By Dale Gavlak
Analysts are divided over whether Hezbollah militants in Lebanon will enter the Israeli-Hamas conflict beyond firing rockets across the Israeli-Lebanese border.
The Iran-backed militia presents a potentially greater danger to Israel than Hamas, but if Hezbollah did enter the war, it would likely drag ailing Lebanon into it, too.
Some people in Lebanon and across the Middle East are jittery as Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, is expected to speak Friday.
In some respects, the analysts said, Hezbollah is in a bit of a quandary because it has positioned itself as the chief resistance movement against Israel. So how can it remain on the sidelines of the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza?
Benjamin Allison of the University of Texas pointed out Hezbollah’s “formidable arsenal of precision-guided munitions, rockets and drones,” unlike anything Hamas possesses. Writing in the online publication Lawfare, he said Hezbollah’s various “smart weapons” pose a “serious danger to Israel’s infrastructure and could even tempt Israel to launch a preemptive war.”
Lebanon’s foreign minister, Abdullah Bou Habib, argued that neither Lebanon nor Hezbollah want a war with Israel because it would spell disaster for Lebanon, which is grappling with an extended, crippling economic crisis.
Lebanese analyst Dania Koleilat Khatib told VOA that Hezbollah is doing “contingency planning” and “controlling the tempo” of tit-for-tat border rocket attacks with the Israel Defense Forces at the moment.
Khatib, the president of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building in Beirut, said Hezbollah would likely enter a war with Israel in only one or two cases. One of those, she said, would be if Israel is successful in eliminating Hamas.
“If Hamas is eradicated,” she said, “they know very well that they will be next.”
The other case, Khatib said, would be if Israel bombed Lebanon.
“What they [Hezbollah] are doing now is keeping the IDF busy in the north,” she said. “Keep the intelligence confused and the Israelis scared. It’s like a front for distraction for now.”
Rami Khoury of the American University of Beirut, speaking to the Washington-based Arab Center, said Hezbollah is “respected in Israel because of its resistance and defiance.” He expects Iran’s premier proxy to keep the pressure up on Israel’s northern border.
“Hezbollah will keep harassing the Israelis,” Khoury said. “They are testing out all the time the Israeli response, the Israeli sentiment, how dynamic are the troops or are they scared. So, they attack a little station here, they send a drone there, they attack a soldier here. They are trying to create psychological terror and fear among Israelis rather than attack them with a thousand rockets, which might happen if they get into a war.”
And yet, Khoury said, he thinks it unlikely that Hezbollah will enter the fray.
“I don’t think they are going to enter into a full-scale war,” he said. “I don’t think the Iranians are, either. But it’s not out of the question, because if the war goes well or badly, they might possibly join. But I still think it’s less likely.”
Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told The New York Times newspaper that Iran will likely not squander Hezbollah’s force at this time because the stakes are high with “two U.S. aircraft carriers stationed in the Mediterranean, which could strike the group.”