Middle East in Focus
Cross-border clashes over the weekend between Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Hezbollah threaten to undo the uneasy peace along the Israel-Lebanon border. Both sides have declared that the fighting had reached their respective objectives, while avoiding any casualties. According to regional observers, despite the relatively limited exchange of fire, Sunday’s clashes were of consequence, as regional allies and others monitor the military capacities of each side. Unfortunately, the conflict couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Lebanese government, with an economy that is on the rocks.
Concerns about a possible direct or proxy conflict between Iran and Israel were already expressed prior to the latest exchange of fire as shown by a recent National editorial lamenting Lebanon’s unenviable geopolitical reality: “The recent shift in the rules of engagement between Israel and Iran indicates that keeping military skirmishes under control can no longer be achieved using the same subtle means as before, as is becoming evident in proxy wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.... Lebanon today is threatened not just by Iran and Israel but also the US. Washington has made clear its intention to step up sanctions on Iran, Hezbollah and every organization providing them with political, financial or security cover. Washington has also signaled that if Hezbollah attacks Israel, the Trump administration would fully support an Israeli response and would hold Lebanon’s government responsible for the escalation. Ultimately, Lebanon is in the eye of the storm.”
Looking back at the “outcome” of Sunday’s military clashes, Yedioth Ahronoth’s Ron Ben Yishai argues that both Israel and Hezbollah see the conflict, for the time being at least, as a win-win scenario for both parties: “Both Hassan Nasrallah and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are pleased with events on Sunday. It is no coincidence that the Hezbollah attack in northern Israel on Sunday ended without casualties. The commonly used term ‘There were no casualties among our forces’ is not applicable to what had happened today.... The lack of casualties is likely not much of a disappointment for Hezbollah's leader. He understands that if he were to have caused fatalities among the Israeli forces, the IDF would have responded much differently to the way they had Sunday, and Lebanon would have had to bear the brunt of it. The Shiite leader is no doubt satisfied now, as he sits in his Beirut bunker, just as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is satisfied, with the performance of the IDF while he was hosting the President of Honduras in Jerusalem.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that the stakes are low or inconsequential. According to Jerusalem Post’s Seth Frantzman, yesterday’s conflict was important: “ What is happening in northern Israel pits Iran’s ally against Israel, a key ally of the US, and that has regional implications because Iran’s allies and proxies – from Syria to Iraq and Yemen – are all impacted by how Hezbollah performs and how Israel responds.... Other groups in the region are watching how Israel responds. This includes Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, as well as Turkey, the Kurdistan region in Iraq, Syrian rebels in northern Syria, and the kingdom of Jordan. This is because any kind of escalating conflict could affect the entire Middle East.”
With Hezbollah seen as endangering Lebanon’s fragile stability, Sondoss Al Asaad writing for Iran’s government mouthpiece—Tehran Times—has been eager to demonstrate Hezbollah’s grassroots support in Lebanon: “Hezbollah represents the multicultural fabric of the Lebanese people, who repeatedly stress their rejection to Western aggression. The strategy of sanctions will not succeed in the face of the strong will of Lebanese people, who have over and over again managed to thwart Washington and Tel Aviv's schemes. Eventually, Hezbollah will emerge victorious over these malicious sanctions for it is a legitimate resistance that owes national duty to defend and safeguard Lebanon's rights and interests.... Despite all the challenges, Hezbollah still has solid support in Lebanon. The U.S. sanctions have no value because of the people's keen interest in undermining colonial goals and commitment to resist the illegitimate Zionist entity and its Takfiri terrorist offspring.”
But the fact is, the cross-border violence couldn’t come at a worse time for Lebanon, which is currently experiencing economic uncertainty. In an op-ed for Khaleej Times, Christiane Waked characterizes Lebanon’s government as “hostage” to events: “The Lebanese government is being held hostage by a situation that is beyond its control. On one side, Israel is breaching Lebanon's sovereignty and the UN Security Council Resolution 1701 by sending drones to its soil and on the other side, the government cannot confront Hezbollah, which makes it a catch-22 situation for Lebanon and puts the country at risk of a new civil war.... Lebanon needs political stability and economic prosperity as the country is at the brink of bankruptcy. The Lebanese banking system has been downgraded by international credit rating agencies, which lowers confidence in the country's banking industry.”
That message is amplified by Ahmed Al-Jarallah, editor-in-chief of the Arab Times, who in a recent editorial called for putting an end to Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon: “The American sanctions on Lebanon have extended from being imposed on individuals like members and affiliates of Hezbollah, to the level of establishments, as one bank has been blacklisted for facilitating financial operations for Hezbollah. This means Lebanon, which is afflicted by the dominance of militias operating in the interest of Iran and suffers from acute economic crisis, has entered the stage of collapse due to the sensitivity of the banking sector, which dominates a huge part of the Lebanese labor market.... There is no place for drifting behind the suicidal politics of Nasrallah’s Hezbollah, which directs everything for the interest of Iran.... Therefore, it seems there is no way to rescue Lebanon apart from taking difficult and painful decisions, one of which is to get rid of the Mullahs’ exploitation.”