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Hezbollah and Israel: Redefining rules of engagement

Ten days after the Quneitra airstrike which left six of its members dead, among them Jihad Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah responded

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

Ten days after the Quneitra airstrike which left six of its members dead, among them Jihad Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah responded in a limited but precise attack yesterday on the Lebanese-Israeli border killing two and injuring six Israeli soldiers. This round of escalation between Israel and Hezbollah is more about redefining their rules of engagement rather than plunging into a full blown war as was the case in 2006.

For Hezbollah, the attack was a show of strength to both Israel and the party’s support base whom the Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah will address today. Hezbollah’s desired message from the operation is to prove that its role in Syria is not rendering it incapable to responding to its archenemy Israel. The validity of such a proposition can only be tested in an open war, however, which both sides are seeking to avoid at the moment.

Why Hezbollah chose Shebaa

By ruling out an escalation that neither Hezbollah nor the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu want - for Hezbollah is being stretched thin and fighting multiple fronts in Syria and Netanyahu is in the middle of a ferocious election campaign - one of the goals of the Quneitra and Shebaa operations is to reinforce what each side believes to be the rules of engagement.

With Hezbollah’s expanded role in Syria, Israel is gradually ignoring the 2006 rules of engagement and adjusting itself to a new threat.

Joyce Karam

In choosing to strike in Shebaa farms which Lebanon claims as a disputed territory under the control of Israel, Hezbollah wanted to confine the battle with the Israeli army in the Lebanese domain. This gives it the ability to justify it legally as the government of Lebanon recognizes the right of Hezbollah’s “resistance” in those territories. Hezbollah’s other option was to strike from Syria where it reportedly has more than 5,000 fighters expanding foothold and presence and gaining combat skills. But responding in the Golan Heights would risk inviting Israeli action against the Assad regime in a way that could threaten its survival and strengthen the rebels that Hezbollah has been fighting since April, 2013.

The Shebaa attack allowed Hezbollah to show some muscle internally, and display its skill in using the Kornet-4 anti-tank missiles and surprise Israel who had been in a state of alert since the Quneitra attack.

In Quneitra, Israel wanted to tell both Hezbollah and Iran that operating on the Syrian front is a redline. By responding through Lebanon, Hezbollah tacitly acknowledged that redline but went further in setting up one of its own. The equation of deterrence that the 2006 war enforced between Hezbollah and Israel is quickly being replaced by readiness of both sides to strike outside of the traditional scope yet without risking escalation into full war.

New rules of engagement

With Hezbollah’s expanded role in Syria, Israel is gradually ignoring the 2006 rules of engagement and adjusting itself to a new threat. Since 2013, Israel has twice struck arms deliveries for Hezbollah on the Lebanese-Syrian border and in a louder statement hit Hezbollah and Iranian personnel who were present in Quneitra on January 18. While Israel welcomes the fact that Hezbollah is bleeding men power and resources in Syria, a strengthened regional hand for the party outside Lebanon appears to be worrying the Israelis.

Benefitting from the help of Iran and a weakened central state in Damascus, Hezbollah’s stature and reach is on the rise in Syria. On the one hand, this limits the party from engaging in a full blown war inside Lebanon, but on the other it poses new fronts and risks for Israel in its areas of operation. The new Israeli rules of engagement are centered around Hezbollah’s and Iran’s role in Syria. This makes strikes against convoys or armed shipments more likely in the future, while measured retaliation is expected.

Regarding Hezbollah, the party has grown more confident and has grander regional aspirations following its combat successes in Syria. While Hezbollah wants to keep the public display of force against Israel limited to Lebanon, it will not relinquish the gains and strategic assets it acquired in Syria. This sense of confidence and ascendance to the regional stage is behind Nasrallah’s recent threat to Israel to think twice before striking inside Syria.

Between Quneitra and Shebaa, Israel and Hezbollah are redrawing their new rules of engagement. The 2006 era of mutual deterrence is being washed away by the new realities in Syria, a battle that Hezbollah is trying to own while Israel is increasingly marking its new redlines.

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Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

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