The drums of war are beating between Hezbollah and Israel. All of a sudden, Israel has announced military operations on its northern borders. The operation called ‘Northern Shield’ has led to escalation on both sides amidst anticipation of new surprises in the coming weeks.
The imminent end of the Syrian conflict has placed Israel in a difficult situation as Iranian forces and Hezbollah are now deployed in provinces close to Israeli borders. When Operation Northern Shield started on 6th of December 2018 to destroy Hezbollah’s underground tunnels, the decision to kick off such an operation was deemed hazardous by some experts.
Such an operation will not stop over the issue of underground tunnels as Israel would seek to destroy the military infrastructure of Hezbollah to prevent its members from targeting Israel. All political and military indicators confirm that what is happening near the Lebanese-Israeli border is only a prelude to a fierce war.
It is not Hezbollah but even Iran that is waiting for the zero hour which is fast approaching in the aftermath of the Israeli military operations. Will the coming war scenario be similar to the one witnessed on 12 July 2006? Will Israeli inspection of Hezbollah tunnels lead to a reaction in a bid to pre-empt Israeli military action, including airstrikes?
According to Israeli military sources, Northern Shield is not a military operation but an inspection on the borders. However, Timing is critical as both Israel and Hezbollah might benefit from launching a limited war at this time to show their adversary they have the upper hand.
Sources from Israel believe that Israel will have to act soon to refurbish its reputation as the leading army in the Middle East. However, Israeli military sources argue that such a military operation should be preceded by preliminary engineering work. This is already being carried out since December 4 when Israeli military engineers carried out inspections on the borders with Lebanon to determine the weak points Hezbollah might exploit while attacking Israel.
Timing is critical as both Israel and Hezbollah might benefit from launching a limited war at this time to show their adversary they have the upper handShehab Al-Makahleh
The second issue for Israeli military sources is the technology that Israel army is using to unearth Hezbollah’s tunnels. This technology employs drones and infrared thermal imaging. Cameras for special and unique surveillance operations are used on the ground and have an ability to detect people who try to cross the borders, as it reveals invisible infrared energy that objects emit.
The other important aspect is that whether a war between Hezbollah and Israel is inevitable. Some experts in the field believe it is not because they are certain Israel would do better without destroying the tunnels at this particular time as that would give Hezbollah more time to spend on digging new tunnels to figure out the storing of arms and ammunitions underground.
Yet, such non-operation considerations have been taken by Israelis to avoid any progress by Hezbollah and to prevent the party from having any leverage in underground war tactics.
The destruction of Hezbollah tunnels was scheduled to take place from 7 November 2018, but was postponed until 4th of December after Israel got involved in tensions with Hamas in Gaza, with some news that the measures used in Gaza are the same as used by Hezbollah.
The danger is there, but it is not in the offing, say both Israel and Hezbollah. The two sides are not interested in war, but Hezbollah has proven in the past that security situation in south Lebanon is its responsibility. Thus, if Israeli soldiers break through the borders, Hezbollah will react to protect its sovereignty on Lebanese soil. However, the northern front of Israel will remain in the eye of the storm as long as Israel is in enmity with Iran.
Deterrence exists between both sides. This explains why both Israel and Hezbollah have not gone into war since 2006. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on 4th of December: "We are working firmly and responsibly on all fronts at the same time, and we will continue so with more public and private actions to ensure Israel's security and stability”.
Here, he was referring to the operation launched by the army to detect and neutralize Hezbollah’s tunnels from Lebanon into northern Israel. He added that this plan is of a “scope and daring” that Israel had not witnessed before and that it will “continue as long as it is needed and until all of its goals are attained”.
Netanyahu reiterated that Israeli army would expand the Northern Shield operation into the Lebanese territory. He stressed: “Anyone who tries to harm the state of Israel will pay a heavy price. We must act firmly and responsibly on all fronts at the same time.”
For his part, Israeli minister of transportation, minister of intelligence and member of security cabinet Yisrael Katz said that Israeli forces may need to go into Lebanon to deal with the newly revealed Hezbollah attack tunnels that snake under the border.
“If we think that in order to thwart the tunnels that one needs to operate on the other side, then we will operate on the other side of the border,” Yisrael Katz said on 6th of December.
On the other hand, Hezbollah views the Northern Shield as a bid “to shift focus off the ongoing internal issues in Israel”. The party said in a statement that “Netanyahu is in crisis mode. He is tilting at windmills in Lebanon in an attempt to evade it. The party is on alert and constant vigilance. We are in control of all movements of the enemy on all fronts”.
The statement added: “Israel knows that the era during which it has the upper hand in the region had gone with the wind. We can resist and cause huge losses to our enemies”.
Is war inevitable?
Few months ago, Hezbollah threatened to capture Galilee, simulating its plan in an animation video. Israel threatened it would strike Lebanon and destroy Hezbollah infrastructure. In fact, Israel could strike Hezbollah by aircraft causing damage, targeting some headquarters for the party or targeting Hezbollah fighters in Syria.
However, this will not end the threats facing it. Thus, Israel may start the war anytime and Hezbollah would retaliate and Iran will provide the militia with more arms and ammunition.
This verbal war between both parties is mere ping-pong rather than a real war as the recent call between Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed that Russia will not allow another war in the region to spill over on to Syria.
Shehab Al-Makahleh is Director of Geostrategic Media Center, senior media and political analyst in the Middle East, adviser to many international consultancies. He can be reached at: @shehabmakahleh and @Geostrat_ME.