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Israel’s northern front heats up

Editor's ChoiceIsrael’s northern front heats up

PUNE: Plans for the impending Israeli offensive into Lebanon have already been formalised and approved, and all it needs is the signal to launch. Yet, it would be more difficult than they imagine.

“It is inevitable,” is the standard refrain that one hears in Tel Aviv about the likelihood of a war between Israel and the Hezbollah. It is made with a mix of resolution and resignation, reflecting the divisions within Israel itself on the conduct of the war. But increasingly, the refrain is getting stronger as the Gaza war meanders inconclusively and Israel seems to be readying itself for an even more dangerous conflict in Lebanon.

Hezbollah was the first to fire rockets and missiles into Israel, as a sign of solidarity with Hamas after Israel attacked Gaza. Since then, cross border raids, rocket and missile attacks and artillery duels have become a daily feature along the Israel-Lebanon border, which have already claimed around 470 lives in Lebanon and 27 in Israel. The attacks reached a crescendo in June which saw over 650 strikes by both sides. This forced Israel to evacuate over 70,000 settlers from the border areas, and push additional forces to contain the damage. In retaliation, Israel struck Hezbollah targets not only along the border, but deep into Lebanon. Their latest attack in Damascus killed Abu Taleb, the high-ranking commander of Hezbollah forces in South Lebanon, prompting a flurry of 240 rocket and drone attacks into Israel in retaliation. This outbreak, coupled with the pronouncements from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Hezbollah chief, Hassan Nasrallah, led to a hurried US warning to evacuate its citizens, and raised fears of a larger and wider war—one which could be devastating for Israel and the region.

Israel has to only see how its Gaza campaign has panned out to realise what lies ahead. Gaza has been reduced to rubble, but Israel is no closer to destroying the Hamas ideology or getting back its hostages, then they were at the start. The IDF began the campaign by attacking Gaza City in the north, then Khan Younis, and moved towards Rafah in the extreme South without any tangible results. Even now, as Israeli tanks surround Rafah, they have been forced to go back to Gaza City where Hamas has regrouped, signalling the sheer impossibility of clearing these strongholds. Israel has decimated 21 of Hamas’ 24 battalions, but its ideology remains as strong as before—and perhaps even more appealing.

Cracks have emerged between the military and the political leadership, with the IDF stating publicly, that “the idea of destroying Hamas, is throwing sand in the eyes of the public.” The Hamas leadership is intact and the hostages cannot be brought back unless there is a truce. However, Netanyahu flatly refuses a permanent ceasefire, insisting on continuing the pointless war till “final victory.”

Yet after nine months of war, the army is tired and overstretched. The three divisions committed there have suffered 300 dead and over 4,000 wounded—with many more showing PTSD. The equipment needs maintenance and stocks of ammunition are running low. Israeli commanders anticipate that they will need six months to reorganise themselves after they finish the task in Gaza, to be ready for a fresh offensive in Lebanon. That time may not be forthcoming.

Already, Prime Minister Netanyahu has announced that the fighting in Gaza is winding down, freeing troops for the northern border to confront Hezbollah. Netanyahu and his hardliner allies are gung-ho for an all-out war with Hezbollah, proclaiming, “We can fight on several fronts, and are prepared to do that.” Israel has threatened to destroy the state of Lebanon to its foundations, “where Gaza would look like a paradise in comparison,” if Hezbollah continues its actions. Hezbollah, on their part, insist that they will stop their attacks only when a ceasefire is declared in Gaza. Thus, the longer that Netanyahu holds out against the ceasefire, the greater are the dangers of war erupting on its northern borders.

Plans for the impending Israeli offensive into Lebanon have already been formalised and approved, and all it needs is the signal to launch. Yet, it would be more difficult than they imagine. Israel may bomb Lebanon back into the Stone Age, like they did with Gaza, but destroying Hezbollah, or even defeating it militarily, is quite another story. The Hezbollah is thrice as strong as Hamas, and holds over 100,000 well-armed and motivated fighters in their ranks, many of them battle-hardened veterans of the Syrian war. It also has a carefully built-up stockpile of over 150,000 long range rockets and missiles, which can strike as far as Tel Aviv and Eilat, and simply swamp Israel’s air defence. Israeli ground invasion would be even more dangerous. During the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, Israel had four fresh and fully equipped divisions in Southern Lebanon, but was still held in a series of delaying battles all the way to the Litani river, and eventually forced to withdraw. Hezbollah succeeded in fighting the IDF to a standstill and destroyed quite a few of their prized Merkava tanks. Hezbollah is stronger and better prepared now, while the IDF is stretched thin with ongoing actions in Gaza and the West Bank. It could just end up biting more than it can chew.

Israel set out to eliminate Hamas to “ensure security” without having a clear end-state in mind. They seem to have no idea of what they hope to achieve against the Hezbollah, except “to ensure long-term security.” They hope to eliminate Hezbollah, like they set out to eliminate Hamas, but the Gaza war has revealed the improbability of that. There is a nebulous idea of creating a 70 km wide security zone along the Israel-Lebanon border, that would serve as a buffer zone to prevent further Hezbollah attacks on Israeli settlements along the border. But that is easier said than done. It would involve long-term occupation which will be difficult to sustain. So the end-state of this war would also see Lebanon bombed into rubble, but the Hezbollah still holding out, and Israel finding itself more insecure than before.

There is also the roles of the principal sponsors—USA and Israel. The US, in spite of open differences with Netanyahu, will stand by Israel. It has released additional stockpiles of weaponry, and even sent an amphibious assault ship, “USS WASP,” along with a contingent of marines, to add to the two carrier groups already operating in the region. That is a clear signal of deterrence. Iran has been in the backdrop after its exchange of missiles with Israel in April, but it would not remain passive, should its main proxy be attacked. It could activate other proxies in Yemen and the West Bank. As it is, the Houthis have intensified their actions and struck two ships in Red Sea over the past fortnight. All this could lead to rapid escalation and perhaps even raise the question—after Hezbollah, will it be Iran which is the next target in Israel’s quest for “long-term security”?

As the threat of war on Israel’s northern front increases, one still hopes that some kind of peace deal will eventually be hammered out between Israel and Hamas, even at this belated stage. Even that would not resolve the problem or provide a long-term solution. But it will keep the guns silent and relieve the humanitarian trauma. If nothing else, it would be a reprieve that could stave off a wider war in the region, and perhaps push it to another day.

Ajay Singh is an international award winning author of seven books and over 200 articles. He is a regular contributor to The Sunday Guardian.

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