Hezbollah Concerned Escalation Would Enrage Lebanese, Israeli Officials Say

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Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanon's Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah, in a video posted on Hezbollah's al-Manar TV website, on July 25, 2020. 
Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanon's Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah, in a video posted on Hezbollah's al-Manar TV website, on July 25, 2020. Credit: AFP

Hezbollah is hesitant to respond to the killing of one of its militants last week in an airstrike in Syria attribute to Israel out of fear that military escalation will cause an uproar in Lebanon, as the country faces an economic and health crisis, Israeli defense officials say.

The Israeli army has reinforced its troops along its northern border over the past week, preparing for a potential Hezbollah response. On Monday, the Israel Defense Forces said it had thwarted an attack in the Har Dov border area and prevented the infiltration of Hezbollah operatives into Israel, but Hezbollah denied the Israeli account.

Defense sources say that the more time passes from the attack near the Damascus airport, where Hezbollah's Ali Kamel Mohsen Jawad was killed, the more difficult it would be for the Lebanese group to retaliate.

A UN vehicle near a Hezbollah flag on the Lebanese side of the Lebanese-Israeli border in the southern village of Kfar Kila, Lebanon, on July 28, 2020.   Credit: Mohammed Zaatari,AP

Israel in recent days has passed along messages to the Lebanese government, through mediators, that a military response would lead the IDF to react forcefully, in a way that would be difficult for Lebanon to withstand. The Lebanese government includes several Hezbollah representatives.

After Monday's border incident, Israeli officials said, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah wants to avoid further embarrassment. They believe the fact that his organization has so far not retaliated shows it struggles to plan an action that wouldn't risk military escalation with Israel, which would be hard to sell to the Lebanese public as an act of defense.

Israeli officials don't rule out that Nasrallah would choose to respond from Syrian territory, where Hezbollah can target Israeli positions in the Golan Heights. 

An anti-government protester holds up a Lebanese flag during ongoing protests against the Lebanese government, in Beirut, Lebanon, June 2020. Credit: Bilal Hussein,AP

After the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. strike in Iraq in January, Hezbollah's leader has emerged as a leading figure in the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis, and often makes public remarks on Iran's influence in the region. But at the same time, many Lebanese expect Nasrallah to respond to internal issues, as economic protests spread to Hezbollah's southern strongholds and a severe crisis engulfs the country.

In a bid to calm protesters, Hezbollah has tried over the past few months to get involved in civilian efforts to handle the coronavirus crisis. Lebanese Health Minister Hamad Hassan is himself a member of Hezbollah.

These efforts, however, did not deliver particularly impressive results, Israeli officials argue. As a result, Hezbollah understands it doesn't stand to gain much in the Lebanese public opinion if Lebanon is dragged into a military conflict with Israel.

The IDF is satisfied with the way it handled Monday's reported attack, officials say. Despite criticism of the decision to let Hezbollah troops retreat back into Lebanon, it is widely understood that killing the Lebanese militants on Israeli territory could have escalated the situation, at a time when Israel is busy facing its own coronavirus crisis.

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