No end in sight for escalating Israel-Lebanon border conflict

Israel insists that war with Hezbollah is inevitable, despite the Iran-backed group showing restraint

Black smoke rises from an Israeli air strike on the outskirts of Yaroun in south Lebanon. AP
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In the early days of the Lebanon-Israel border war, young men could still be found on the streets and in the cafes of Kafr Kila, a southern Lebanese town directly in Israel’s line of fire.

In the town square, crossed by a concrete barrier separating Israel from Lebanon, a mixture of bravado and defiance prevailed.

Neighbours would gather on each other’s balconies as they watched Israeli shells fall on nearby areas.

But two months later, the steady worsening of fighting has made the town uninhabitable – even for the most resilient of residents. The town square is mostly empty, with the separation wall looming over it ominously.

“People underestimated war,” said Hassan Cheet, Mayor of Kafr Kila and leader of its emergency medical services team.

On Monday, the mayor of the nearby town of Taybeh was killed when an Israeli shell fell on his balcony.

“Our problem as southerners is we are too acclimated to conflict,” Mr Cheet said.

“It’s normal to us, we think everything will be OK. It’s not like Israel is going to target me out of everyone.”

Tens of thousands of residents on both sides of the border have been displaced since October 8, when Hezbollah and allied groups began the conflict with Israel.

From the outset, Hezbollah sought to demonstrate the “unification of fronts”: a strategy in which groups associated with the so-called Axis of Resistance, supported by Iran, would come to each others’ aid when threatened.

Hezbollah’s stated goal was to support its ally Hamas and distract its sworn enemy, Israel, from its invasion of the Gaza Strip.

Israel, meanwhile, is bent on preventing the Iran-backed militia from exerting influence on the outcome of the conflict.

As thousands of residents from northern Israel’s border areas remain displaced, Israel's government is eager to re-establish security there.

Hezbollah says its deterrence has succeeded in drawing one third of Israel’s army to the border and away from Gaza.

But Israel’s siege has continued unabated, with more than 18,400 people killed so far.

Existential consequences

But Hezbollah and Israel have continued to tiptoe around the possibility of a full-scale war.

Hezbollah “has shown some restraint in responding, showing their preference not to get involved in a conflict now”, explained Mohanad Hage Ali, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre, a Beirut-based think tank.

Meanwhile, “Israel believes war with Hezbollah is necessary”, he said.

This leaves Hezbollah with a complex dilemma. The group has chosen to maintain a consistent level of combat but does not seem ready to pay the political cost of war, with Lebanon already struggling with one of the worst economic crises in modern history.

While Hezbollah has largely fired at Israeli military sites, Israel has escalated its attacks and its hostile speech.

The Israeli military has been conducting air strikes deeper and deeper into Lebanese territory.

At least 17 civilians have been killed in Israeli strikes on south Lebanon since the eruption of the frontier conflict, including three journalists – compared to four civilians in Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu threatens to turn Beirut into Gaza

Benjamin Netanyahu threatens to turn Beirut into Gaza

On Sunday, an Israeli raid destroyed an entire neighbourhood in the southern border town of Aitaroun, injuring several people.

At the weekend, footage showing the green hills of southern Lebanon under carpet bombing-like bombardment went viral on social media.

A Lebanese soldier was killed last Tuesday in Israeli artillery shelling – the first since the conflict began. The Lebanese military is not involved in the fighting.

Last week, Israeli National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said his country would have “to impose a new reality” on Lebanon after the end of its operation in Gaza.

His comments have been echoed by other Israeli officials.

“The situation in the north must be changed,” Mr Hanegbi told Israeli media.

“And it will change. If Hezbollah agrees to change things via diplomacy, very good. But I don't believe it will.”

Part of the negotiation process

Mr Cheet said Israel's bombardment of border villages such as Kafr Kila is near constant.

But he still takes the risk of sleeping in Kafr Kila’s civil defence headquarters in case he is needed.

He told The National that artillery shelling and machinegun fire are often so intense that ambulance teams cannot get to affected areas.

“Once Israel is hurt or threatened they strike back at anything,” Mr Cheet said.

“They don’t know what they’re doing or where they’re shooting. They’re just going for a lot of destruction.”

Israel’s recent escalation is “part of the negotiation process” to increase pressure on Lebanon, said Mr Hage Ali.

“Israel is flexing its muscles, in a bid to capitalise on gaining additional security guarantees along the Lebanese borders,” he said.

The guarantee in question is UN Security Council Resolution 1701 – intended to resolve the 2006 Lebanon war – which calls for the withdrawal of Hezbollah from south of the Litani River.

The application of Resolution 1701 “is extremely important for the Israelis, especially after the inadequacy of their previous strategic stance, including military restraint, advanced technology and defensive structures, completely failed on October 7”, a western diplomat told The National.

The diplomat mentioned that the 100,000 people evacuated from northern Israel’s villages will not be returning as long as Hezbollah – a much stronger militia than Hamas – reigns near their doorstep.

The negotiations around Resolution 1701 were discussed as part of international efforts, notably by the US and France, to restore stability to southern Lebanon, the diplomat said.

But Hezbollah has resisted attempts at negotiation, baulking at Israeli demands for the group to withdraw from the southern-most areas of Lebanon.

Israel maintains a maximalist approach of “either diplomacy or force”, while Hezbollah has refused to have this kind of discussion as long as the Gaza war continues, the diplomat said.

“There are no negotiations,” Qassem Kassir, a political analyst, told The National.

“It is impossible to revert to Resolution 1701 amid the war on the Gaza Strip. Hezbollah continues its operations and is prepared for any confrontation.”

In the meantime, the surge in violence has compelled most of the residents to completely abandon their villages.

Imane Reda, 39, a resident of Ayta Shaab, is among the 60,000 people displaced from the south.

Ms Reda used to return to her village from time to time to check on her home, but told The National that recently, the situation had become “much worse than before”.

She is no longer able to visit her village during pauses in the fighting. There are no more lulls, she said.

Updated: December 13, 2023, 8:34 AM