Inside Story

Middle Eastern tinderbox

As the merciless bombings continue in Gaza, developments on the Lebanon–Israel border are adding to the risk of yet more warfare

Tony Walker 21 June 2024 1415 words

Calm offensive: Amos Hochstein (centre), senior advisor to president Joe Biden, arrives at a meeting with parliament speaker Nabih Berri in Beirut on Tuesday. Bilal Hussein/AP Photo

So, attention turns back to Lebanon, as it often does in times of wider conflict in the Middle East. As always, history weighs heavily.

War between Israel and Lebanon need not be inevitable, but the two are edging closer to open conflict. A mistake, a miscalculation, a desire by one side or the other to inflict mass casualties could set off a chain reaction that results in war. We have seen this movie before.

In this latest period, the Middle East resembles a tinderbox, with Israel embroiled in conflict on three fronts: the Gaza Strip, its northern border with Lebanon, and pin-pricks from the Yemeni Houthis to the south. Standing behind the three is Iran, which supplies munitions, training and, in the case of Hezbollah, on-the-ground engagement via its Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Not since the Yom Kippur war of 1973 has Israel found itself grappling with a strategic challenge of this complexity. In some ways, the situation is more multifaceted because of threats to Israel’s heartland from a Hezbollah rocket arsenal.

The Gaza war is now the longest and in some ways the most debilitating in the country’s history. Israel’s international reputation is scarred on a daily basis by horrible scenes of carnage among civilians, including women and children subjected to merciless bombing.

Conflict with the Palestinians has exerted an enormous strain on Israel militarily, diplomatically and — given the political fractures it is causing within Israel itself — politically. The exhaustion factor cannot be discounted for a small country beset on different fronts.

While Hamas and the Houthis have a limited capacity to inflict damage on Israel proper, the Gaza war has been enormously costly in Israeli lives and ordnance. Benjamin Netanyahu’s sounding off this week over America’s withholding of a shipment of 2000-pound bombs is a sign of Israel’s concern over depleted stocks of munitions and the risks to resupply. There is a sense in the region that something will have to give.

Israeli military commanders are letting it be known they have dusted off war plans. Hezbollah militia leaders are preparing for open warfare. The two sides are mobilising along Israel’s northern frontier.

Washington is concerned, as well it might be. Being dragged into a wider Middle East conflict is the stuff of American nightmares. Understanding that open conflict between Israel and Lebanon may cause a wider regional war, US envoy Amos Hochstein has been in the region seeking to calm the situation.

Iran’s direct support of its Hezbollah proxy, on the ground or in the air, adds to the bad-case scenario. Alert to the risks early in the Gaza war, Joe Biden ordered two US carrier groups into the eastern Mediterranean to forestall such a possibility.

History is important for understanding the faultlines in the troubled Israel–Lebanon context. In 1982, following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and faced by the risk of the country falling apart, US president Ronald Reagan committed a stabilisation force to Beirut. American mediators had negotiated the Palestine Liberation Organisation leadership’s move from Beirut to distant Tunisia and its fighters’ dispersal to the far corners of the Middle East.

American involvement on the ground proved catastrophic. An April 1983 suicide bomb attack on the US embassy in Beirut killed thirty-two people. Later that year, in October, 241 American servicemen perished in another suicide bombing, this time in Beirut’s southern suburbs. For Washington, this was carnage on a mass scale.

Much chastened, Reagan withdrew US troops in 1984, vowing never again to commit American ground forces to the region. But the lesson hadn’t been learned by George W. Bush when he rushed to war in Iraq in 2003.

In Israel’s case, its involvement in Lebanon since the Israeli state was declared in 1948 has been militarily challenging, to say the least. Following the PLO’s bloody ouster from Jordan in 1970 — the event the Palestinians call Black September — the organisation’s leadership had moved to Beirut, from where it directed guerrilla attacks against Israel from southern Lebanon.

To push back the Palestinian threat to its northern towns and kibbutzim, Israel invaded southern Lebanon in 1978. In the process it set up a buffer zone along its northern boundary in alliance with a Christian-led South Lebanese Army, which it supplied with arms and trained as a proxy force.

Four years later, following an attempt by Palestinian terrorists to assassinate its ambassador in London, Israel launched a full-scale invasion of Lebanon. The aim was to neutralise the Palestinian threat once and for all, but Israel paid a heavy price for its adventurism in the court of international opinion.

Between 16 and 18 September 1982, under the gaze of an occupying Israeli army, Christian Phalange militiamen massacred hundreds, if not thousands, of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut. Ariel Sharon, who was held accountable his sickening development, was obliged to resign as Israel’s defence minister.

The episode also prompted the resignation of Menachem Begin, Israel’s prime minister, who felt Sharon had misled him about the war’s scope. Sharon had sold the war on the basis that Israel’s army would limit itself to an invasion of southern Lebanon. Instead, under Sharon’s direction, it went all the way to Beirut, with disastrous consequences.

Out of all of this, there has been no more malign result, at least from Israel’s perspective, than the evolution of Hezbollah as a threatening Iranian Shiite proxy. Hezbollah — the “Party of God” inspired by the rhetoric of Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Khomeini — dates its formation to 1982.

In its invasion of Lebanon and its occupation of southern Lebanon up until 2000, Israel inadvertently acted as midwife to Hezbollah. The organisation evolved from an embryonic resistance movement to its now-dominant role in Lebanon and the principal Iranian-backed threat to Israel’s security.

Tactically, strategically and politically, 1982 proved to be a jagged moment in Middle East history, a moment whose consequences are playing out in the contemporary environment. It’s a cliché, but the 1982 invasion proved to be an own-goal for Israel.

Another date is also important in considering the tensions between Israel and Lebanon. In 2006, Israel caused considerable damage to Lebanese infrastructure during a thirty-four-day war against Hezbollah in retaliation for the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. Its aim was to put Hezbollah on notice that it would pay a heavy price for actions that threatened Israeli security across its northern boundary.

That was the intent, but the best that can be said for Israel’s 2006 foray is that it met with limited success, and the more accurate way to characterise it is as a failure. Hezbollah is immeasurably stronger than it was eighteen years ago, both militarily and politically.

During those years, Lebanon has been a cauldron of ferment and instability, with Hezbollah gradually tightening its grip on the country and its institutions, to the point where it is now the dominant political player.

A construct of the French colonial era, Lebanon is barely recognisable from the country that Paris sought to foster in 1943 with a weighting towards Christian dominance. Eight decades later, the Christian, Sunni and Druze components of the population are more or less subservient to Hezbollah Shiite domination.

Beyond that, Hezbollah has become Iran’s most lethal proxy in the region, with something like 130,000 rockets in its arsenal that could be used to threaten Israel’s defences. Just this past week, it engaged in what can only be described as a blatant provocation by releasing a nine-minute video purporting to show Israeli military assets deep inside Israel.

The point it was making was that Hezbollah had the capacity to surveil Israel’s military facilities; the implied threat was that those facilities were within range of its own Iranian-supplied missiles, which are far more sophisticated, and thus lethal, than Hamas’s relatively rudimentary rockets.

Since Hamas’s 7 October pogrom and hostage-taking, it has been assumed that Iran wants to avoid a wider conflict. This is probably still true, but the heightened tensions along the Israel–Lebanon frontier risk fuelling a wider conflict. Drawing lessons from history, America and its allies need to find a way to persuade Israel and Hamas to agree to a permanent ceasefire with plans in place for a governing body in Gaza and its reconstruction.

Until and unless that happens, the prospect of de-escalation between Israel and Lebanon remains remote. It’s sometimes forgotten that 60,000 Israelis have been displaced in northern Israel by persistent Hezbollah rocket attacks. Experience tells us this situation is unsustainable. •