Tensions are high after the Israeli killing of Hezbollah members in Syria and reports of an attempted assault on Israeli positions near the Lebanese border.
Fourteen years have passed since the last major engagement between Israel and Hezbollah, a devastating war that left more than 1,100 Lebanese civilians and militia members dead and around 165 killed, the majority of them soldiers, on the opposing side.
On Monday, fears of another major confrontation were at their highest in years, as Israel claimed to have foiled an attempt by Hezbollah fighters to infiltrate its northern border with Lebanon.
The Shia armed movement, denied the accusation, instead claiming that the Israelis had acted out of “nervousness”,
“There were no clashes or opening of fire from our side in today’s events,” the group said.
Tensions had been high after the killing late last week of an Hezbollah operative in Syria by the Israelis.
Hezbollah has been operating in Syria to support the regime of Bashar al Assad but Israel believes the country is also used as a supply line for Iranian supplied arms to the Lebanese group.
While there have occasionally been deadly Israeli raids on Hezbollah in Syria, these have been sparing relative to the group’s presence in the country.
A hot and cold conflict
While both sides have exchanged sabre-rattling threats in the event one crosses the line, there are strong practical and pragmatic reasons why neither wants full confrontation.
In 2006, when Hezbollah successfully fended off an Israeli offensive, they were largely viewed as a uniting force both within Lebanon and in the wider Arab world - marketing themselves as the “resistance” against Israeli encroachment of Arab lands.
Today much of that goodwill has evaporated and the group’s reputation lies in tatters largely due to its perceived divisive role within Lebanese domestic politics and its full fledged support for Assad even as he carried out atrocity after atrocity in Syria.
For many Lebanese citizens, Hezbollah has fully assimilated itself into what is widely recognised to be a corrupt political class.
Over the past decade, those living in the country have suffered from a lack of crucial services, such as garbage collection, and are now facing complete economic collapse, as a result of years of financial mismanagement, corruption, and political wrangling.
While Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has frequently boasted that his organisation is ready for war, a costly war in terms of lives and dollars lost, would further damage Hezbollah’s reputation.
Hezbollah’s key backer, Iran, is also heavily affected by both the coronavirus pandemic and the restoration of sanctions by the Trump administration. With protests over the rising cost of living brutally suppressed by authorities last winter, funneling billions to replenish Hezbollah’s armouries in the event of a war will further add to domestic resentment.
Playing dice in Israel
Neither would a conflict be a cake walk for Israel for reasons concerning the threat Hezbollah could pose if backed into a corner and for its domestic political and economic situation.
Like other states, Israel has had to contend with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic with GDP set to contract by 6.2 percent in 2020.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also faces a precarious domestic situation after failing to secure a majority despite three elections in little less than a year.
The eventual compromise is an alternating premiership with Netanyahu keeping his role for a year and a half while his rival Benny Gantz serves as defence minister.
While Netanyahu is unlikely to make a decision on going to war based solely on what is happening within the Israeli political scene, should conflict break out, he could find himself in a catch 22 situation where he is blamed for a failure and his defence minister is praised in the event of a successful war.
Such calculations aside, there’s little to suggest Hezbollah is in any way militarily weaker than it was in the aftermath of the 2006 war.
During that conflict, the Lebanese armed group made particularly efficient use of anti-tank armaments inflicting heavy losses on Israeli forces.
Hezbollah has seemingly made note of their effectiveness and invested in acquiring better anti-tank systems, including stockpiles of guided anti-tank missiles.
Other estimates of the size of Hezbollah’s missile arsenal put the number at around 100,000. Such a missile capacity would be hard to defend against even with Israel’s tested Iron Dome system.
Hezbollah’s drone capability further strengthens its ability to coordinate its attacks on Israeli positions and unlike 2006, most of its fighters are battle hardened through their participation in the brutal conflict in Syria.
The ability of either side to inflict heavy losses on the other has created a de-facto state of mutual deterrence for the time being.
A New York Times report from 2019 suggests both sides are taking measures to avoid all out conflict.
Israeli forces are making use of so-called “knock on the roof” tactics to warn Hezbollah fighters of impending airstrikes on equipment in Syria, a tactic which serves to let their opponents know that there are limits to what Israel will tolerate but it is not currently willing to escalate the situation.