BEIRUT – Once again, the Lebanese are glued to their televisions and compulsively checking their cell phones, following every border skirmish, trying to assess whether another war is imminent.
In desperation, they ask themselves how a nation so often torn by conflict – and battered by economic crisis – is once again at risk of sliding back into the abyss.
“People are exhausted, they can’t take it anymore,” said Ramad Bukaleel, a Lebanese businessman who runs a manager training company. “Lebanon is reeling – we have been through that After four harsh years of economic crisis, people are skipping meals and can hardly survive. we had Port explosion,The epidemic, A Financial collapse. He added in a conversation at Beirut airport: I hope to God that we will not be struck by another war.
The main fear for many Lebanese is that they will soon become the second front in Israel’s war against its hardline Islamist enemies, following the brutal Hamas attack on Israel a week ago that killed more than 1,300 people. While most eyes are focused on an expected retaliatory ground attack against Hamas in Gaza, Israeli forces also declared a 4-kilometre-wide closed military zone on Lebanon’s southern border, where they exchanged fire with Hezbollah, a Shiite political party and armed group. Based in Lebanon.
One person close to Hezbollah said the Golan Heights — the Israeli-occupied Syrian territory to southeast Lebanon — is turning into a particularly dangerous flashpoint, saying Hezbollah has moved elite units there in the past few days.
Finger on the trigger
For now, this border fighting appears to be contained, but a flurry of Iranian regional diplomacy is raising concern that Tehran may be about to involve its Hezbollah proxies in the war. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian warned on Saturday that if Israel does not halt its military campaign in Gaza, Hezbollah, a major player in the Tehran-run “axis of resistance,” will be “ready” with its “finger drawn” on the trigger.
There is still an opportunity to work on an initiative [to end the war] “But it may be too late tomorrow,” Amir Abdullahian told reporters after his meeting with Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh in Qatar, where they “agreed to continue cooperation” to achieve the movement’s goals, according to a statement issued by Hamas.
Mark Regev, an advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told the British Spectator TV channel that his country is ready to confront Hezbollah, which he described as Hamas’s twin. “Hezbollah may try to escalate the situation, so my message is clear: If Hamas surprises us on Saturday morning, we will not be surprised by the north. We are ready, we are ready. “We don’t want a war in the north, but if they force a war on us, as I was saying, we are ready and we will win decisively in the north as well.”
In an attempt to prevent anything like this from happening, the United States sent two aircraft carrier strike groups to the region President Joe Biden has publicly warned outside actors — which means Iran and Hezbollah – Not getting involved. “Don’t,” he said.
“That was music to my ears,” said Ruth Boulos, a mother of two, as she sipped coffee at a restaurant in Raouche, one of Beirut’s most expensive neighborhoods dotted with modern skyscrapers. “Let’s hope Hezbollah listens,” she added.
At nearby tables, wealthy Lebanese Christian families can be heard discussing whether the country will plunge back into war and whether they should leave now, joining other wealthy Lebanese who have left due to the economic crisis that has left an estimated 85% of the population behind. Below the poverty line.
This may start to become more difficult. Airlines are getting nervous. The German company Lufthansa has temporarily suspended all its flights To the country.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati admitted that the caretaker government in Lebanon does not have any authority to influence the course of events. He told a local TV channel on Friday that Hezbollah did not give him any guarantees about whether it would enter the Gaza war or not. Mikati said in the interview: “Israel must stop provoking Hezbollah.” “I haven’t received any guarantees from anyone about that [how things could develop] Because circumstances change.”
Thanks to Lebanon’s hopelessly divided politics, the country has not had a fully functioning government since October 2022. The Cabinet only met on Thursday amid growing fears that the border skirmishes could lead to an extension of the war. It strongly condemned what it called “the criminal acts committed by the Zionist enemy in Gaza.” The ministers later told the media that the war would break the country. Lebanon “may collapse completely,” Lebanese Economy Minister Amin Salam said. the National.
Scars of war
Rocket and artillery skirmishes along the Lebanese border since Hamas launched its terrorist attack on Israel were limited in scope, but resulted in the deaths of several people, including Reuters videographer Essam Abdullah. However, it is not completely out of the ordinary. A UN peacekeeping officer in southern Lebanon, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said he believed the skirmishes were aimed at keeping Israel guessing.
The Lebanese are no strangers to falling off a cliff. There are still dark memories spread across Beirut of the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War, a brutal sectarian conflict that pitted Shiites, Sunnis, Druze and Christians against each other in a long and winding conflict that attracted outside powers and left an estimated 120,000 dead. person. people, and led to the displacement of one million people.
In 2006, the country descended into war again when Hezbollah seized the opportunity to strike Israel two weeks after another war in Gaza. Hezbollah declared “divine victory” after a month of brutal fighting, which ended when the United Nations brokered a ceasefire. Hezbollah’s capabilities surprised everyone, as Israeli tanks were subjected to “swarm” attacks.
Some see this short war as the first serious round of proxy war between Iran and Israel, and is more than just a continuation of the conflict between Arabs and Israelis.
But no one doubts that another large-scale confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah would be of a much greater scale.
Armed with An estimated 150,000 precision-guided missiles thanks to Iran, Hezbollah, which has been maintaining a steady flow of advanced, game-changing weapons for years through Syria, has the ability to strike anywhere in Israel and has a force that is easily comparable to a disciplined, well-trained, mid-sized European army – but with a difference; Hezbollah has thousands of war-hardened fighters, thanks to its intervention in the Syrian civil war.
Speculation abounds that the air strikes on Damascus and Aleppo airports in Syria on Thursday were a move by Israel to disrupt Hezbollah’s weapons supply line from Iran. Others see this as a warning to Syria not to intervene – Syrian support for Hezbollah could be particularly important in the Golan Heights.
Hezbollah itself was training for what its leaders often called “the final war with Israel.” Hezbollah’s intervention alongside President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war was a “suitable training” opportunity. A senior Hezbollah leader told this correspondent in 2017. “What we are doing in Syria is in some ways training for Israel,” he explained.
By fighting at the forefront alongside the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah fighters honed their skills in urban warfare. When Hezbollah first intervened in Syria, Israeli defense analysts viewed the foray as a boon, the better to ensnare their arch-Lebanese enemy there.
But concern quickly rose in Israel that Hezbollah was gaining valuable experience on the battlefield in Syria, especially in managing large-scale offensive operations, something the Shiite militia had previously had little skill at. Other enhanced Hezbollah capabilities in Syria include more effective use of artillery cover, skillful use of drones in reconnaissance and surveillance operations, and improved logistics operations to support large integrated attacks.
A matter of timing
But will Hezbollah decide to strike now?
“I don’t think Hezbollah will open a second front,” Paul Salem, president of the Middle East Institute and a veteran of Lebanon, told Politico. But he had caveats to add. This assessment depends on what the Israelis are doing in Gaza.”
“If Israel moves significantly in Gaza and begins to come close to defeating or expelling Hamas, let’s say like expelling the PLO from Lebanon in 1982, at that point Hezbollah and Iran will not want to lose Hamas as a military force.” Assets in Gaza.”
“This is a strategic necessity that may push them to open a second front to ensure that Hamas is not defeated. Salem adds that there is another factor, which is the human losses in Gaza, and if they are huge, this may force Hezbollah to intervene due to an angry Arab popular reaction.
Tobias Burke, a security research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said Hezbollah faces a dilemma.
When it fought Israel in 2006, it became very popular across the Arab world, but that was upended when it intervened in Syria, where “people – even Shiites in its strongholds in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley – asked what the fighting in Syria had to do with the resistance.” “Israel is its supposed raison d’être, although in reality it exists to protect Iran from Israel.”
“Hezbollah has to regain legitimacy and this puts a tremendous amount of pressure. This is the troubling factor for me. How can Hezbollah maintain being the main player in the ‘axis of resistance’ against Israel and not interfere?” he added.
On Friday, Hezbollah Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem told a rally in the southern suburbs of Beirut that the group would not be swayed by calls for it to remain on the sidelines of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, saying the party was “fully prepared” to intervene. Contributing to the fighting.
He told his supporters as they waved Hezbollah and Hamas flags: “The behind-the-scenes calls from the great powers, Arab countries and UN envoys, which directly or indirectly ask us not to intervene, will have no effect.”
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