Middle East

Israel is at war on multiple fronts

While Netanyahu and Hamas have yet to end the fighting in Gaza, Israel’s northern border is on fire

June 14, 2024
The funeral of the senior Hezbollah commander killed in an Israeli strike in south Lebanon this week. Image: AP/Alamy
The funeral of the senior Hezbollah commander killed in an Israeli strike in south Lebanon this week. Image: AP/Alamy

Since 7th October, the crisis in the Middle East has become a regular staple of the average news diet. The world was gripped by the horrors of Hamas’s attack, and remains so by Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, the back-and-forth between Netanyahu’s government and Hamas over a ceasefire and hostage release deal, by blood and tears, death and hunger. Protests to end the Gaza war have continued in western cities on a weekly basis since October. The spread of university protest camps shows that this momentum of concern has not diminished. 

At the G7 summit in Italy this week, the leaders of some of the world’s richest and most powerful nations reaffirmed a commitment to the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for whatever that’s worth. But the G7 also noted concern over another arena, some 200km to Gaza’s north: the border with Lebanon, where Israel and the Iran-backed Shia militia Hezbollah have been exchanging almost daily cross-border fire since October.

In recent weeks, northern Israel has been on fire—literally and metaphorically. Hundreds of acres of land near the Lebanese border have been ravaged by wildfires set off by Hezbollah rockets. On social media, Israelis have been sharing apocalyptic footage, alongside accusations that the government is absent, abandoning the north to the flames. Thousands of Israelis have been displaced from their northern homes since October last year, when Hezbollah ramped up attacks on military targets and Israeli communities, ostensibly in support of fellow Iran ally Hamas. The Israeli army has retaliated, with strikes in Lebanon and on targets in Syria. The escalation has claimed lives on both sides of the border.

This week, tensions reached new heights. On Tuesday, the Israeli army killed Taleb Abdullah, a senior Hezbollah commander, and three other Hezbollah operatives in a strike on Jouaiyya, southern Lebanon. On Wednesday and on Thursday, Hezbollah retaliated, firing hundreds of rockets across the border, the most since October. Fires have raged yet again. Houses were hit.

The threat of further escalation with Hezbollah is all too real. Israel went to war with the Shia militia in 2006, in what is known as the Second Lebanon War. And while Hamas has fired rockets mostly on Israel from the Gaza Strip for years, and fighting has broken out between Israel and Hamas periodically since 2008, Hezbollah has amassed a far greater arsenal than Hamas to the south. In 2006, Hezbollah was believed to have a stockpile of some 15,000 missiles. Today, the Shia militia is believed to have an arsenal arms 10 times that size, including precision missiles that can travel farther.

Israel follows a security policy of deterrence; this was part of the thinking behind one of Netanyahu’s original stated aims of the Gaza war: to “destroy” Hamas. After the horrors of 7th October, military might was the only imaginable response for Israel’s security establishment, lest Hamas think it could get away with such violence, and lest other enemies think the country weak. But even if deterrence had worked on Hamas—which, so far, it has not, despite the terrible price paid by Palestinians in Gaza—Israel would still have faced the threat from Hezbollah. Eight months on from the start of the Gaza war, matters are only getting worse, and the Shia militia has clearly not been deterred by the destruction in Gaza.

What does Hezbollah want? Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University tells me Hezbollah “are the consummate opportunists”, like all terrorist groups. Given Israel’s war dragging on in Gaza, with no “endgame” in sight, the Shia militia sees “advantages in exploiting Israel's emerging quagmire... and burnishing their own ‘resistance’ credentials by seeking to take the pressure off Hamas in the south by ratcheting up the pressure on Israel in the north.”

In April, Iran directly confronted Israel, with a drone and missile attack that caused minimal damage to the Jewish state. As such, says Hoffman, Tehran is far more likely to give Hezbollah “the leeway to engage Israel than it may have... in the immediate past.” Iran has helped stock Hezbollah’s arsenal to have leverage in the event that Israel and the US move against Tehran and its nuclear ambitions. That Iran would allow Hezbollah to use its weapons as it has in recent months shows that Israel’s enemies see this as an opportune moment, both to weaken Israel militarily, and to weaken “Israel’s standing in the world by depicting it as a warmonger waging war against innocent civilians whether in Gaza or south Lebanon,” he adds. 

Within Israel, pressure is mounting in some quarters for the Israeli army to do more than engage in tit-for-tat retaliation against Hezbollah. Avigdor Lieberman, for instance, a right-wing opposition member and former foreign minister, has said that Israel needs to reoccupy parts of southern Lebanon in response. 

As a matter of defence policy, the two fronts, south and north, are treated as separate crises. But Israel cannot deal with these conflicts discretely. “All the crises are linked,” says Hoffman. This is exactly why “both Hezbollah and Iran see advantage in escalating the crisis in the north.” Hezbollah clearly believes, as Hamas did when it launched its 7th October attack, that this is an opportune moment to go to war, that it will “emerge from the fighting with more political or geo-strategic advantages than they had before.”

Separating out Israel’s various arenas of conflict, whether in Gaza, the West Bank or on the Lebanese border, is an act of cognitive dissonance, one which perhaps helps deal with a frightening reality. But right now Israel is engaged in asymmetric warfare on multiple fronts. In the meantime, the Netanyahu government is fighting fires, rather than following a strategy to ensure its people, traumatised after months of war, have the chance of a safe future. When G7 leaders express concerns and commitment, they would do well to connect what’s happening on Israel’s borders. Long-term peace and stability for the peoples living in the region requires an end to the fighting, across multiple arenas, to the north and to the south.