This article was written shortly before Israel assassinated the Deputy Head of the Hamas Political Bureau, Saleh Al-Arouri, in Beirut on 2 January. The assassination is a further illustration of the Israeli government’s desire to escape the consequences of its disastrous war in Gaza, by igniting a regional conflict.
The current clashes between Hezbollah and Israel are the closest to an actual war that the Lebanon-Israel border has seen since the war of 2006, which resulted in a rushed Israeli retreat, if not outright defeat. We often refer to the ongoing conflict between Lebanon and Israel as “controlled” clashes, simply because both sides are keen not to instigate or engage in an all-out war.
Obviously, Hezbollah wants to preserve Lebanese lives and civilian infrastructure, which would surely be seriously damaged, if not destroyed, should Israel decide to launch a war. But Israel, too, understands that this is a different Hezbollah than that of the 1980s, 2000 and even 2006.
Compared with Israel’s behaviour in the 2006 war, its response to Hezbollah’s military action in solidarity with the Palestinian Resistance in Gaza, is muted; tame, even. For example, the 2006 war was presumably provoked by a Hezbollah attack on Israeli soldiers, which killed three of them. Hezbollah insists that the soldiers violated Lebanese sovereignty, as the Israeli army has done on numerous occasions both before and since that incident.
While that single event led to a major war that wreaked havoc on Lebanon, it also resulted in the retreat and defeat of the Israeli army. Imagine what Israel would have done by the standards of the 2006 war if Hezbollah had killed and wounded hundreds of Israeli soldiers, bombed scores of military bases, installations and even settlements, as it has done, on a daily basis, since early October.
Despite numerous threats, Israel is yet to go to war with the main objective of pushing Hezbollah forces north of the River Litani, thus supposedly securing the border Jewish settlements. Why the hesitation?
Hezbollah fighters are much stronger than before.
The movement has been fighting for years in traditional warfare settings, namely in Syria, thus producing a generation of battle-hardened fighters and commanders, who are no longer bound to the rules and tactics of guerrilla warfare, as was the case in the past.
On top of that, Hezbollah’s missile capabilities have grown exponentially since 2006, not only in terms of numbers — up to 150,000 according to some estimates — but also in terms of precision, explosive capabilities and range. Moreover, Hezbollah has excelled in the development of its own rockets and missiles, which include the powerful Burkan, a short-range rocket which can carry a heavy warhead of between 100 to 500 kilograms. This makes Hezbollah, in some ways, self-sufficient in terms of weapons, if not munitions.
Furthermore, Hezbollah’s sophisticated Radwan Elite Units and an elaborate tunnel system that goes deep inside northern Israel, would force Israel to contend with a whole different military reality compared with that of the last war, should a major military conflict break out.
To cap it all, the Israeli army itself is in disarray, demoralised, exhausted and weakened by ongoing daily losses on the Gaza front. It is hardly prepared to fight a long and more difficult war against a better prepared enemy on its northern border.
With that in mind, we shouldn’t take comments like that of Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant too seriously when he says that his country is fighting a war on seven different fronts. In reality, the Israeli army is still fighting a single war in Gaza, a difficult war that it is not winning.
To divert attention from its losses in Gaza and its inability to launch a major war against Lebanon, the occupation government in Israel wants to drag Iran into it all. Why, though, would Israel escalate against the strongest of its regional enemies if it is not able to beat its smaller foes? The short answer is that, by engaging Iran directly, Israel would force the US into a major regional war.
Remember the seemingly odd decision by US President Joe Biden to dispatch an aircraft carrier battle group to the Eastern Mediterranean immediately after the start of the Gaza war on 7 October? The USS Gerald R. Ford was eventually withdrawn on 31 December, but Washington wanted to send a message to Iran that an attack on Israel would be considered an attack on the United States. When it became clear that Iran had no interest in an actual war, though, Washington must have realised that the threat of a regional war does not stem from Tehran, but from Tel Aviv.
That is when official US intelligence and political analysts began telling us, repeatedly, that Iran had nothing to do with the Hamas military operation on 7 October, and that Iran was not interested in war. The target audience for that message was Israel and its US-western allies who have been angling for a US-Iran war for years. Biden’s lack of interest in war, of course, has little to do with his propensity for peace, and everything to do with the lack of any serious geostrategic objectives in the Middle East now; his administration’s disastrous failure in Ukraine; and the rapid depletion of arms and ammunition available to the US armed forces.
Israel persisted, however. It continued to accuse Iran of being the orchestrator of the Hamas attack, and the main “existential threat” to the “Jewish state”. In Israel’s understanding, the collective action of Hamas and other Palestinian Resistance groups, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Ansar Allah (the Houthis) in Yemen and the Islamic Resistance of Iraq, are all fragments of a larger Iranian scheme to destroy the apartheid state.
To defeat that imaginary threat, Israel carried out numerous provocative acts against Iran, focused mostly on the bombing of Iran’s military positions in Syria, leading to the assassination of a top Iranian commander, General Sayyed Ravi Mousavi, near Damascus on 25 December.
For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a US-Iran war would be a lifeline for a desperate politician who fully, and rightly, understands that a no-victory in Gaza would equal a defeat for the Israeli army. Such a defeat would not only be a disgraceful end for Netanyahu’s political career, but also the end of a long-sustained myth that Israel, and the US, can impose their political will on the Middle East through military superiority and firepower.
The Biden administration must be fully aware of Netanyahu’s intention to drag the region into the abyss of what would possibly be one of the most devastating wars in recent memory. Reported disagreements and a rift between Biden and Netanyahu are not related to any US moral objection to the Israeli genocide in Gaza, of course, but to a real American fear that another Middle East war could precipitate the breakdown of US power in the energy-rich region and beyond.
Thus, the current impasse, which sees Washington’s inability to free itself from its blind commitment to Israel and its violent ideology, Zionism, and Netanyahu’s inability to distinguish between the goal of sustaining his own political career and that of destroying the whole of the Middle East.
Unable to place US interests above those of Israel, Biden continues to feed the Israeli military machine, which is mostly used to kill Palestinian civilians in Gaza. This is allowing Netanyahu to champion a perpetual war in Gaza, while working to expand the conflict so that it reaches Beirut, Tehran and other regional capitals.
Needless to say, Netanyahu, described by US Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib as a “genocidal maniac”, must be restrained. If not, the Israeli genocide in Gaza will multiply into other genocides throughout the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.