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Published on Jul 03, 2024

The Israel-Palestinian war and its spillover effects have now begun to turn towards Hezbollah and Lebanon with the latent potential to encompass wider regions of the world.

A potential Hezbollah-Israel war: Rationale and implications

After nearly eight months since the 7 October attacks and a concerted military retaliation by Israel thereafter, many regional developments have taken place. Over the last week, alarm bells have been ringing in Washington D.C. over the possibility of an actual war taking place between Israel and Hezbollah based in Lebanon. 

Officially classified as a paramilitary organisation, Hezbollah was formed in 1982 as a response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon with the guidance and support of Iran. The group grew since then to command a force of over 100,000 fighters with vast financial and military resources deploying units in Syria and Iraq to side with Iranian allies over the last two decades. 

Since Israel began its offensive in Gaza to neutralise Hamas, Hezbollah has been continuously launching low-level attacks on Israel to keep up the pressure on the latter and distract it.

Since Israel began its offensive in Gaza to neutralise Hamas, Hezbollah has been continuously launching low-level attacks on Israel to keep up the pressure on the latter and distract it. While these attacks have been more about retaliating against each other and deterring the other from launching big attacks, the scale and intensity have been gradually increasing leading to concerns that the two could engage in a full-scale war with each other leading to severe destruction in Lebanon and an expansion of the war to other parts of the Middle East. 

Failing escalation dominance 

A major part of the rationale for entering the war for Israel lies in its strategy of “escalation dominance”. This refers to the idea that Israel often retaliates very severely against any country for even minor military incursions or attacks on Israel. For Hezbollah, this was seen in 2006, when it kidnapped two Israeli soldiers resulting in a devastating Israeli counterattack that killed 1,000 Lebanese citizens, leading Hezbollah to declare that it would have avoided this kidnapping had it known the extent of the retaliation. The same principle has guided Israel’s attack on Gaza on a much larger scale. 

A major part of the rationale for entering the war for Israel lies in its strategy of “escalation dominance". This refers to the idea that Israel often retaliates very severely against any country for even minor military incursions or attacks on Israel.

However, for Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been facing corruption charges much before 7 October and who is now facing protests for his handling of the war, this strategy has been failing in Gaza. For example, despite claiming victory in Northern Gaza where Israel claimed victory, Hamas has been re-emerging after Israeli troops evacuated, necessitating the former to conduct more military operations—a phenomenon termed as the Sisyphus effect in guerilla warfare. 

Against this backdrop, Netanyahu is forced to look at its northern borders, shared with Lebanon, to re-establish its doctrine of escalation dominance. With attacks between Hezbollah and Israel gradually increasing, over 35,000 Israeli citizens have had to be relocated for safety putting further pressure on the Israeli government. As such, a win against Hezbollah may just help Israel restore its military image in the eyes of its enemies. 

Potential scenarios 

Three potential scenarios can be thought of in the current situation. Firstly, due to the regional and potentially global economic implications of an expanded war (explained further below), the United States (US) and its allies have been trying to defuse the tensions between the two. If these diplomatic overtures work out, then it is wholly possible that tensions could be diffused. This will be the most beneficial scenario for both parties since Lebanon and Israel will have to face severe collateral damage in the case of a protracted conflict. However, this looks difficult given that Hezbollah has claimed that it would not accept any peace talks till Israel implements a cease-fire in Gaza, an implausible scenario given that without defeating Hamas, Netanyahu and his cabinet would lose credibility. 

A second scenario could see a limited incursion between Israel and Hezbollah, contained within the Southern Lebanon region. In this scenario, the two parties could engage in some form of fighting to demonstrate to their own public that they remain strong but will stop short of causing destructive damage. Specifically, both parties would launch air strikes into the military centres of their opponents without attacking civilians, keeping the tempo of the conflict limited. This is highly risky though since a stray missile might hit civilian centres in either nation, ramping up pressure and tension and leading to a full-scale war. Regardless, this might be a more realistic scenario if diplomacy does not work. 

A second scenario could see a limited incursion between Israel and Hezbollah, contained within the Southern Lebanon region. In this scenario, the two parties could engage in some form of fighting to demonstrate to their own public that they remain strong but will stop short of causing destructive damage.

The third and possibly most disturbing scenario would be an all-out war which would not just include the two parties but also Hezbollah’s regional allies such as the Houthis in Yemen and the Shia militias in Iraq (which promised to attack US targets in Iraq). Apart from the obvious destruction of lives and property in Lebanon and Israel, the Houthis ramping up their involvement could derail global maritime routes, something they already demonstrated they were able to do. This scenario possibly worries the US and other Western nations resulting in the ongoing diplomacy to reduce the tensions. 

Conclusion: An ever-escalating war. 

The Israel-Palestinian war and its spillover effects have now begun to turn towards Hezbollah and Lebanon with the latent potential to encompass wider regions of the world. Several scenarios seem to be present: a defusal of tensions, limited, or all-out war taking place. For Israel, the pressure to take out the top leadership of Hamas is palpable. Without that aspect, negotiating a ceasefire would only be seen as a sign of weakness—a scenario that Netanyahu is desperate to avoid and at least in part guiding Israel’s decision to mobilise against Hezbollah in Lebanon. 

Whatever the outcomes of this event, the conflict in Palestine seems far from over and cycles of escalation and relative reduction of violence seem to continue. With each cycle, the casualty count, and the economic and physical damage seem to be increasing. Against this backdrop, the Middle East cannot sustain another war between Israel and Hezbollah without seeing simultaneous regional amplification of war as well.


Mohammed Sinan Siyech is a Non–Resident Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

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