Why Israel fears a Lebanon flare-up

At a rare press conference on Tuesday, IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi tried to play down the reports of tension on the Israel-Lebanon border.

“We have no signs that the peace is about to be broken,” he said.

A few minutes earlier, though, while meeting new recruits bound for one of the IDF’s infantry brigades, he told them that “the chance we will have to act in the near future is large. So make the most of your training, you could well be put to the test.”

Lt-Gen Ashkenazi and his boss, Defence Minister Ehud Barak, have both tried in recent days to downplay fears of an outbreak of hostilities on the Lebanese border, three years after the Second Lebanon War. The truth, though, is that these fears are very real.

There are four main factors that Israeli defence officials believe may lead Hizbollah to escalate the situation.

The first is that, with the elections in Lebanon over, the Shia movement no longer has much of a motive to appear “moderate and statesmanlike”. On the contrary, “now that they have lost at the ballot box”, says one intelligence analyst, “they may want to prove their relevance on the battlefield.”

The second cause is the fact that, despite intense efforts, Hizbollah still has not succeeded in avenging the death of its Operations Chief, Imad Mughniye, in Damascus a year-and-a half ago, for which they blame Israel.

Attempts at launching operations against Israeli targets abroad have failed so far but the motivation is still there. They may decide that their only option is attacking closer to home.

Another factor that could lead to rapid escalation is the possibility that Hizbollah could succeed in smuggling what the IDF calls “balance-changing” weapons from Iran or Syria. These missiles and other advanced weapons systems could significantly hamper Israel’s ability to operate in Lebanon’s airspace or off its coast, or boost Hizbollah’s long-range missile capability.

If Hizbollah was to attain such capabilities, Israel would be impelled to act pre-emptively.

The fourth factor relates to the explosion of a Hizbollah missile store near the border three weeks ago. The incident was used by Israel and the United States to bring about a rare condemnation of Hizbollah in the United Nations, and promises of a more serious attempt by UNIFIL to prevent further arms build-up in the border area.

Hizbollah may try and provoke a limited flare-up that will prevent UNIFIL from acting.

“Nobody really thinks that Hizbollah are after another war,” says one Israeli officer. “Hassan Nasrallah himself said after the previous war that if he had known how Israel would react, he would have never started it.

He is after more short-term gains now and wants to re-assert his organisation, not bring about another round of destruction.

“The problem is that you know how these things start, but it’s impossible to predict how they will end.”

Last updated: 4:33pm, July 30 2009