Israel and Hezbollah’s Great Game of Chicken

A Hezbollah bunker on display at the group’s museum in Mleeta, south Lebanon (Michal Kranz)

The violent exchange between Hezbollah and Israel that took place on Sunday was the most dramatic military confrontation between the two in years. In response to Israeli attacks against its media office in southern Beirut and its fighters in Syria, Hezbollah fired several anti-tank missiles at an Israeli military vehicle, and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) responded by firing around 100 artillery shells into adjacent Lebanese territory. It was a serious escalation to be sure, but when the dust settled and the curtain finally fell, it quickly became clear that the episode had been, for the most part, a managed operation that allowed both sides to walk away satisfied, and resulted in outcomes that make a wider conflict unlikely.

Now, the question is where the long-running rivalry between Israel and Hezbollah is headed next. While neither of the two are eager to foment an all-out war, there’s little hope that the situation will return to business-as-usual. As Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah stated on Monday, the rules of engagement have changed. Yet behind the scenes, Hezbollah, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri are all already engaging in a careful, strategic and diplomatic dance to prevent the situation from spiraling into a catastrophic conflict that would serve no one’s interest.

A major element of Sunday’s showdown was the IDF’s capacity for smoke-and-mirror tactics — after appearing to evacuate soldiers who were wounded in Hezbollah’s attack by helicopter, Israel announced that in fact no soldiers had been wounded. Reports also surfaced that the soldiers seen being carried to safety on stretchers may not have even been soldiers at all, but rather mannequins, many of which had popped up along the border as dummy soldiers over the last several days.

It remains unclear whether this allegedly bloodless outcome had more to do with strategy or luck. Ultimately though, Israel was able to ensure that it was spared losses that would have forced them into a conflict, and Hezbollah came out of the episode convinced that it had succeeded in dealing a blow to its enemy, maintaining that four soldiers had indeed been killed. This has allowed the group to successfully market their retaliation attack as a success to its supporters, and on Sunday night, dozens of Hezbollah supporters were seen waving the group’s flags in jubilation on Beirut’s airport road. Having now both emerged from the previous week’s tensions unscathed and with their honor intact, Israel and Hezbollah will now likely continue to manage future spats between themselves in the same way they approached Sunday’s confrontation, so long as casualties are kept to a minimum.

And spats there will be — recent reports have revealed that Israel had made neutralizing the threat posed by Hezbollah’s precision missiles its second-highest priority, just below stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. This is what had apparently formed the basis for Israel’s drone operation in southern Beirut, which allegedly destroyed some of Hezbollah’s weapons-building materials. Yet according to Nasrallah, Hezbollah will no longer tolerate any Israeli drone incursions into Lebanese territory, and will respond to provocations by attacking areas in Israel it had previously refrained from targeting. Israel already seems to be preparing for such a scenario — Patriot missiles have reportedly been deployed in Israel’s north to shoot down any incoming missiles.

Looking out from Yaroun, south Lebanon, toward the border with Israel (Michal Kranz)

Nevertheless, the lack of appetite for full-blown conflict means that these clashes will likely be limited and episodic, just like Sunday’s events. Several indicators suggest that Israel is taking care to prevent further escalation — according to residents in south Lebanon, Israel has stopped flying drones in the area over the last few days, apparently choosing to avoid giving Nasrallah any opportunities to follow through on his threat. Instead, Israel has turned to the arena of diplomacy and public opinion. Netanyahu has just met with the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson to discuss tensions with Iran, and the IDF released a flashy video on Tuesday purporting to show a precision missile factory near Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, which seems designed to turn hearts and minds in favor of its anti-Hezbollah push.

Hezbollah, for its part, made it clear prior to its attack that the group’s response would not be serious enough to provoke a full-blown war, and called on diplomats last week to stand ready to clean up the mess after Hezbollah’s promised operation — all indications that Hezbollah had been rather reluctant to retaliate against Israel, and was planning to do so only to save face.

Lebanon, like Israel, has also taken a cautious tack, and Hariri himself has tried to tamp down on tensions. In the days since the cross-border clash, Hariri defended United Nations Resolution 1701 in the face of Nasrallah’s rhetoric, met with the leader of UNIFIL, and gave an English-language interview with CNBC in which he distanced the Lebanese government from Hezbollah’s actions. As the exchange between Hezbollah and Israel was taking place, Hariri reportedly called on the US and France for help, and certain reports since then have claimed that the two countries, together with Russia, are working to facilitate a compromise between the Israel and Hezbollah.

This is the near-term future of the Israel-Hezbollah relationship — managed confrontations, closed-door negotiations to minimize their fallout, and efforts to bolster their own respective positions on the domestic and international stages. After decades of rivalry, Israel and Hezbollah have both learned what provocations the other will or will not tolerate, and on Sunday, both actors were able to have their cake and eat it too. But with the risk of miscalculation growing ever higher, this face-off could very easily turn deadly, and plunge Israel and Hezbollah into another war they would both regret.

Freelance writer/reporter constantly in transit. Middle East & Eastern Europe | National Security | Foreign Affairs

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