How Israel and Lebanon are prepping for a war neither wants, but many fear is inevitable

Escalating violence on border — as Iran-backed terror group’s attacks in support of Hamas are followed by IDF responses — seems to be pulling sides into devastating conflict

An Israeli mobile howitzer gets into position near the border with Lebanon in northern Israel, January 11, 2024. (Leo Correa/AP)
An Israeli mobile howitzer gets into position near the border with Lebanon in northern Israel, January 11, 2024. (Leo Correa/AP)

BEIRUT — The prospect of a full-scale war between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah terrifies people on both sides of the border, but some see it as an inevitable fallout from Israel’s ongoing war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Such a war could be the most destructive either side has ever experienced.

Israel and terror group Hezbollah each have learned lessons from their last war, in 2006, a monthlong conflict that ended inconclusively. They’ve also had four months of low-scale skirmishes to prepare for another war, even as the US tries to prevent a widening of the conflict.

Here’s a look at each side’s preparedness, how war might unfold, and what’s being done to prevent it.

What happened in 2006?

The 2006 war, six years after Israeli forces withdrew from south Lebanon, erupted after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed several others in a cross-border raid.

Israel launched a full-scale air and ground offensive and imposed a blockade that aimed to free the hostages and destroy Hezbollah’s military capabilities — a mission that ultimately failed.

Spanish UN peacekeepers stand on a hill overlooking the Lebanese border villages with Israel in Marjayoun town on January 10, 2024. (Hussein Malla/AP)

Israeli bombing leveled large swaths of south Lebanon and Beirut’s southern suburbs. Hezbollah fired thousands of unguided rockets into northern Israel communities.

The conflict killed some 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

A UN resolution ending the war called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon and a demilitarized zone on Lebanon’s side of the border.

UN Security Council Resolution 1701 called for the removal of armed personnel south of Lebanon’s Litani River, except for UN peacekeepers and the Lebanese army and state security forces. But the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group has entrenched itself across much of southern Lebanon for decades, where it holds strong support and has regularly launched rockets against Israel, while Beirut does nothing to rein in the group.

Despite the deployment of UN peacekeepers, Hezbollah continues to operate in the border area, while Lebanon says Israel regularly violates its airspace and continues to occupy pockets of Lebanese land, a charge Israel and the UN deny.

How probable is war?

An Israel-Hezbollah war “would be a total disaster,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned last month, amid a flurry of shuttle diplomacy by the US and Europe.

Smoke billows after Israeli bombardment over Lebanon’s southern town of Kafr Kila near the border with Israel on December 30, 2023, amid ongoing cross-border skirmishes between Israeli forces and Hezbollah as the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza continues. (AFP)

Iran-backed Hezbollah seemed caught off-guard by regional ally Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel. The onslaught killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and another 253 were taken as hostages in Gaza. Israel responded with a military offensive to destroy Hamas and release the hostages.

On October 8, Hezbollah-led forces began launching daily attacks on Israeli communities and military posts along the border, with the terror group saying it is doing so to support Gaza. Israel has responded, hitting Hezbollah and other terror targets while also carrying out targeted killings of Hezbollah and Hamas figures in Lebanon. The situation is escalating gradually.

More than 200 people, mostly Hezbollah fighters but also more than 20 civilians, have been killed on Lebanon’s side, and 18 on Israel’s.

Tens of thousands have been displaced on both sides. There are no immediate prospects for their return.

Israeli political and military leaders have warned Hezbollah that war is increasingly probable unless it withdraws from the border.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah hasn’t threatened to initiate war but warned of a fight “without limits” if Israel does. Hezbollah says it won’t agree to a ceasefire on the Israel-Lebanon border before there’s one in Gaza and has rebuffed a US proposal to move its forces several kilometers (miles) back from the border, according to Lebanese officials.

Despite the rhetoric, neither side appears to want war, said Andrea Tenenti, spokesman for the UN peacekeeping mission in south Lebanon. However, “a miscalculation could potentially trigger a wider conflict that would be very difficult to control,” he said.

An Israeli soldier carries a shell near the border with Lebanon, in northern Israel, January 11, 2024. (Leo Correa/AP)

How prepared are they?

Both Hezbollah and the Israeli military have expanded their capabilities since 2006 — yet both countries are also more fragile.

In Lebanon, four years of economic crisis have crippled public institutions, including its army and electrical grid, and eroded its health system. The country hosts more than 1 million Syrian refugees.

Lebanon adopted an emergency plan for a war scenario in late October. It projected the forcible displacement of 1 million Lebanese for 45 days.

About 87,000 Lebanese are displaced from the border area. While the government is relying on international organizations to fund the response, many groups working in Lebanon can’t maintain existing programs.

The UN refugee agency has provided supplies to collective shelters and given emergency cash to some 400 families in south Lebanon, spokesperson Lisa Abou Khaled said. The agency doesn’t have funds to support large numbers of displaced in the event of war, she said.

Aid group Doctors Without Borders said it has stockpiled some 10 tons of medical supplies and backup fuel for hospital generators in areas most likely to be affected by a widening conflict, in anticipation of a blockade.

Medical personnel work in a department transferred to underground parking at Rambam Hospital in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, January 11, 2024. (Leo Correa/AP)

Israel is feeling the economic and social strain from the war in Gaza, which is expected to cost over $50 billion, or about 10 percent of national economic activity through the end of 2024, according to the Bank of Israel. Costs would rise sharply if there’s a war with Lebanon.

“No one wants this war, or wishes it on anyone,” said Tal Beeri, of the Alma Research and Education Center, a think tank focusing on northern Israel security. But he said he believes an armed conflict between Israel and Hezbollah is inevitable, arguing that diplomatic solutions appear unlikely and would only allow Hezbollah’s strategic threats to increase.

Israel has evacuated 60,000 residents from towns nearest the border, where there’s no warning time for rocket launches because of the proximity of Hezbollah squads.

In a war, there would be no point in additional evacuations since the terror group’s rockets and missiles can reach all of Israel.

After the October 7 attack, the war in Gaza had broad domestic support, even if there’s now a growing debate over its direction. Around half of Israelis would support war with Hezbollah as a last resort for restoring border security, according to recent polling by the think tank Israel Democracy Institute.

In Lebanon, some have criticized Hezbollah for exposing the country to another potentially devastating war. Others support the group’s limited entry into the conflict and believe Hezbollah’s arsenal will deter Israel from escalating.

How would war play out?

A full-scale war would likely spread to multiple fronts, escalating the involvement of Iranian proxies in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen — and perhaps even draw in Iran itself.

It could also drag the US, Israel’s closest ally, deeper into the conflict. The US already has dispatched additional warships to the region.

Damage seen in Kiryat Shmona on December 28, 2023 as a result of a rocket launched by Hezbollah in Lebanon. (Kiryat Shmona Municipality)

Hezbollah has 150,000 to 200,000 rockets and missiles of various ranges, said Orna Mizrahi of the Israeli think tank Institute for National Security Studies. This arsenal is at least five times larger than that of Hamas and far more accurate, she said.

The terror group’s guided projectiles could reach water, electricity, or communications facilities, and densely populated residential areas.

In Lebanon, airstrikes would likely wreak havoc on infrastructure and potentially kill thousands. Netanyahu has threatened to “turn Beirut into Gaza,” where Israel’s air and ground incursion has caused widespread destruction.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says that close to 27,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far, a figure that cannot be independently verified and includes close to 10,000 Hamas terrorists Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 gunmen inside Israel on October 7.

Israel is far more protected, with several air defense systems, including the Iron Dome, which intercepts rockets with a roughly 90 percent success rate. But it can get overwhelmed if a mass barrage of rockets is fired.

Some 40% of Israel’s population live in newer homes with private safe rooms fortified with blast protection to withstand rocket attacks. Israel also has a network of bomb shelters, but a 2020 government report says about one-third of Israelis lack easy access to them. Lebanon has no such network.

Damage where rockets fired from Lebanon hit in Kiryat Shmona on January 11, 2024. (Ayal MArgolin/Flash90)

Hezbollah has limited air defenses, while those of the Lebanese army are outdated and insufficient because of budget shortfalls, said Dina Arakji, with the UK-based risk consultancy firm Control Risks.

The Lebanese army has remained on the sidelines over the past four months. In 2006, it entered fighting in a limited capacity, but it’s unclear how it would react in the event of a new Israel-Hezbollah war. Hezbollah’s military is considered more powerful than the regular army.

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