By Arab News
By Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
Rockets penetrated the Iron Dome and hit Kiryat Shemona. Several military posts in northern Israel were targeted by Hezbollah. This is the most significant confrontation between the militant group and the Israeli army. So far, the clashes have been limited to skirmishes on the border. However, there is no guarantee that we do not have an all-out war.
Speculation has been high over whether Lebanon will be dragged into the Israel-Hamas conflict. Most analysts suggest that Hezbollah will not enter the war and end an important deterrence Iran has against Israel. However, it is hard to tell whether the group will have a full-scale confrontation, or only “distract” the Israeli army as it is doing now.
What is remarkable is that both parties have exercised restraint, with, of course, urging from the United States to both sides. After Oct. 7, the US ambassador in Lebanon warned against any foolish action by Hezbollah. However, many infiltrators crossed the border. The militant group reluctantly said that those were Palestinian fighters. It has been striking a delicate balance between the domestic mood and what is happening in Gaza.
More than 70 percent of the Lebanese population is against entering the war, despite the deep sympathy they have for Palestinians in Gaza. However, public opinion could shift overnight if Israel hits Lebanon. The narrative can change from “do not enter the war” to “do your job and protect Lebanon.”
So far, Hezbollah appears to be controlling the “tempo” of events. It is keeping the Israeli army busy, the Israeli intelligence confused and Israeli people scared. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is accustomed to long speeches, but has not said a word. His silence is significant. He does not want to give any clues to the Israelis. It is a message of “wait and see.” Everyone is waiting for his speech on Friday to get an indication of the group’s position regarding the war. Nasrallah’s deputy, Naim Kassem, announced recently that Israel and the US do not know what is coming for them. Despite the US statement that there is no proof that Iran or Hezbollah were involved in the Oct. 7 attacks, pro-Hezbollah media have signaled that that the ongoing battle is being managed by the group.
This brings us back to the important question, will Hezbollah enter the fight? It is a tough question that even Hezbollah will not be able to answer right now. Much depends on how the fight goes on in Gaza. If a ceasefire is announced and negotiations start, this will kill any possibility of Hezbollah entering the war. We are currently in the middle of an Israeli ground campaign. How it goes will determine Hezbollah’s actions. In such a situation, rarely is a decision taken in advance. What is likely happening is that Hezbollah has conducted contingency planning. It will launch a full-scale war if it needs to, and this is the case in two situations. The first is if Hamas is close to being eradicated.
Hezbollah knows very well that if Hamas is eradicated, it is next, whether in this round or a future one. If Israel achieves its aim of finishing off Hamas, it will be emboldened and will gain confidence to eliminate other enemies. It is also not in Iran’s interest that Hamas is eradicated because after going for Hezbollah, Israel will probably go after Iran. It must be remembered that Iran looks at Hamas and Hezbollah as a deterrence against Israel. If they are destroyed, its ability to fend off Israel will be hugely reduced.
The other option would be if Israel strikes. Logically, Israel should remain focused on Gaza. However, the issue is much deeper than this. This is not only about the Gaza operation and about freeing the hostages, it is about restoring the Israeli people’s confidence in their army. It is about giving them the guarantee that something like Oct. 7 will never happen again. How can the average Israeli have this trust again if Hezbollah is still strong in Lebanon? Restoring this trust will require finishing off Hezbollah.
A strike on Hezbollah might not be the logical step to take and the US is trying to tame Israel. Nevertheless, the Israeli government is under enormous pressure. It needs to show its people and the world that it is strong. Hence, a strike on Lebanon cannot be discounted. It might happen, especially if the Israeli army has no “success” against Hamas in the Gaza campaign. Targeting Hezbollah civilian facilities is relatively an easy task, and can always be promoted to the Israeli public as eliminating the group’s infrastructure. In this case, the group will have no choice but to respond. Hezbollah is open to all possibilities and is reevaluating its options as the Israeli bombardment and fighting in Gaza continues.
Hence, it is difficult to say whether Hezbollah will enter the war. However, one thing is for sure: If Hezbollah enters the war in full capacity, this will be a regional war. Hezbollah today is different from 2006. During 17 years of calm, it has beefed up its capabilities, acquiring precision-guided missiles that can target desalination plants, power plants, and even military facilities inside Israel. This can be a deterrence for Israel, which logically will not want to take the risk at this time.
Having said that, we should not underestimate the domestic pressure in Tel Aviv and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s desire to save his skin. He might take desperate measures. Alternatively, the hostage issue can also push Israel to compromise and accept a ceasefire. As videos of hostages emerge, public opinion is shifting and prioritizing their release. “Hostage first,” said Gershon Baskin, the Israeli historian and journalist, in a tweet signaling the change in public opinion. The only option that can halt any possible escalation between Hezbollah and Israel is a ceasefire and a hostage release.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is president of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization focused on Track II.