This picture taken from northern Israel shows an Israeli Air Force fighter jet flying over the border area with south Lebanon on March 27, 2024.
An Israeli Air Force fighter jet flying over the border area with south Lebanon Image Credit: AFP

After seventeen years of relative calm, tension is boiling on the Lebanese-Israeli border. The last time the two countries were at war was in 2006 but much has changed since then and none of it was to Lebanon’s favour.

The country has been hit by a series of problems and setbacks, starting with the influx of Syrian refugees, onto the civil war of 2019, followed by the Covid-19 lockdown and the August 2020 explosion at the port of Beirut, which killed over 200 people and torn down half the capital.

The presidential seat has been vacant since October 2022 and Lebanon’s government is a caretaker one that is constitutionally incapable of taking any important decisions.

That was all topped with a sharp economic collapse, devaluation of the Lebanese lira, and a crippling financial meltdown, which all make another war extremely unpopular in Lebanon. It would be the kiss of death to the tiny cash-strapped Mediterranean country.

An unpopular war

Hezbollah says that its missiles against Israel are in support of its Hamas allies, and will only stop once the guns go silent in Gaza. Its secretary-general Hasan Nasrallah has repeatedly said that he doesn’t want a war, but if one were to break out, he would fight it “without constraints or rules.”

Nasrallah added that Hezbollah had deployed “only a fraction” of its arsenal, going as far as to threaten Cyprus with reprisal, if it allowed Israel to use its territory to strike against Lebanon.

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Christian parties like the Lebanese Forces (LF) and Lebanese Phalange are highly opposed to a war, but so are Nasrallah’s allies in the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). Last June, more than 200 Hezbollah rockets were fired at Israel in a single day, all in response to the killing of Hezbollah commander Taleb Abdullah (aka Abu Taleb).

On 3 July, Israeli killed senior figure Mohammad Naameh Nasser (aka Haj Abu Naameh) in the northern Lebanese city of Tyre, raising the Hezbollah death toll to 349 fighters, three of whom were senior commanders. Ninety thousand Lebanese have been displaced to date, versus seventy thousand in Israel, and fifty Lebanese civilians have died.

Lebanese infrastructure has been badly hit in the southern parts of the country, and a new war would increase the destruction tenfold, with no money for repair in Lebanese coffers.

Israeli threats

Israeli rhetoric has been defiant, with ex-minister and retired IDF general Benn Gantz saying that his army could destroy Hezbollah in a matter of days. That’s easier said than done, however, given that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had promised nothing less than “total victory” against Hamas. Nine months later, that has not been achieved.

Similar statements were made in the past. In 2006, ex-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had famously promised to annihilate Hezbollah in response to the kidnapping of two IDF soldiers.

He promised to bring them back home alive and bomb Lebanon back to the Stone Age. He then had to end the Lebanon War of 2006 without achieving any of his objective. The two soldiers would return in wooden caskets — dead — and Olmert would resign from office.

Hesitant Biden administration

US special envoy Amos Hochstien has travelling back and forth between Israel and Lebanon, trying to defuse tension. A war in Lebanon would resonate very badly with Jewish voters in the US, terribly affecting the upcoming presidential election in November. If Hezbollah manages to inflict maximal pain and suffering in northern Israel and voters, these voters would turn against Joe Biden.

Biden administration’s current proposal is to get Hezbollah to withdraw 7-10 km away from the border, which Nasrallah refuses to even discuss before there is a ceasefire in Gaza. In return, they are hinting at economic aid for Lebanon and support for end the presidential vacuum.

Iran, meanwhile, has been totally defiant, resulting in Israeli reprisals, which targeted several of its generals in Syria and on 1 April, struck at the Iranian Embassy in Damascus. The Iranians then got distracted with the sudden death of President Ebrahim Raisi on 19 May, and the presidential elections that took place last month.

His successor, Masoud Pezeshkian, is a reformist. Although a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, Pezeshkian’s history is not a military one and he knows exactly how bad a war can be for the entire region.

He has promised try to minimise Iran’s problems, rather than exacerbate and blow them out of proportion. A new war in Lebanon would further drain the Iranian economy, which Pezeshkian has promised to uplift. The ultimate decision is not in his hands, however, but in those of the Supreme Leader.

All of this brings us to a complex, fragile, and tense situation, leaving us to wait and see what the next course of action will be in the region.

— Sami Moubayed is a historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of the best-seller Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.