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As Israel moves into Rafah, its frontier with Lebanon continues to heat up. Between October 7 and mid-March, Hezbollah and Israel exchanged over 4,000 rocket, missile, and other types of attacks, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The escalation between these two belligerents has triggered speculation over whether Israel and Hezbollah will find themselves in yet another full-scale war. On that question, “the ball is in Israel’s court,” says Lebanese journalist Ali Hashem in the latest episode of The Pivot podcast.

Listen to this episode of The Pivot on Amazon Music, Apple Podcasts, Audacy, Castbox, iHeart Radio, Overcast, PandoraPocket CastsSpotify, TuneIn Radio, or YouTube Music.

Yet, while Israel may seize the initiative and pursue its longstanding goals of pushing back Hezbollah forces away from the Blue Line separating southern Lebanon from Israeli-controlled territory, Israeli decision-makers have a long history of not just misreading the militant group and its Lebanese Shia support base, but also underestimating them.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Hashem says Lebanon is essentially a “failed state.” A regional war would be disastrous for the country, whose economy is in tatters.

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Lebanon has been in a recession since 2019. Inflation has been in the high double or even triple digits since 2020. The Lebanese lira has lost 90 percent of its value since 2019. The country, whose banks are insolvent, is sustained by remittances. On top of the economic crisis is a political one: Lebanon has been without a president for over a year.

Lebanon is no stranger to conflict and misfortune. A 15-year sectarian civil war took more than 150,000 lives. The 1989 Taif Agreement brought it to an end, catalyzing hopes of reconstruction and a new beginning. But the post-Taif power-sharing agreement began to unravel in 2005 with the assassination of Sunni Prime Minister Rafic al-Hariri — for which a senior member of Hezbollah was convicted. Today, that power-sharing arrangement and the country itself are in disarray.

Israel’s bombardment of southern Lebanon has forced roughly 100,000 Lebanese to flee north, compounding the country’s misery. Roughly 80,000 Israelis have been displaced from their northern frontier as well by Hezbollah’s rocket and artillery fire.

Notwithstanding Lebanon’s desperate conditions, Hashem — whose own grandmother fell into a coma due to the shock from a recent Israeli airstrike near her home — says it would be a mistake for Israel to misread the resolve of the residents of Lebanon’s south, particularly its Shias, and their solidarity with the people of Gaza.

The memory of Israel’s long, brutal occupation runs deep. Among the Shia and even a minority of Lebanese Christians and Sunnis, so too does support for Hezbollah — the first Arab military force to evict Israel from occupied territory.

Israel and Hezbollah: The Balance of Terror

The battle between Israel and Hezbollah dates back more than four decades, with its origins in the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon beginning in 1982. Israel’s goal then, it said, was to expel the Palestinian Liberation Organization or PLO, which was based in Lebanon at the time.

That, of course, was not the first time Israel invaded Lebanon, but it marked the start of what would become a long occupation of the country’s south, which, along with a vicious bombing campaign against civilian populaces, a robust torture program, and Israeli-backed sectarian massacres, radically transformed the region’s sectarian geopolitics.

Long backed by the Islamic Republic of Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Hizbullah did not exist at the time of the Israeli invasion. It’s a nightmare that Israel created for itself. In the words of then-Israeli defense minister Yitzhak Rabin, Israel with its invasion and occupation of Lebanon “let the Shia genie out of the bottle.”

In the year 2000, Israel finally withdrew from most of southern Lebanon. But it and Hezbollah would fight another war just six years later, which exacted a great toll on Lebanese civilians and significant fatalities to both Hezbollah and Israeli combatants.

Israeli commander Gadi Eizenkot warned, “We will wield disproportionate power and cause immense damage and destruction.” The willful targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure in Lebanon in 2006 — of which there is ample precedent in Israel’s conduct of its previous war — has been described as the Dahiya Doctrine, named after a Shia neighborhood in Beirut targeted by Israel.

A United Nations investigation into Israel’s 2009 Gaza war known as the Goldstone Report assessed:

“The tactics used by the Israeli armed forces in the Gaza offensive are consistent with previous practices, most recently during the Lebanon war in 2006. A concept known as the Dahiya doctrine emerged then, involving the application of disproportionate force and the causing of great damage and destruction to civilian property and infrastructure, and suffering to civilian populations.”

The result of the Dahiya Doctrine was the death of roughly 1,200 Lebanese civilians at the hands of Israel.

Since 2006, a low-level conflict between Israel and Hezbollah has persisted. Both sides are learning organizations, intently studying and adapting to the other, seeking a “balance of terror.” The deterrence between the two foes has become increasingly unstable since October.

Just yesterday, Hezbollah killed two Israeli soldiers in a drone attack. Israel is by far the superior military of the two, but Hezbollah’s arsenal — supplied largely by Iran — has grown in both scale and capability. Hashem says the militant group’s deployable projectiles could number as high as one million — a significant quantitative upgrade from the much-cited 150,000 figure. Israel can devastate Lebanon. But Hezbollah can reach all corners of Israel, overwhelm its air defenses, and strike critical infrastructure.

There is much to lose for all sides. Recognition of that reality, along with ongoing U.S. and French diplomatic efforts, could postpone or avert a full-blown Israel-Hezbollah war.

Hashem notes that there is room for escalation below the threshold of war. But he also warns, a high-risk attack — like one on Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah — would change the nature of the conflict overnight.

Episode Description

Guest Ali Hashem (@alihashem_tv) of Al Jazeera English and host Arif Rafiq (@arifcrafiq) discuss the prospects for a full-blown conflict between Hezbollah and Israel. The episode looks at the history of conflict between the two belligerents, including the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, assesses how both parties have adapted and evolved since then in anticipation of another war, and explains what’s driving the escalating strikes on both sides of the Blue Line since the October 7 attacks. Hashem and Rafiq also address the Iran factor and its influence over Axis of Resistance partner Hezbollah.

Guest Bio

Ali Hashem is a journalist for Al Jazeera English who has covered Lebanon and the broader Middle East for numerous news outlets over 20 years. He is also a research fellow at the Sectarianism, Proxies, and De-Sectarianization Project (SEPAD) based at Lancaster University. His research focuses on the Middle East with an emphasis on Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq.

Books

Warriors of God: The Inside Story of Hezbollah’s Relentless War Against Israel — Nicholas Blanford

Published over a decade ago, Nicholas Blanford’s “Warriors of God” is a compelling and still-relevant account of the emergence of Hezbollah and its long war with Israel. Blanford, who has covered Lebanon since the mid-1990s, fuses the narrative form with analytical rigor, making the book not just readable, but also rich with detail and insights.

Hezbollah: A Short History — Augustus Richard Norton

The late Augustus Richard Norton’s “Hezbollah: A Short History” is an accessible and quick introduction to the world’s most powerful non-state military. Norton, a longtime professor of international relations and anthropology at Boston University, was a scholar of civil society and political reform in the Muslim world, and the author of numerous books on Lebanon’s Shia Muslims.

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.

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