1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Israel-Hezbollah: Rising concern 'real' war will break out

June 26, 2024

Fighting on the Israeli-Lebanese border was previously restricted to tit-for-tat attacks aimed at deterrence. But it has been ramping up and experts say there's more chance of action that sparks all-out war and invasion.

Israeli security forces examine the site hit by a rocket fired from Lebanon, in Kiryat Shmona, northern Israel.
The Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona, in northern Israel, has been hit by rocket attacks in recent monthsImage: Ariel Schalit/AP Photo/picture alliance

An end to fighting in the Gaza Strip, yes, but not an end to the war: this is what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Sunday evening, on local television.

The conflict could only end with the complete destruction of the Gaza-based militant group, Hamas, Netanyahu repeated again. But once the fighting in Gaza died down, this would mean that some Israeli troops could be sent north to the border of Israel and Lebanon.

The Israeli military and Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based group with a militia about 50,000 strong that also plays a significant political role in the country, have been exchanging fire in this area for years now. But since the October 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas, which resulted in the deaths of around 1,200 people and an ensuing Israeli military campaign that has killed almost 40,000, the skirmishes have intensified. Hezbollah sees Hamas as an ally, and both groups are supported by Iran.

Up until now, Israel and Hezbollah have been careful to avoid all-out war. Several days ago, Hezbollah released a video taken with a drone that shows various military and civilian facilities in Israel, including in the Israeli port city of Haifa. Ostensibly, the sites could become targets if a wider war breaks out. 

Moving slowly toward escalation

"We are registering a gradual escalation that has increased in intensity in recent weeks," said Michael Bauer, who heads the Lebanese office of Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation. "Even if you assume that both sides are not seeking a full-scale war, the level of escalation is high. Things can easily go wrong." 

Peter Lintl, a researcher in the Africa and Middle East division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, or SWP, agrees.

Up until now, the tit-for-tat attacks and rocket fire can't be classified as an all-out war, he said. But the fighting is becoming more frequent and getting more intense, even as neither side appears to want a war.

"So we are seeing a very slow increase toward a possible escalation," he explained. "Of course, through these constant attempts to deter each other and then the respective countermeasures, it could happen that they reach a kind of point of no return at some time where one side says we have to react more strongly, which in turn motivates the other side to strike back harder," Lintl told DW. "That's the kind of danger we are now seeing." 

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah speaks in a televised address via a video link .
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah made a call to rally supporters during a speech in AprilImage: Hassan Ammar/AP

The Israelis are well aware of that danger, Heiko Wimmen, head of think tank International Crisis Group's (ICG) Iraq, Syria and Lebanon project. He said recently ICG colleague in Israel had spoken with Israelis who had close connections with the Israeli military, including some who had only recently left the service.

"Their perspective is that it is extremely dangerous to attack an enemy that has spent 20 years preparing for exactly this," said Wimmen. "They're also doubtful about attacking the militia [Hezbollah] with forces that may be somewhat exhausted from the fighting with Hamas, which has already lasted several months."

Of course. the Israeli military could keep trying not to cross Hezbollah's red lines. "But you don't know where they are," Wimmen pointed out. "By the time you do, it would be too late."

Does the US support a wider war?

It's not like Hezbollah necessarily wants a greater war either, said Bauer of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. That's why it is doing things like publicizing its drone video, using tougher rhetoric and demonstrating that it possesses more sophisticated weapons systems. It's meant as form of deterrent.

"This is also a message to its own supporters," Bauer added. "Since October last year, around 400 of its fighters have been killed. That's more than during the 2006 war [between Israel and Hezbollah]. So the leadership also wants to demonstrate strength for its internal audience and, at the same time, improve its position in any possible future negotiations."

According to a recent op-ed by Amr Hamzawy, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Program, in the Arabic language newspaper, Alquds Alarabi, based in London and specializing in Palestinian news, the regime in Tehran, which supports both Hezbollah and Hamas, doesn't want a major war in the Middle East either.

According to the op-ed, Tehran has told its various non-state allies — this includes the Houthis in Yemen and Iraqi militias — to intensify their activities somewhat — a form of deterrence, supposed to alert Israel and other countries to the potential consequences of any all-out war, the op-ed argued.

An Israeli Air Force F-15 jet fighter maneuvers over northern Israel on the border with Lebanon.
Without US approval, Israel cannot invade Lebanon Image: Ariel Schalit/AP Photo/picture alliance

Much of this really depends on what the US does, said Wimmen. The Americans are Israel's most important allies and support the country with funding, diplomacy and weapons deliveries.

"Up until now they have not given Israel a green light for an attack [on Lebanon]," he noted. "That is a military precondition for Israel to come out of this conflict successfully. The delivery of US weapons must continue. Without that, Israel is in no position to conduct such a war."

It's not just the potential combatants who are concerned about this conflict spiraling out of control. Neighboring countries are also worried.

"Egypt and Jordan could be destabilized by any such war," said the SWP's Lintl, noting that in Jordan, fundamentalists are gaining popular support because of the war in Gaza.

"Other states, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are trying their best to avert war. But their means to do so are a bit limited," he said. "This makes their concerns all the greater. Any such war would be a disaster for them, too."

This article was originally written in German.

Expert: Israel-Hezbollah war 'would be a disaster'

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East