Analysis

Israel, Hezbollah Find Way Out of Escalation, but a Critical Dilemma Remains

Should Israel strike Lebanese soil and risk a deadly flare-up?

A firefighter truck is seen near fire and smoke rising from shells fired from Israel in Maroun Al-Ras village, near the border with Israel, in southern Lebanon, September 1, 2019.
REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

The tension on the northern border was apparently coming to a close Sunday night. Hezbollah, from its perspective, had settled accounts with Israel by firing a few anti-tank missiles at an Israel Defense Forces base and another vehicle near Moshav Avivim along the border. There were no casualties. Although this looks like the end of this round of violence, the IDF will have to maintain a high level of readiness along the border, at least for a few days, to make sure Hezbollah isn’t preparing any other surprises.

This round began with two attacks in Syria and Lebanon on August 24. First the Israel Air Force attacked a cell of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards south of Damascus, killing two operatives, Lebanese citizens who were working with the Guards’ Quds Force and who, according to the IDF, were planning to infiltrate the Golan Heights with drones. A few hours later an installation that was crucial to Hezbollah’s precision missile manufacturing line was blown up in the Dahiyyeh neighborhood of Beirut.

Haaretz Weekly Episode 38Haaretz

>> Between Tehran and Washington, Hezbollah is limited in its response to Israel ■ First drone war pulls Israel's conflict with Iran out of the shadows ■ Netanyahu and Nasrallah - the Middle East's longest and most stable enmity

After a few more hours, on the afternoon of August 25, there was an air strike on Iraqi Shi’ite militia vehicles near the border between Iraq and Syria. Israel claimed responsibility for the attack in Syria, while Hezbollah and the Arab media attributed the two other attacks to Israel as well.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah spoke twice after the attacks. In his first address, the morning after the incidents, he threatened a severe response and suggested that IDF soldiers along the border with Syria and Lebanon be cautious. The second speech, on Saturday night, was more restrained. The response, Nasrallah said, would come, but he hinted it would be fairly localized. That’s what happened Sunday afternoon. The response was in keeping with the earlier assessments – a Kornet missile attack along the Lebanese border, aimed at military, not civilian targets.

Lebanon map.

It seems as if the IDF was properly prepared for the attack. A few days ago troops were brought to the Northern Command, particularly artillery and Armored Corps units, along with an enhanced presence of aircraft. At the same time, patrols along the border were reduced (so as not to provide Nasrallah any targets) and changes were made to the readiness of the border positions. The missiles did not cause any casualties, even though one of the missiles targeted a manned military ambulance in transit, which was not hit.

During the two hours following the incident it seemed as if the IDF was remaining deliberately vague about the results of the attacks. Rumors flew about IDF casualties, and Lebanese media outlets claimed that soldiers riding in a military jeep had been killed. Adding to the confusion was an unusual move by the IAF, which sent a helicopter of soldiers out of the border zone even though there was no one wounded there.

Minister Yoav Galant, a member of the security cabinet, was the first to break the ambiguity when he told Army Radio that there had been no Israeli casualties. Shortly afterward, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his ministers not to talk about the incident, but later on IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis made it clear that there had been no casualties.

On Sunday evening it seemed as if that would be the case this time, too. Nasrallah, for all his fighting rhetoric, has been burned enough in previous encounters with Israel. The mutual deterrence continues to be effective. It seems as if the veteran operator has control of things and restrained those in Hezbollah’s military wing who might have had more radical ideas. But if there is an additional response from Hezbollah, it will show that Israel was too hasty in marking its success.

Nasrallah has in recent days made a considerable effort to reduce the significance of the attack in Dahiyyeh and instead highlight Hezbollah’s connection to the Israeli attack on Syria. The two Lebanese killed were declared martyrs by the organization. But in reality, their connection to Hezbollah was limited at best. Israeli security officials doubt whether Nasrallah had any knowledge of the plan by Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani to attack Israel with drones.

Israeli soldiers on the Lebanon border, August 2019
Gil Eliahu

Nasrallah had to blur what happened at Dahiyyeh because the information presented by Israel revealed sensitive and somewhat embarrassing details about the progress of Hezbollah’s “precision project.” When the organization smuggles in precision weaponry and tries to manufacture it on Lebanese soil, it is exposing the country to the risk of another war that could end with destruction unprecedented in its scope.

Nevertheless, the precision project is far from over. Israel has for years declared that the supply of precision weaponry to Hezbollah and setting up production lines for such weapons in Lebanon were red lines. The decision to attack, according to reports, stemmed from concern that the installation was going to be moved shortly to an underground location. But even if it will be difficult for the Iranians and Hezbollah to smuggle in a similar facility or components of the project in the future, it can be assumed that the efforts will continue.

In other words, Israeli decision makers will likely have to face this dilemma – whether to attack on Lebanese soil and risk a war to prevent the enemy from becoming stronger – in the future.