The Israeli operation against Hezbollah tunnels on the Israeli side of the border with Lebanon will not lead to military escalation, said Israeli defense officials on Tuesday. But a strike against Hezbollah soldiers or military operations in disputed areas control could lead Israel to the brink of war, said the officials.
Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, but the ownership of 13 points along the international border is still contested by Lebanon and Hezbollah. If the Israel Defense Forces enters these areas, or carries out work there, it could serve as a pretext for Hezbollah to act militarily against Israel. Defense officials said such attacks could come at the points of contention or could be part of a broader offensive.
Israeli intelligence sources say Hezbollah’s motivation for another round of fighting with Israel is limited, in part because of the organization’s political and economic straits in light of its involvement in the civil war in Syria.
Hezbollah has lost some 2,000 fighters killed and about 10,000 wounded – a total of about one third of Hezbollah’s forces – in the fighting in Syria. Hezbollah has been taken to task domestically in Lebanon because of its losses, including by the families of those killed and wounded, who say that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iran have led Hezbollah into a war that is not its own.
Hezbollah’s serious economic problems partly stem from the sanctions the United States has imposed on it and on Iran. Tehran transfers between $800 million to $1 billion a year to Hezbollah, but is now having trouble doing so because of its own economic troubles. Hezbollah also earns money from businesses and real estate, between $200 million and $400 million a year, but the organization is having difficulty in bringing the money into Lebanon to finance its operations.
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Despite the aid Hezbollah gets from Iran, the Israeli defense officials believe that Hezbollah has its own considerations in Lebanon and will be in no hurry to go to war – even if Tehran demands it. Despite Hezbollah’s success in the Lebanese elections, which have given it no small amount of influence in the Lebanese parliament, people in Lebanon are still waiting for the outcome of a U.N. investigation into the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. The probe is expected to place the responsibility for the murder on Hezbollah, which will apparently lead to harsh criticism of the organization inside Lebanon.
Despite the IDF’s actions and Hezbollah’s complicated situation, Israel has been preparing since 2015 with the understanding that if war does breaks out, the border with Lebanon could be breached. Alongside its usual tasks and action to stop Hezbollah operations, the IDF has prepared a plan for a quick evacuation of residents from more than 22 communities along the border, and has reinforced security in those communities.
Hezbollah now has some 5,000 fighters and a few tens of thousands of additional militants. It has three branches to deploy in fighting Israel: border defense units, long-range rockets and missiles and the “Radwan Force,” an assault unit now operating from Syria, whose mission is to capture the Galilee in a future war. It is believed that operational experience gained in Syria has improved the capabilities of this force.
Nevertheless, Hezbollah’s leadership is in difficult straits. Nasrallah is in hiding in a bunker and his communication with activists is through videoconference. Moreover, since the assassination of senior Hezbollah military leader Imad Mughniyeh in 2008, the organization has not been able to find a commander of similar abilities and influence.