'Risk of miscalculation' on Lebanon-Israel border high despite diplomatic efforts

Washington has been pushing for a de-escalation of the border conflict, but analysts say pressure must be exerted on Israel

Smoke rises at the Israel-Lebanon border. Reuters
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Deadly border clashes between Israel and Lebanon are now in their second month – despite a surprise visit by US envoy Amos Hochstein to Lebanon the previous day to “calm tensions on the southern border” – as the conflict between the enemy states gradually threatens to become a broader regional war.

Hours after Mr Hochstein’s visit, Hezbollah – which has a paramilitary wing that rivals the Lebanese army – launched 20 missiles towards the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The Israeli military retaliated hours later with some of the most severe air strikes since the conflict erupted on October 8, further undermining the US envoy’s efforts.

“Hezbollah and Israel are dancing on the precipice and not wanting to go into full-fledged war while also not wanting to fold their cards,” Nadim Houry, director of the Arab Reform Initiative, told The National.

“We don’t know if the US is exerting any pressure on Israel but they’re clearly exerting pressure on Hezbollah and the Lebanese side.”

The frontier between Lebanon and Israel has become a staging ground for a broader conflict over the past month, as armed groups, led by Iran-backed Hezbollah, continue to exchange fire with their southern neighbour in support of their ally Hamas, which controls the blockaded Gaza Strip.

Mr Hochstein’s visit appeared to be an attempt to diplomatically contain the conflict and urge Lebanese leaders to deter Hezbollah from engaging in deeper conflict with Israel.

But experts told The National that Hezbollah has already made it clear that it is not seeking war.

“It’s clear this is a regional diplomatic initiative by the Americans to try and protect their interests and to gain time for Israel to do whatever it’s doing in Gaza,” said Karim Al Mufti, professor of political affairs at Sciences Po in Paris.

“And, while Israel is committing atrocities, to limit the responses from actors that could potentially do harm [to Israel].”

In a long-awaited speech last week, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said any potential escalation of the border conflict with Israel would directly correspond to Israel’s actions in Gaza or the killing of civilians in Lebanon.

Hassan Nasrallah slams Israel and US in long-awaited televised speech

Hassan Nasrallah slams Israel and US in long-awaited televised speech

It was not a declaration of war, Mr Al Mufti told The National, but an opportunity for the US to de-escalate, by pressuring Israel into ceasing its ground and air assault on the Gaza strip.

“Nasrallah took a responsible stance: ‘We do what we have to do to support our brethren in Gaza but we are not reckless, we won’t be held responsible for sparking a full-fledged war. If that happens, it’s on the US and Israel.'”

Saving face

The pattern of gradually escalating tit-for-tat clashes continued into Wednesday, when Hezbollah announced it attacked an Israeli infantry force, “causing confirmed casualties including dead and wounded” in response to Israel striking an ambulance earlier this week, which injured at least three paramedics.

On Sunday,three children and their grandmotherwere killed in an Israeli strike on their car. On the same day, an Israeli civilian was killed by an anti-tank guided missile launched by Hezbollah.

“If the United States is keen to keep the border quiet they need to exert pressure on Israel not to attack or kill Lebanese civilians, not just on the Lebanese side,” said Mr Houry.

“We haven't seen any public accountability.

“The US is actively supporting Israel directly by providing intel, military support and running interference internationally in diplomacy, so it is on them to stop Israeli actions: for instance the attack that killed civilians in Lebanon.”

Publicly, US officials have done little to admonish Israel for civilian casualties or pressure it into enacting a ceasefire in the Hamas-controlled strip. Instead, the White House has sought Israeli consensus on “temporary localised pauses in the fighting”, according to National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, speaking to reporters at a digital briefing earlier this week.

White House says Iran has not jumped into Israel-Gaza war 'with both feet'

White House says Iran has not jumped into Israel-Gaza war 'with both feet'

According to Mr Al Mufti, “pauses and ceasefire are the same thing”.

“There is nothing in international law called a ‘humanitarian pause’,” he continued.

“This is all diplomatic rhetoric to try and get the tiniest of concessions from the Israelis, calling it a pause so Israel won't lose face.”

Lebanese state 'on pause'

Lebanon, currently suffering through one of the worst economic crises in modern history, currently has no president, no functioning parliament and no empowered government.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who leads in a caretaker capacity, last week called for a five-day ceasefire in Gaza and said he would hold Israel responsible for the eruption of a full-scale war with Lebanon.

Meanwhile prominent former general security director Abbas Ibrahim – known for having a network of diplomatic ties and a close relationship with Hezbollah – returned to Lebanon from Qatar on Monday, where he took part in the Qatar-led hostage negotiations between Hamas and Israel.

“Mikati is trying to push a Lebanese perspective to meet with Qataris and the Americans,” Mr Houry said of Lebanon’s diplomatic efforts.

“But [the decision to go to war] is not a sovereign decision of a government. The ultimate decision towards war or peace for Lebanon rests with one man only, and that’s with Hassan Nasrallah.”

Mr Al Mufti agreed, saying: “It makes perfect sense. It’s a failed state. The state is on pause … and the country's leadership is aligned with Hezbollah's rhetoric.”

Both analysts agree that Hezbollah, Israel and the US do not want to risk igniting a broader war at this stage, but that without a ceasefire in Gaza, “the potential for miscalculation is high”, Mr Houry said.

Updated: November 09, 2023, 2:06 PM