Hezbollah-Israel Skirmish: A Brewing Conflict or Political Stagecraft?

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah (Thierry Ehrmann/Flickr)

Hezbollah fighters ambushed an Israel Defense Force (IDF) convoy in the disputed Shebaa Farms area near the Golan Heights on January 28. The attack left two IDF soldiers dead and seven others wounded. During the subsequent skirmish in the area, a United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) peacekeeper stationed in the Ghajar area was also hit and later died.

The violence followed a period of heightened tensions in the region following an Israeli air strike against a Hezbollah and Iranian military convoy in Syria’s southern Quneitra governorate on January 18 and subsequent threats by senior Hezbollah and Iranian officials to retaliate against Israel. Tensions escalated further on January 27 when the Israeli Air Force (IAF) struck a Syrian Arab Army (SAA) artillery position in response to a rocket attack from Syria into Israel-controlled territory in the Golan Heights earlier in the day.

The recent surge in tension and border violence is not unusual for the area. Since Hezbollah and Israel fought a month-long war in 2006 there have been regular crisis periods and threats of a resumption in the fighting. These periods of uncertainty have increased in frequency since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 as Hezbollah has deployed large numbers of its militia to eastern Lebanon and Syria to assist the SAA and its Shiite Iranian allies in its operations against predominantly Sunni rebels. The flow of arms between Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon has further raised concern in Israel, which has conducted a number of air strikes against suspected arms shipments in Syria and along the Syria-Lebanon border. The strikes have starkly underlined the importance Israel places on limiting Hezbollah’s access to advanced weaponry.

Israel has faced opposition to its existence from a variety of its neighbors since the 1940s, including Hezbollah in the 1980s, 1990s, and in 2006. Understanding between Israel and Egypt and Jordan since 1979 and 1994 respectively has led to a quietening of those fronts, while more recently Syria has been preoccupied with its internal struggle. At present, it is largely the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, which maintains a large non-state militia in Lebanon, and its primary sponsor, the predominantly Shiite Iran, which are the Jewish state’s principal threats.

Yet the recent fighting between January 18-28 between Israel and these Shiite powers has not escalated to full conflict. The reason for this is Hezbollah and Iran’s current preoccupation in Syria. Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict since 2012 has severely taxed the group, with some estimates placing the number of its fighting force in Syria at any given time as high as 25 percent. With such a large force abroad fighting a predominantly Sunni rebellion, it has increasingly faced a backlash from Sunni militants in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s primary stronghold in southern Lebanon has been struck by several bombings since 2012, claimed by regional Sunni militant groups, and it faces public hostility from Sunni parties in a number of areas of Lebanon, including, most notably, the city of Sidon. Hezbollah thus faces challenges from two fronts. Opening a new front against Israel at this critical juncture, with its fighting force spread thin and its popularity in Lebanon and the region sliding, is not only illogical but would likely mean a significant loss to the group, something neither it nor its sponsors would enter into lightly, particularly as Syria, the third component of the Shiite axis, remains embroiled in its own existential crisis.

If the risks of retaliation are so high, why did Hezbollah strike Israel on January 28? Hezbollah has faced a growing legitimacy crisis since the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. The obvious question is, why do they still maintain an armed force when they are represented in the government and have, seemingly, achieved their victory against Israel in Lebanon? The most likely answer is that they sought to maintain power and control. They have done and continue to do so through force of arms and threat of violence, something they demonstrated clearly in 2008 when they fought rival militias in Lebanon.

In addition, Iran and Syria have sought to maintain Hezbollah as the group provides these states with the ideal proxy to act against Israel. Publicly, Hezbollah continue to demand the liberation of a small portion of land still disputed with Israel, the Shebaa Farms. The location of the retaliatory attack on January 28 was surely more than just coincidence. Indeed, a retaliatory attack in this area achieved a number of objectives for Hezbollah. For its domestic audience it showed it was still acting to “liberate” land from Israel and was not just a force used against Arab Sunnis. On a more basic level, both Hezbollah and Iran needed to show Israel that they would respond to any aggression, unlike the Syrian government, which despite having been struck by Israel on a number of occasions since 2011, has not responded meaningfully, fearing the cost of doing so.

That said, the balance could be shattered at any point. Open animosity, historical and deep ideological differences, and no clear lines of communication open both sides up to miscalculations. Israeli air strikes on Hezbollah and Syrian shipments (aimed at maintaining Israel’s battlefield technological superiority), Hezbollah border attacks (aimed at shoring up the group’s domestic resistance mantra), or a further breakdown in the relationship between Hezbollah’s primary ally, Iran, and Israel could spark a wider conflict. Israel could also seek to deliver a knockout blow to one of its primary opponents in the region. Indeed, the temptation to do so must be significant at present and it is only the potential backlash from the international community, who are seeking a compromise with Iran over its nuclear program, and, possibly, the looming general elections in Israel in March, which are stifling Israel’s leadership from acting now against Iran’s powerful Lebanese proxy.

With such a volatile environment the potential for peace and de-escalation initiatives are slim. The deployment of the UNIFIL force has proven to be largely ineffective in limiting Hezbollah operations south of Lebanon’s Litani River since 2000. Likewise, UN Resolution 1701 is also regularly flouted by both Hezbollah and Israel. The prospects of a lasting understanding and peace rest on multiple issues being resolved, including the status of the Shebaa Farms and the Israel-occupied Golan Heights, the war in Syria, the Iranian nuclear program, the status of Hezbollah’s militia, and a host of other factors. Thus, the prospect of further conflict remains the most likely and inevitable medium-term outcome.

Andre Colling is the Chief Analyst on the Middle East and North Africa at red24.