Baalbek strike shows Israel willing to 'step up the heat' in war with Hezbollah

Israel says attack was retaliation for downing of drone but experts say it shows Israeli appetite to expand the war on its northern front

Rubble at the site of an Israeli air strike near Baalbek city in the central Bekaa plain. AFP
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An Israeli strike near the north-eastern Lebanese city of Baalbek shows Israel is willing to engage in brinkmanship to achieve its goal of pushing Hezbollah away from the border in the absence of a diplomatic solution.

The strike on Monday close to the city, which is a tourist destination famous for its ancient ruins, was the deepest Israeli attack on Lebanon since the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.

Officially, the Israeli army said the strike was in response to Hezbollah's downing of a Hermes 450 drone over southern Lebanon. Such drones are expensive and vital for intelligence gathering, said retired Lebanese Brigadier General Nizar Abdel Kader.

This was the second time Hezbollah has announced shooting down an Elbit Hermes 450. In November, the group said it destroyed another Israeli drone with a surface-to-air missile.

Israel is one of the largest operators of drones in the Middle East and it is also a net exporter of the technology. In eight years, Israel exported $4.6 billion worth of unmanned aerial vehicles to countries ranging from Britain to India and Uganda, according to Israeli media.

Elbit's Hermes drone system is used in many countries, including the Philippines, Switzerland, Thailand and Canada, as well as in the European Union.

“The shooting down of a Hermes drone is considered an important event, not only for military reasons but also for economic reasons,” a source close to Hezbollah told The National.

“This aircraft is the pride of the Israeli military industry and the backbone of the world of Israeli drones.”

Hezbollah’s downing of the drone presented a significant threat to Israel, which prizes its air superiority, according to head of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, Riad Kahwaji.

The strike on Baalbek, which killed two members of Hezbollah, reportedly targeted "aerial defence" sites in retaliation for the downed Israeli drone, according to the Israeli military.

“It’s imperative for the Israelis to maintain complete air dominance that nobody can challenge,” Mr Kahwaji said. “For them, this audacious act by Hezbollah required retaliation – and it's an indication that Israel has no limits on its escalation against Hezbollah.”

Excuse for escalation?

According to Brig Gen Abdel Kader, the Baalbek strike was also a continuation of a slow escalation of what began as a border conflict and, over nearly five months, has flared into what he called “a stage of war.”

“It’s not just skirmishes across the border. The environment from December to now indicates that Israel is trying to step up the heat on the northern border,” Brig Gen Abdel Kader said.

The intensity of strikes, which have ventured deeper and deeper into Lebanese territory in recent weeks and culminated in the strike on Baalbek, is an attempt by Israel to increase pressure on Hezbollah and Lebanon – goading them to react in such a way that could “be used as a pretext by Israel to launch a full war on Lebanon”, he added.

Israeli troop movement from Gaza to the northern border is one such indication that Israel is preparing “for the next stage of the war” in the absence of Hezbollah’s willingness, he said, through diplomatic initiative, to withdraw from Lebanon’s border with Israel.

Mohannad Hage Ali, senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre, shared a similar assessment, and said the Israeli strategy places the Iran-backed Hezbollah group in a difficult position.

“Hezbollah is trapped between its desire not to drag Lebanon into a full war, on one hand, and Israel’s painful strikes and intent on spreading insecurity within the organisation and its community.”

Why Baalbek?

Bakr Abedalhaleem Alzekra, a 30-year-old folklore dancer, said he was at home when he felt the Israeli strike hit nearby.

“The small earthquake it caused when it landed caused one of my walls to split in two,” he said. Still, after the strike had registered, Mr Abedalhaleem Alzekra said he simply continued with his day. He knew better than to venture outdoors to find out what had happened, knowing the destroyed area would have been closed off by Hezbollah’s security teams.

“We’ve become accustomed to not knowing what’s really happening,” he said.

Situated in north-eastern Lebanon close to neighbouring Syria, Baalbek is known to be dominated by the secretive Iran-backed group. Mr Kahwaji, of the Dubai think tank, maintained that Baalbek’s proximity to Syria, where Hezbollah also operates with support from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was a primary reason for Israel’s strike on the area.

“Iran provides Hezbollah with some of its own indigenously built air defence systems that are deployed in Syria and, reportedly, now in Lebanon,” he said.

Russia, as well, has provided Hezbollah with some air defence systems, according to Mr Kahwaji.

A Lebanese security source indicated Israel may have struck the religiously mixed yet largely impoverished Baalbek to sew discord among its residents.

“It can serve as an implicit warning message from Israel,” the source said. “Not only does it put pressure on the traditional [elements] of the party but on all components of Lebanese society.”

Like much of Lebanon, Baalbek was heavily damaged during the 2006 July war between Hezbollah and Israel, which lasted 33 days. That was 17 years ago. Since then, Lebanon has plunged deep into an economic crisis that is described by the World Bank as one of the worst in the modern world.

A renewed full-scale war with Israel would "be catastrophic for Lebanon's society and government", Brig Gen Abdel Kader said, with the state able to provide little in the way of support for its residents.

Mr Abedalhaleem Alzekra, the dancer whose house was merely 1,000 metres away from the site of the Israeli strike, said he is not affiliated with Hezbollah or any other militant group and holds no political affiliation.

But if war comes to Lebanon, “if I have to fight against Israel, I will not say no”, he told The National.

“I’m a Muslim. As a Muslim I see that they are killing the children of Gaza,” he said. “I would have no problem standing up to the Zionists to defend our land and our children here.”

“I don't fight for anyone’s benefit. But a person has to fight for their land."

Updated: February 27, 2024, 3:38 PM