes in the Middle East in recent years have made it more likely that violence in one place could trigger violence elsewhere. This is because Iran has worked to bring together anti-Israel forces in different countries into an increasingly tight network.

Armed groups in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, which once fought separately, now see themselves as part of the same team. Many of their commanders received similar training from Iran or Hezbollah and their members share knowledge on how to increase rocket firepower and monitor their enemies with drones.

Iran may be at the head of the network, but Hezbollah, formed in Lebanon by the Islamic Republic more than thirty years ago, is primarily responsible. Its members played a key role in helping Syria turn the tide against anti-government rebels during the civil war that began in 2011. And its operatives increased the fighting capabilities of pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and Houthi rebels in Yemen. Israel, the United States and other countries have designated Hezbollah and some of its regional partners, including Hamas in Gaza, as terrorist organizations.

Israel considers Hezbollah its most formidable enemy since it fought to a stalemate in a month-long war in 2006 that killed more than 1,000 Lebanese and 165 Israelis. Hezbollah members are highly trained, have an arsenal of tens of thousands of rockets and possess precision-guided missiles capable of hitting targets deep within Israeli territory.

Although Hezbollah’s precise capabilities are unknown, analysts say they have increased significantly since 2006, in part because its members have gained experience fighting Islamic State jihadists in Syria and Iraq. .

Hezbollah’s arsenal, which includes air defense capabilities, makes it far more dangerous to Israel than Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip, said Orna Mizrahi, a retired Israeli deputy national security adviser. . “They have long-range missiles, precision-guided missiles and well-developed cyber capabilities,” she said, all of which give Hezbollah the ability to cause “much greater harm to the civilian population” in Israel.

She added, however, that Israel’s newfound unity after months of division over the Netanyahu administration’s moves to weaken Israel’s justice system would come in handy if Hezbollah attacks.

Despite high tensions in the region, Israel and Hezbollah want to avoid all-out war at this stage because each has much to lose, according to analysts and former Israeli and Lebanese officials.

Israel, deeply traumatized by the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that killed more than 1,400 people and kidnapped nearly 200 in Gaza, wants to focus on what Mr. Netanyahu called Israel’s effort to destroy Hamas.

Hezbollah leaders frequently call for the destruction of Israel, but the group has avoided war with the Israelis for more than a decade, suggesting it prefers to invest its efforts elsewhere.

“I view Hezbollah as more interested in showing multiple layers of power and deterrence against Israel and having a seat at the negotiating table regionally rather than engaging in widespread conflict,” Mohanad Hage Ali said. , deputy director of research within Hezbollah. Carnegie Middle East Center. “They are more interested in a long-term strategy that gives them more power and influence. »

Firas Maksad, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said a war between Israel and Hezbollah “is going to be increasingly likely, particularly as a ground invasion of Gaza approaches.” But he stressed that if both sides proceed with caution, “there is a way to avoid this.”

The problem, analysts suggest, is that the more forcefully Israel pursues its goal of wiping out Hamas, the greater the pressure will be on Hezbollah to intervene.

Over the past week, Hezbollah and Israel have launched tit-for-tat attacks across the border, killing relatively small numbers of people on both sides while avoiding greater violence. On Tuesday, the Israeli military said it had targeted fighters trying to infiltrate Israeli territory, killing some. Hezbollah announced Tuesday that five of its fighters had been killed, according to the group’s official channel Al-Manar.

For now, Hezbollah is likely seeking to distract the Israeli military from its planned invasion of Gaza by directing its attention northward, while avoiding a full-scale war, Ms. Mizrahi said.

But the greater the tension, the greater the chance that one side will make a deadly miscalculation, Mr. Maksad said, such as striking an unintended target or killing a larger number of enemy forces than expected, making thus putting pressure on the other party to respond.

And some within the Israeli security establishment may believe that now is the time to strike Hezbollah, to ensure that the group cannot seize the initiative against Israel, said Sima Shine, former director of the research for the Israeli intelligence agency.

“They say, ‘We made a mistake once with Hamas,'” assuming the threat the group poses can be managed, she said.

But so far, Mr. Netanyahu has vetoed such proposals, according to U.S. officials and others briefed on the discussions.

For now, both sides appear to be engaged in a waiting game to see how the dynamics of Israel’s expected invasion of Gaza will play out.

General Ibrahim, Lebanon’s former security chief, said he believed Hezbollah’s “red lines” included any Israeli effort to eliminate Hamas leadership or a Palestinian death toll in the tens of thousands. Israeli officials have already announced plans to get rid of senior Hamas figures, and Gaza officials say the death toll now stands at more than 2,800.

As the war continues and images of Israeli airstrikes destroying Gaza towns and rescuers pulling the dead and wounded from the rubble flood Arab news channels, calls for a response are likely to grow among supporters of the Hezbollah.

“The key question will be the scale of violence that the Israeli occupying army will impose on Gaza and in particular on Hamas structures,” said Joseph Daher, author of a book on Hezbollah.

Ben Hubbard reported in Beirut, Lebanon and Aaron Boxerman of Jerusalem.

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