Netanyahu wants a war with Hezbollah and he must not have it

Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.

Osama Al Sharif

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

While the world is focused on Israel’s two-month-old military campaign in the Gaza Strip, the northern front is quickly heating up. A few days after Israel declared war on Hamas and started pounding the besieged strip ahead of a ground invasion, tensions along the Israel-South Lebanon border began to rise. A few skirmishes between Hezbollah and Israel’s military soon developed into a daily exchange of firepower, forcing Israel to vacate northern settlements and towns in a 3 to 5-kilometer perimeter south of the Lebanon border.اضافة اعلان

The US dispatched two carrier groups to the Eastern Mediterranean, sending a stern message to Tehran and its proxies not to interfere in Israel’s war on Gaza. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrullah appeared, after the group released a couple of videos raising the level of suspense, to indicate that the his people were not about to break the truce with Israel, under UN resolution 1701, but will respond to provocations within the so-called “rules of engagement.”

But that did not stop the two sides from targeting each other in what can be described as low-intensity fighting. That forced Israel to mobilize three armored divisions to the north; something that Hezbollah said will relieve pressure on Hamas. Some of the skirmishes were deadly. While Israel was careful not to release figures concerning its own casualties, Hezbollah began, well into the first month of the Gaza campaign to publish the names of its own fighters who fell during operations “in support of the people of Gaza and the gallant resistance.” These operations were described as “support” and “diversions” costing Hezbollah over 100 of its fighters so far.  On a few occasions, when Israel targeted civilians in southern Lebanon, the group launched rockets that hit Kirayt Shmona, one of the larger urban centers in the Upper Galilee, which is only three kilometers west of the Lebanese border. Before it was evacuated it was home to more than 22,000 Israelis.

A sudden end of the war on Gaza will mean defeat for Israel and will have far-fetched repercussions for the country, but most of all for Netanyahu

Also, in response to aerial Israeli bombardment of southern Lebanese towns and villages, Hezbollah fired a few heavy rockets, called Burkan, with large payloads. It also admitted to sending drones across the borders, a few of which sounded the alarm in northern Israel. On a number of occasions, it released videos of its fighters targeting Israeli armor, radars and fortifications. It claimed that it had killed and injured Israeli soldiers.

In addition to shelling southern Lebanon, Israel launched anumber of aerial raids against Damascus airport, southern Syria and Qunaitra in the Golan. Some of these strikes reportedly killed Iranian advisors and Hezbollah fighters.

Rising tension at the border
But last week and earlier this week a noticeable spike in the scope of such exchanges resulted in Hezbollah firing rockets as deep as nine kilometers into Israeli territory in response to Israel’s bombing of Lebanese towns. On Monday, one Israeli strike killed the mayor of the Lebanese town of Taybeh and injured others. A day before Israeli fighter jets destroyed an entire neighborhood in Aitaroun village on the border with Israel. In the past few days Israel targeted journalists covering the skirmishes from the Lebanese side, UNIFIL and Lebanese army positions.

The rise in tensions along Israel’s northern borders comes in the wake of strong warnings and ultimatums made by a number of senior Israeli officials that the situation in the north must be dealt with. According to Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, Israel delivered a message to Hezbollah via UNIFIL that anything, military or civilian, spotted within a three-kilometer radius along the border with Lebanon would be targeted. In response, Hezbollah responded that it too will consider anything moving within three kilometers of the border with Israel a legitimate target.

Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu issued a strong warning to Hezbollah last week that escalations along the border will mean “turning Beirut into Gaza.” A similar warning was issued by Far Right Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich. Also last week, Israeli National Security Council head Tzachi Hanegbi claimed, “We will change the reality on the border with Lebanon and we will solve the problem militarily if not diplomatically.”

Victory in Gaza elusive
Such statements from senior Israeli officials should be taken seriously for a number of reasons. Israel’s war in Gaza is not going well after more than two months despite the heavy civilian toll and the global outcry denouncing Israel’s reckless regard for innocent lives and non-military infrastructure. The Biden White House is coming under unprecedented pressure both domestically and from allies to call for a ceasefire.

Reportedly, Netanyahu and his war Cabinet have less than a month to wrap up the military campaign. But by Israeli and other accounts that is not enough time to achieve the evasive victory in Gaza; destroying Hamas, killing its military leadership, and freeing the hostages.

In addition, Israel is beginning to admit that despite all its firepower and heavy armor, it is incurring unusually heavy casualties—it admits that more than 100 soldiers have been killed and more than 5000 injured, some in serious conditions. Hamas says the number of Israeli dead is much higher. Israel also says that despite the heavy bombing Hamas’ military abilities remain intact. Until Monday, Hamas was still firing rockets towards Tel Aviv and southern Israel.

Fearing that the time is running out on his war on Gaza, he is in a position to force Hezbollah into a wider confrontation—thus dragging the US, and possibly Iran, into a regional war.

Israelis and their apologists are saying that Israel islosing the public relations war. Millions around the world continue to march demanding a ceasefire and putting additional pressure on their governments. In a precedent, the draft resolution, calling for a ceasefire that the US vetoed last Friday was co-sponsored by over 100 countries. The US is becoming isolated for being the only country supporting the continuation of Israel’s war.

Expansion of the war as a distraction
The escalation of hostilities along the northern borders of Israel, and the Israeli threat to push Hezbollah north of the Litani River can only mean war. Despite US blind support and threats, Hezbollah, now in full control of Lebanon’s political fate, will not hesitate to defend the current status quo in southern Lebanon. 

This is a complex geopolitical territory for all. Neither Iran nor the US wants to see an expansion of the war for different reasons. But for Netanyahu and his war cohorts, the perspective is different—and dangerous. A sudden end of the war on Gaza will mean defeat for Israel and will have far-fetched repercussions for the country, but most of all for Netanyahu. The circumstances surrounding what really happened on 7 October are vague. An investigation into this will bring down many heads; foremost of which will be Netanyahu’s.

Hezbollah no longer acts as a non-state actor. It must consider its gains in Lebanon and its alliance with Iran. It does not seek a 2006 version of a war with Israel, even though it has much more firepower than before. Those who would want to expand the war and draw in the big power are the extremists in the Israeli political scene. Netanyahu, who has sealed the fate of the Israeli hostages by ending the truce with Hamas, is looking for his own personal interests. Fearing that the time is running out on his war on Gaza, he is in a position to force Hezbollah into a wider confrontation—thus dragging the US, and possibly Iran, into a regional war.

The Biden administration must draw the line here. Hamas is unlikely to be destroyed completely even if the war drags on for a few more months. Hostage families are already putting pressure on the war Cabinet saying that this has become an unnecessary war. Netanyahu is reaching the end of the tether. A war with Hezbollah will be catastrophic for all parties. The only immediate exit is to bring Netanyahu’s government down.

That may not end the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. It will present a scenario for the day after, but it will also provide all stakeholders a way out of a conundrum, which unless addressed could drag the region into a regional war.

Osama Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Jordan News' point of view.

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