BEIRUT — Once again, the Lebanese are glued to their TV sets and are compulsively checking their cell phones, following every twist and turn of skirmishes on the border, trying to weigh up whether another war is imminent.
In desperation, they are asking themselves how a nation so often shattered by conflict — and pummeled by an economic crisis — is again at risk of tipping back into the abyss.
“People are exhausted — they can’t take much more,” said Ramad Boukallil, a Lebanese businessman, who runs a company training managers. “Lebanon is reeling — we have had four harsh years with the economic crisis, people are skipping meals and can hardly get by. We had the port explosion, the pandemic, a financial crash. Please God we’re not hit with another war,” he added, in a conversation at Beirut airport.
The chief fear for many Lebanese is that they could soon be the second front of Israel’s war against its Islamist militant enemies, after Hamas’ brutal onslaught against Israel a week ago that killed more than 1,300 people. While most eyes are focused on an expected retaliatory ground assault against Hamas in Gaza, Israeli forces have also declared a 4-kilometer-wide closed military zone on Lebanon’s southern border, where they have exchanged fire with Hezbollah, a Shiite political party and militant group based in Lebanon.
One person close to Hezbollah said the Golan Heights — Syrian land occupied by Israel to the southeast of Lebanon — was shaping up into an especially dangerous flashpoint, saying Hezbollah has moved elite units there in the past few days.
Finger on the trigger
For now, this border fighting appears contained, but Iran’s flurry of regional diplomacy is heightening the anxiety that Tehran could be about to commit its proxies in Hezbollah headlong into the war. Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian warned on Saturday that if Israel doesn’t halt its military campaign in Gaza, then Hezbollah, a key player in the Tehran-orchestrated “axis of resistance,” is “prepared” and has its “finger is on the trigger.”
“There’s still an opportunity to work on an initiative [to end the war] but it might be too late tomorrow,” Amir-Abdollahian told reporters after meeting Hamas’ political leader Ismail Haniyeh in Qatar where they “agreed to continue co-operation” to achieve the group’s goals, according to a Hamas statement.
Mark Regev, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Britain’s Spectator TV his country was ready for Hezbollah, which he labeled a twin of Hamas. “Hezbollah could try to escalate the situation, so my message is clear: if we were caught by surprise by Hamas on Saturday morning, we are not going to be caught by surprise from the north. We are ready, we are prepared. We don’t want a war in the north but if they force one upon us, as I was saying, we are ready and we will win decisively in the north too.”
To try to forestall any such thing happening, the United States has dispatched two aircraft carrier strike groups to the region and President Joe Biden publicly warned outside actors — taken to mean Iran and Hezbollah — not to get involved. “Don’t,” he said.
“That was music to my ears,” said Ruth Boulos, a mother of two, as she sipped coffee at a restaurant in Raouché, one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Beirut, dotted with modern skyscrapers. “Let’s hope Hezbollah listens,” she added.
At nearby tables, mostly well-heeled Lebanese Christian families could be heard debating whether the country will once again be mired in war and whether they should get out now, joining other affluent Lebanese who have been leaving because of the economic crisis that’s left an estimated 85 percent of the population below the poverty line.
That may start to become more challenging. Airlines are getting nervous. Germany’s Lufthansa has temporarily suspended all flights to the country.
Lebanon’s caretaker government has no power to influence the course of events, Prime Minister Najib Mikati has admitted. He told a domestic TV channel Friday that Hezbollah had given him no assurances about whether they will enter the Gaza war or not. “It’s on Israel to stop provoking Hezbollah,” Mikati said in the interview. “I did not receive any guarantees from anyone about [how things could develop] because circumstances are changing,” he said.
Thanks to Lebanon’s hopelessly fractured politics, the country has had no fully functioning government since October 2022. The cabinet only met Thursday amid rising concerns that the border skirmishes might lead to the war’s spillover. It strongly condemned what it called “the criminal acts committed by the Zionist enemy in Gaza.” Ministers later told media the country would be broken by war. Lebanon “could fall apart completely,” Amin Salam, the economy minister, told The National.
Scarred by war
The rocket and artillery skirmishes along the Lebanese border since Hamas launched its terror attack on Israel have been of limited scope but have killed several people, including Reuters videographer Issam Abdallah. They are not, however, entirely out of the ordinary. An officer with the United Nations peacekeepers in southern Lebanon, who asked not to be identified as he’s not authorized to speak with the media, said he thought the skirmishes were mounted to keep Israel guessing.
The Lebanese are no strangers to toppling over the precipice. There are still grim pockmarked reminders dotted around Beirut of the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war, a brutal sectarian conflict that pitched Shiite, Sunni, Druze and Christians against each other in a prolonged and tortuous quarrel that drew in outside powers, killed an estimated 120,000 people, and triggered an exodus of a million.
In 2006 the country was plunged into war once again when Hezbollah seized the opportunity to strike Israel a fortnight into another war in Gaza. Hezbollah, the Party of God, declared “divine victory” after a month of brutal combat, which concluded when the U.N. brokered a ceasefire. Hezbollah’s capabilities took everyone by surprise, with Israel’s tanks being overwhelmed by “swarm” attacks.
Some see that brief war as the first serious round of an Iran-Israel proxy war, something more than just a continuation of the conflict between Arabs and Israelis.
No one doubts, though, that another full-scale confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah would be of much greater magnitude.
Armed with an estimated 150,000 precision-guided missiles thanks to Iran, which has been maintaining a steady flow of game-changing sophisticated weaponry for years via Syria, Hezbollah has the capability of striking anywhere in Israel and has a force that could easily be compared to a disciplined, well-trained mid-sized European army — but with a difference; Hezbollah has thousands of war-hardened fighters, thanks to its intervention in the Syrian Civil War.
Speculation is rife that air strikes on Damascus and Aleppo airports in Syria on Thursday were a step by Israel to impede Hezbollah’s arms supply line from Iran. Others see it as a warning to Syria not to get involved — Syrian support for Hezbollah could be especially important in the Golan Heights.
Hezbollah itself has been rehearsing for what its commanders often dub “the last war with Israel.” Hezbollah’s intervention on the side of President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War was an “opportune training” opportunity, a senior Hezbollah commander told this correspondent in 2017. “What we are doing in Syria in some ways is a dress rehearsal for Israel,” he explained.
Fighting in the vanguard alongside Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah fighters honed their skills in urban warfare. When Hezbollah first intervened in Syria, Israeli defense analysts viewed the foray as a blessing — better to have their Lebanese arch-enemy ensnared there.
But concern rapidly mounted in Israel that Hezbollah was gaining valuable battlefield experience in Syria, especially in managing large-scale, offensive operations, something the Shiite militia had little skill at previously. Other enhanced Hezbollah capabilities from Syria include using artillery cover more effectively, using drones skillfully in reconnaissance and surveillance operations, and improving logistical operations to support big integrated offensives.
A question of timing
But will Hezbollah decide to strike now?
“I don’t think Hezbollah will open a second front,” Paul Salem, president of the Middle East Institute, and a seasoned Lebanon hand, told POLITICO. But he had caveats to add. “That assessment depends on what the Israelis do in Gaza.”
“If Israel moves in a big way in Gaza and begins to get close to either defeating or evicting Hamas, let’s say like the eviction of the PLO from Lebanon in 1982, then at that point Hezbollah and Iran would not want to lose Hamas as an asset in Gaza,” he said.
“That’s a strategic imperative that might spur them to open a second front to make sure that Hamas isn’t defeated. Another factor will be the human toll in Gaza — if it is huge that might force Hezbollah’s hand because of an angry Arab public reaction,” Salem adds.
Tobias Borck, a security research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said Hezbollah faces a dilemma.
When it fought Israel in 2006 it became very popular across the Arab world, but that flipped when it intervened in Syria with “people asking — even Shiites in its strongholds in southern Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley — what fighting in Syria had to do with resisting Israel, its supposed raison d’être, although it exists really to protect Iran from Israel,” he said.
“Hezbollah has to regain legitimacy and that puts an awful lot of pressure. That’s the worrying factor for me. How can Hezbollah still maintain it is the key player in the ‘axis of resistance’ against Israel and not get involved?” he added.
On Friday, Hezbollah deputy chief Naim Qassem told a rally in the southern Beirut suburbs that the group would not be swayed by calls for it to stay on the sidelines of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, saying the party was “fully ready” to contribute to the fighting.
“The behind-the-scenes calls with us by great powers, Arab countries, envoys of the United Nations, directly and indirectly telling us not to interfere will have no effect,” he told supporters waving Hezbollah and Hamas flags.
The question remains what that contribution might be.