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Analysis

Neither side wants war, but that was true last time around too

Hezbollah and Israel are both walking a very fine line — each seeking to deter the other side while avoiding the dangers of all-out conflict

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Israeli artillery seen preparing to strike southern Lebanon, following an Israeli army patrol coming under anti-tank fire from Hezbollah operatives in the northern Mount Dov region along the Israeli border with Lebanon on January 28, 2015, killing two and injuring seven soldiers. (Photo credit: Basal Awidat/Flash90)
Israeli artillery seen preparing to strike southern Lebanon, following an Israeli army patrol coming under anti-tank fire from Hezbollah operatives in the northern Mount Dov region along the Israeli border with Lebanon on January 28, 2015, killing two and injuring seven soldiers. (Photo credit: Basal Awidat/Flash90)

The latest developments along the northern border can be summed up in a single word: escalation. The rocket fire on Tuesday toward the Golan Heights and Wednesday’s anti-tank missile attack against an IDF convoy in the Mount Dov area, in which two soldiers were killed, show that Hezbollah seeks to convey to Israel that it is not afraid of full-fledged war.

The Shiite group may even actively seek to draw Israel into a ground incursion in the Syrian Golan.

The assessment that Hezbollah currently has no interest in full-scale war still holds: The last thing the terror group needs now is another front on top of its fight with Sunni jihadists in Syria. But the January 18 strike that killed Jihad Mughniyeh and Iranian general Mohammad Ali Allahdadi (and that was attributed to Israel), put Hezbollah to a position where it could not afford to remain silent. The organization’s modus operandi over the last 24 hours constitutes an attempt to tell both Israel and the Arab world, “We are not afraid.” The Shiite group does not want an escalation but it is certainly prepared for one, should it arrive.

This is no longer a situation of containment of what it perceives as Israeli provocations, but the opposite. There are even indications that the terror group is preparing for a long and difficult confrontation. A senior Arab intelligence source told The Times of Israel that on Monday Hezbollah paid January salaries to all members, including in Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere, even though it usually pays salaries on the first of the month. Paying salaries three days early may indicate that the group is preparing its members for an escalation or, again, may be a silent indication to Israel that it is indeed ready for war. Furthermore, dozens of Hezbollah advisers have returned from Iraq urgently to Beirut.

An assumption voiced repeatedly by Israeli security officials, namely that Hezbollah fears the price Lebanon may pay in case war breaks out, may be irrelevant. Hezbollah has lost its support among the non-Shiite citizenry of Lebanon and has long come to be seen there as an Iranian proxy. It continues to wield its power over Lebanon not through the respect of the population but rather by sheer force and the ability to stifle any threats against it (case in point: the assassination of Rafik al Hariri in 2005). It can thus be understood that even if Israel decides to cripple Lebanon and bomb vital infrastructures, this will not affect the decision-making process of Hezbollah.

Despite the indications that a further deterioration may be lurking just around the corner, we can safely say that Hezbollah is not running headstrong to all-out war with Israel. There has been no action as of this writing that indicated a true desire for war, or that we could witness rocket fire against the center of the country and against major cities like Haifa and Tiberias. As of yet, this is not the story.

Thing is, once Hezbollah decides to play a game of “catch me if you can” by targeting IDF soldiers, it is hard to tell how far things will spiral. It can begin with “only” anti-tank missiles, escalate to an Israeli response hitting Hezbollah targets, which will be answered by the Shiite group, and so on and so forth, until both sides find themselves at war without having wished for it. Hezbollah was not looking for war when it abducted Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev on July 12, 2006; Hassan Nasrallah later admitted as much. After 34 days of fighting, the terror organization – and Lebanon itself — were in a totally different situation. As the cliché goes, you know how you start a confrontation, but you never know how you pull out of it.

And there is another question to ponder: How will Hamas act in case of an escalation in the north? The last war against Hezbollah started when the organization decided to abduct Israeli soldiers two and a half weeks after the abduction of Gilad Shalit in Gaza. Hezbollah jumped onto the bandwagon of existing escalation down south.

Nowadays, the relationship between Hamas and Hezbollah is different. The ties between the organizations have become loose and even hostile following developments in the wider Arab world and the open hatred between Hamas and the Syrian regime.

The concern is that under the shadow of escalation vis-à-vis Hezbollah and in light of the difficult economic position of the Gaza terror group, Hamas may try to come closer to Iran and win some financial support, even at the risk of a low-level confrontation with Israel. In other words: one cannot reject a scenario where some rocket fire from Gaza will heat up the southern front in a Hamas effort to thaw the ice with Tehran.

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