Will Lebanon pay the price for Iran-Israel escalation?

Fears Israel could retaliate by striking Hezbollah or an extended war would see militant group intervening at scale

Israel's Iron Dome missile defence system in operation during Iran's attack, as seen from Ashkelon in Israel. Reuters
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Israel has pledged to retaliate after Iran's unprecedented air attack on Saturday, creating fears that Lebanon may pay the price for the escalation, depending on the scale and targets of Israel's response.

One risk is that Israel could retaliate by striking Iran-backed Hezbollah, or that an extended Iran-Israel war would resulted in Hezbollah intervening at scale, analysts and diplomatic sources have told The National.

The hundreds of missiles and drones that Iran launched from its territory, despite causing little damage, have reshuffled old lines between the two foes, who until now have mostly operated against each other in the shadows with unclaimed assassinations and acts of sabotage.

Iran's operation, launched in response to a suspected Israeli attack on Iran's consulate in Damascus on April 1, which killed two senior generals in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was described as “completely successful” by the Iranian commander Gen Mohammad Bagheri.

He said that the attack destroyed an “intelligence centre and airbase”, while Israel claimed that 99 per cent of the more than 300 drones and ballistic and cruise missiles Iran had launched were intercepted.

Israeli military video shows damage at Nevatim Airbase after Iran attack

Israeli military video shows damage at Nevatim Airbase after Iran attack

All eyes are now on what Israel's next move could be as its war cabinet ponders how to respond to Iran’s attack.

Israel's army chief Lt Gen Herzi Halevi said on Monday night that Israel would strike back.

“This launch of so many missiles, cruise missiles and drones into Israeli territory will be met with a response,” he said, speaking from the Nevatim Airbase in southern Israel, which was slightly damaged in the attack.

Some have called for a swift response, despite international calls for restraint. Benny Gantz, a member of the war cabinet, said on Sunday that Israel would “exact a price” at a time and place of its choosing.

The US administration said that it does not want a wider war, with President Joe Biden warning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the US will not take part in a counterstrike against Iran.

“There are only three options,” a western diplomat told The National.

“The first is not to respond at all. The second is to pursue a moderate approach, targeting drone and missile launch bases for instance, the third is to opt for a broader escalation.

“I don't see Israel staying idle after Iran's unprecedented attack,” the diplomat added.

Tensions could escalate further on the Lebanese front, where there is a daily exchange of fire along the border after Hezbollah opened what it calls a “pressure front” in support of its ally, Hamas.

Against this backdrop, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati convened an emergency cabinet session on Monday, where he accused Israel of dragging the region into war as he reiterated his country did not want to join one.

“Israel is dragging the region into war, and the international community must take note of this and put an end to this war,” he said.

A 'pretext' for escalation?

For Mohanad Hage Ali, the deputy director for research at the Malcolm X Kerr Carnegie Middle East Centre, the Iranian attack could serve as the “pretext Israel has been seeking to escalate tensions with Hezbollah”.

Since October 8, the start of the border conflict, Israel has progressively escalated its strikes in both depth and intensity against Lebanon.

It has repeatedly threatened to launch a large operation in Lebanon if Hezbollah does not withdraw from the southern border, to allow tens of thousands of people displaced from the northern border region to safely return.

Hezbollah has shown restraint in its responses, publicly stressing that it does not want an all-out conflict.

“This was primarily an Iranian attack, with Hezbollah participating symbolically by launching regular rockets within the well-established rules of engagement. However, at the end of the day, Israel can argue that Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy and that the attack partially originated from Lebanon,” Mr Hage Ali said.

Whether Israel will choose to escalate with Lebanon will ultimately depend on “the level of US support for a regional escalation, which has been lacking so far, as well as internal Israeli factors,” he said.

So far, the US has strictly opposed any Israeli escalation in Lebanon, while there has been internal Israeli dissent regarding a broader conflict in Lebanon.

“But international calls for restraint may not be sufficient, or even consistent with the actual level of support,” Fabrice Balanche, a professor at the University of Lyon 2 and associate researcher at the Washington Institute, told The National.

“Everyone is calling for de-escalation, but Mr Netanyahu only listens to himself,” Mr Balanche said.

“Israel is assured of western protection. The US continues to provide weapons support. France and the UK have participated in missile interception, while they know Israel won't let Iran's attack pass,” he added.

He said there was a possibility of a multipronged Israeli retaliation targeting nuclear facilities in Iran and proxies.

“Hezbollah is next in line,” he said.

However, this would not necessarily mean an immediate all-out war.

“At the very least, it will result in an escalation of fighting in southern Lebanon. While Beirut, particularly its southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, could become a target, the timing remains uncertain. This is a long-term conflict, a new phase for the Israelis, like September 11 was for the US,” he added.

An 'unchanged' equation

Other analysts view US pressure as too strong for Israel to opt for an escalatory retaliation.

“Iran has sent a clear message to the US, showing off what could come while upholding deterrence. This is a clear win,” Bashir Saade, a lecturer in politics and religion at the University of Stirling, told The National.

“The US wants to avoid a regional escalation that could be highly unpopular ahead of elections. This means the Israelis have their hands tied: no escalation in Lebanon without a US green light.”

“The decision-making is in the US, this is what the 2006 war showed us,” he added, referring to the month-long conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, where the US gave Israel approval to launch an offensive in Lebanon against Hezbollah.

The war claimed the lives of 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 157 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

Ultimately, the broader Israel-Iran escalation might not fundamentally alter the dynamics at the Israel-Lebanon border.

“I don't believe the deterrence equation between Hezbollah and Israel has been affected,” the diplomatic source said.

Lebanon's polarised political landscape seems to agree on the relative autonomy of the Lebanon-Israel border question while blaming either Hezbollah or Israel for the tensions.

“First of all, Israel does not need any reason to attack Lebanon,” a parliamentary source close to Hezbollah told The National.

“Since 2006, when Resolution 1701 was implemented, there have been more than 35,000 Israeli violations in Lebanon. The Israelis have always committed violations against Lebanon,” the source added, referring to the UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which stopped the 2006 war and called for a series of principles to be respected by both sides.

“As long as they consider themselves above accountability, they will continue to do this: Israel is the aggressor,” the source said.

“The risk of invasion is always there, this has nothing to do with the Iranian attack,” said a source in Kataeb, a Christian political party historically opposed to Hezbollah, also speaking to The National.

“It remains because of Hezbollah, which opened the support front not as a defensive act, but as an offensive act, Hezbollah is the one that will bear the consequences of everything that happens afterwards.”

Updated: April 16, 2024, 9:46 AM