Israel’s northern border with Lebanon and Syria represents a potential flashpoint in the conflict that erupted over the weekend — one that experts say bears watching over the next several days because it could be a harbinger of a wider regional war in the Middle East.
One thing is certain: Israel’s military is paying close attention to that border.
Early on Wednesday, all of northern Israel was put on full alert after the army reported a suspected “infiltration from Lebanon into Israeli airspace” — a warning that proved to be a false alarm. Sirens screamed across a vast swath near the border with Lebanon and the Israeli army instructed people in the north to stay in shelters until further notice.
So far, the Israeli military has focused primarily on clearing southern Israel of Hamas and striking Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip.
It also has begun solidifying its defences on the northern border with Lebanon. That frontier represents an avenue for a potential second front with Hezbollah — the Iran-backed terrorist group experts are unanimous in describing as better armed and better trained than Hamas.
Six people were killed on Monday (three Hezbollah members, an Israeli officer and two Palestinian militants) in a clash that followed a small incursion across the northern border into Israel — small at least in comparison to the hundreds of Hamas militants who crossed the border from Gaza on the weekend.
On Tuesday, Hezbollah fired a guided anti-tank missile across Israel’s northern border, striking an Israeli military vehicle. In response, the Israeli military shelled a Hezbollah observation post in southern Lebanon.
CNN quoted U.S. officials as saying the United States has warned Hezbollah against escalating the conflict. The U.S. has sent a carrier task force led by the USS Gerald Ford to the eastern Mediterranean to deter any efforts to widen the war, multiple U.S. officials and people briefed on the discussions told CNN.
Senior administration officials told CNN they do not believe that Hezbollah is likely to join Hamas’s war in force at the moment.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, however, citing open sources, reported that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Lebanese Hezbollah units (LH) deployed forces to Syria’s southwestern border with Israel on Monday.
Separately, the institute noted that the Radwan Unit, a special Lebanese Hezbollah team focused on infiltrating Israeli territory, also arrived in Syria on Monday and headed for the border region.
The non-profit research group flagged the events as “consistent with the scenario in which the Gaza War expands into a multi-front war surrounding Israel.”
Israel has warned Syria about allowing a cross-border incursion, but Hezbollah is supported extensively by the hardline regime in Tehran. Iran has been accused by many, including Canada’s United Nations ambassador, of pulling the strings of the Palestinian terror group.
Retired Canadian major-general Denis Thompson said it’s tough to predict which way the war is going to go.
“It’s quite worrisome,” said Thompson, who served as the multinational commander of the international peacekeeping force in the Sinai for three years — a mission that made him intimately familiar with the complexities of the region.
“It would be an order of magnitude more difficult for Israel if Hezbollah enters the war.”
A spokesperson for the Israeli Defence Forces, Brig.-Gen. Daniel Hagari, said on Monday that the IDF has not been able to state for certain whether Iran was involved in planning or training for the cross-border attack on Saturday.
Is Hezbollah holding back?
The fact that Hezbollah did not move in concert with Hamas has piqued the curiosity of other foreign policy experts.
“Hezbollah is a highly skilled militant group and it has long sought to support the Palestinian cause,” Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine on Monday.
“Yet fully joining the conflict and opening up a second front in the war against Israel would be a huge risk for Hezbollah. It may simply prefer to watch the Palestinians fight and die while launching limited, symbolic attacks and cheering them on from the sidelines.”
Byman added that Hezbollah “has proved to be Israel’s most formidable foe since the group’s inception in the early 1980s.”
Last spring, Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, claimed that Iran spends $700 million US on Hezbollah and $100 million on Hamas.
With Tehran’s help, Hezbollah has expanded its arsenal of rockets and missiles that can strike deep into Israel. Hezbollah is also believed to have acquired a range of anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles — weapons that would complicate any potential Israeli operations, the Institute for the Study of War noted.
“Hezbollah is far more formidable than Hamas, whose current operations are already a nightmare for Israel,” Byman wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.
“Hezbollah is also more skilled than other militant groups — perhaps the most skilled in the world.”
Unlike Hamas, which is confined to a tiny strip of land in Gaza, Hezbollah controls vast portions of southern Lebanon, parts of Beirut and much of Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley region. It is also politically active, with a pro-Hezbollah block holding 62 seats in the Lebanese parliament.
Iran fears isolation, former Canadian commander says
And from a wider geopolitical perspective, Thompson said, the stunning Hamas advance into southern Israel and the looming threat of Hezbollah intervention may be an attempt to get the world’s attention as other voices in the Arab world inch toward normalizing relations with the Jewish state.
“This is really … not a last attempt but an attempt to derail that process and get the Palestinian issue front and centre,” he said.
Iran, with a different set of interests, has just as much to fear from any easing of tensions between Israel and the rest of the region — especially if its great rival, Saudi Arabia, succeeds in brokering a settlement with Israel.
“They are nervous if a number of Arab states normalize relationships” because it will leave Iran further isolated, Thompson said.
The Institute for the Study of War has noted that there has been a shift in Iranian strategic thinking that the country’s leadership has spoken about openly.
For decades, the regime in Tehran has consistently shouted “Death to Israel” but has carefully avoided saying how it would carry it out.
That has changed over the past year, with senior Iranian military commanders emphasizing the importance of ground operations and urban combat, as opposed to missiles and drone strikes. The idea behind this strategy, the institute said, is to create internal displacement and domestic chaos, destabilizing Israel and ultimately leading to its decline.