For all its talk, Hezbollah can ill afford an all-out war with Israel

Lebanon's status quo works in the militants' favour, but a generalised conflict would undo all of that

Demonstrators chant slogans during a rally in front of the French embassy in Beirut on October 16, in solidarity with the Palestinians. AFP
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According to Israeli journalist Barak Ravid, Iran has informed Israel that it will have to intervene indirectly if Israel’s military operation in Gaza continues. This could mean that Hezbollah will escalate its attacks against Israel to try to prevent an Israeli victory against Hamas, which under certain conditions could lead to Lebanon’s destruction.

However, there are many unknowns. An opening of all fronts against Israel – from Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza – would very likely draw in the Americans. Washington has deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups in the Eastern Mediterranean in a show of support for Israel, along with numerous destroyers with capabilities to shoot down incoming missiles. American forces are also deployed along the Syrian-Iraqi border, and could try to prevent pro-Iran militias in Iraq from entering the fray, if required.

This nightmare scenario is certainly not one that any of the major parties – the US, Iran, Israel and Hezbollah – wants, but the positions into which they have locked themselves only make such an outcome more likely. It could well be that everyone is playing a game of brinkmanship, but it’s also plausible that a regional war will happen.

Largely ignored in all the speculation is how these dynamics might affect Lebanon internally. Israeli officials have often indicated that in any new conflict with Hezbollah, they would devastate the country, which means its strategic targets, such as the airport, ports and other infrastructure, as well as villages and urban areas, Shiite areas in particular. Gaza stands as a testament to what the Israelis can do.

Israel shells Lebanon after Hezbollah attack

Israel shells Lebanon after Hezbollah attack

Yet, is an all-out conflict between Hezbollah and Israel a foregone conclusion? While little else might draw Israel’s attention away from crushing Hamas, it is possible that to avoid heavy casualties and major destruction, Hezbollah and the Israelis might stop short of this. A central question then is: will Hezbollah or Israel target strategic sites and cities on the other side?

Shiite anger with Hezbollah could indefinitely cripple its ability to reconstitute itself as an effective force

If a conflict between Hezbollah and Israel remains contained in their border regions, it would be viewed by both sides as taking place within the accepted rules of the game. This is what has happened in the past 10 days when Hezbollah and Israel have absorbed losses without escalating to more in-depth bombing of each other's country.

This could represent an offramp from a full-scale war. The reason is that Hezbollah must be aware that the backlash in Lebanon to such a conflict could be severe for the party. It’s difficult to imagine that the Lebanese religious communities would agree to reconstitute the state as it was after a ruinous war. At a time when Christians are already implying that they would prefer a divorce from the country’s Muslim majority, such a conflict could push them to take steps to enhance their autonomy.

But would Christians be alone in reacting with rage to an imposed war? Sunnis and Druze are just as hostile to Hezbollah’s actions in this regard. As for the Shiite community, it would certainly bear the brunt of Israeli retaliation. And unlike in 2006, there may be no willingness on the part of regional countries, or even Iran, to fund the rebuilding of Shiite villages and the southern suburbs of Beirut. Shiite anger with Hezbollah could indefinitely cripple the party's ability to reconstitute itself as an effective force.

Worse, a Lebanon in disarray could lay the groundwork for internal discord between communities that engages Hezbollah for a long time. The party realises this and knows that a Lebanese civil conflict would be the best option for Israel, in the same way that the country’s civil war proved nearly fatal for the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

From the moment that Hezbollah began floating the mad idea of a “unification of the fronts” – the idea that an Israeli attack on one of the Lebanese, Syrian or Palestinian fronts, or attacks on religious sites such as Al Aqsa Mosque, would provoke a response on the other fronts – it was apparent that the party, with its sponsor Iran, was linking Lebanon’s fate to the Palestinian cause.

For many Lebanese, Shiites in particular, it must have taken them back decades, when the Palestinian armed presence brought successive calamities on Lebanon. Starting in the 1960s, fighting between the Palestinians and Israel devastated Shiite villages. Later, after the civil war began in 1975, Israel twice invaded Lebanon to fight the Palestinians, again destroying Shiite villages.

How would Hezbollah maintain its potency in Lebanon if the outcome is national resentment against the party, amid a catastrophic economic situation? Moreover, the one Lebanese institution that remains functional is the army, and Hezbollah does not want it to become a rallying point for a distraught and devastated Lebanese society.

That is why, with Israel and the US arrayed against Iran and its allies, Hezbollah may seek to sidestep a generalised war, otherwise this may lead to a new Middle East in which the balance of power turns against Iran. The domestic Lebanese situation seems to interest few analysts, but it may prove to be Hezbollah’s real Achilles’ heel.

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Published: October 18, 2023, 4:00 AM