Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
While people were scared that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah would announce a war when he spoke on Nov. 3, they were ultimately relieved by his statement, in which he indirectly said that he would not escalate. A week later, his position became even milder. However, the real threat of escalation comes from Israel, not Hezbollah.
Lebanon represents a dilemma for Israel. On the one hand, it does not make sense to voluntarily open another front and dilute your firepower. On the other hand, Israel has a deep trust crisis with its own citizens, with 200,000 Israelis having left 105 communities in the north close to the Lebanese border and in the Gaza Envelope. This situation builds pressure on the Israeli government, as these people are residing in government-sponsored guest houses waiting for the military to give them assurances so that they can go back.
There are an estimated 100,000 Israelis who have left settlements in the north. They will not go back unless they are sure that what happened on Oct. 7 in the Gaza Envelope will not happen to them. But how can they be convinced to go back as long as Hezbollah is alive and kicking? Yoav Gallant, the defense minister, spoke of a preemptive strike and was shunned by the US. The Biden administration advised against adding to the front with Hamas by opening a new one with the much stronger Hezbollah. The US, which has a strong naval presence in both the Mediterranean and the Gulf, does not want to be dragged into a direct confrontation with Iran.
Israel is stuck between two hard choices. It needs to focus on Gaza. So far, the only “success” it can claim is in the record number of women and children killed. After two weeks of its ground campaign, it has been incapable of incapacitating Hamas. The hype about the “intelligence” that Al-Shifa Hospital was the headquarters of Hamas and the center of its web of tunnels has proven to be propaganda. The Israeli army could not find rockets or tunnels. They found fewer rifles than one can find hanging on the wall of any arms collector in Texas.
There is no way that Hamas has been operating from Al-Shifa. The myth has been debunked despite the media that is embedded with the Israel Defense Forces, which it uses to try and support its claim. The IDF has been posting and then removing videos, trying to find a credible argument to justify raiding a civilian hospital, which is a flagrant war crime. So far, the IDF has found no evidence to validate its claims. What an embarrassment for Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, whose popularity is dwindling and who faces criminal charges.
Meanwhile, Hamas is still functional and rockets are still falling on Israel. Netanyahu has nothing to claim as a victory. None of the main Hamas leaders have been captured. In fact, Hamas seems to have the upper hand. Hamas’ leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar had the guts to cut ties with the Qatari mediators after the Israeli forces raided Al-Shifa. This will create further pressure on Netanyahu, as it will impede Israel’s ability to salvage anything on the hostages front.
Families of the captives last week started a march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to demand the government put in more effort to secure their release. This is an additional pressure on Netanyahu. How can he secure their release without caving in to Hamas’ demands? So far, Israel has not been able to inflict any significant damage on the group’s capabilities. Gaza is still not a win Netanyahu can offer to his base, but he needs a win or at least the optics of a win.
He is desperate and desperate people take desperate measures. Though opening a second front is illogical, it might be the only thing Netanyahu can do at this time. At least he will appease the displaced Israelis from the north. If he succeeds in landing a blow on Hezbollah, this could be a win to promote to his people.
There is UN Security Council Resolution 1701 that ended the 2006 aggression on Lebanon. The resolution called for “security arrangements to prevent the resumption of hostilities, including the establishment between the Blue Line and the Litani river of an area free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL (the UN Interim Force in Lebanon).” It also calls for the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon in accordance with the Taif Agreement. In the current circumstances, there is no way to apply the resolution or for Hezbollah to voluntarily abide by it. It will be like an admission of defeat facing Israel.
Gallant is reiterating Hezbollah’s threat. Instead of the areas bordering Israel, he threatened to turn Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, into another Gaza. He is raising the stakes. The Americans are also passing on messages to the group, warning it not to escalate. Everyone is tense, Israel is cornered and it has the capabilities to strike. Despite the pressure that the US is trying to impose on Israel to keep its response measured, Netanyahu has his neck on the line. He knows very well that President Joe Biden is not going to save him from prison. But he has confidence that pro-Israel groups in the US can pressure the administration and Israel can get away with whatever it wants. This has been tried and tested before. Netanyahu humiliated Barack Obama in front of the US Congress and received a standing ovation, so why should he not get away with a military campaign against Lebanon? It is a risk. Israel can destroy Beirut and destroy the group’s stronghold in Dahieh, in the suburbs of the capital, but it also knows that Hezbollah has precision-guided missiles.
However, when one is desperate, one is more likely to take risks. Netanyahu is cornered and he knows he is on his way out. Two weeks ago, a poll showed that only 27 percent of Israelis believe that Netanyahu is the right person to run the government. Today, with the intelligence failure of Al-Shifa and no tangible results coming from the ground campaign, that figure is likely to be even lower. He needs an escape and has nothing to lose. In these circumstances, striking Lebanon could be a likely option.