Israel weighs the price of a full-scale war with Hezbollah

As tensions mount along the Lebanese border, fears grow of an all-out Hamas-style assault from the well-armed Iranian-backed militia


TOPSHOT - This picture taken from a position along the border in northern Israel on December 26, 2023 shows smoke billowing in the southern Lebanese village of Marwahin following Israeli bombardment amid ongoing cross-border tensions as fighting continues between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. (Photo by Jalaa MAREY / AFP) (Photo by JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images)

V “IF you ask me, it’s obvious there will be a war with Hezbollah,” Sivan Yehchieli said. “We are a peace-loving people, but we’re not going to sit here and be slaughtered. We have an enemy to the north that wants to attack and kill us, and the threat must be removed.”

Yechieli was speaking on a hilltop nine kilometres south of Israel’s frontier with Lebanon, in the town of Kfar Varidim which he served for a decade as mayor. The fence marking the border was clearly visible through binoculars, on the far side of the valley at the top of a forested slope. Behind it lay a large orange building — an outpost, Yechieli said, of Lebanon’s terrorist army, Hezbollah.

And the white building next to it? That, he went on, was a base for the international peacekeeping force known as Unifil. Under the terms of UN Security Council resolution 1701, the agreement that ended the last major conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, it is supposed to ensure that Hezbollah forces get no closer to the border than the Litani river, 30km to the north.

Self-evidently, it is not doing its job. Since October 7, Hezbollah — which, like Hamas, is a proxy for Iran’s extremist regime — has fired hundreds of rockets and mortars from positions far to the south of the Litani, with an average of ten incidents per day. Last Saturday, it launched 60 projectiles against an Israeli airbase in a single barrage, and in the past two years, fighters from Hezbollah’s Radwan special forces unit have frequently been observed and photographed next to the border, in flagrant breach of 1701.

The consequence is that although IDF operations in Gaza are starting to wind down, tensions in the north appear to be nearing boiling point, increasing the risk of a war that could be catastrophic.

On the hilltop, Yechieli pointed out once-thriving villages between Kfar Varidim and the border that for the past three months have had no residents. In all, 100,000 Israelis have left their homes in the north, 60,000 on government instructions and another 40,000 who fear that, like Hamas, Hezbollah may launch a ground attack, aimed at capturing territory and massacring Jews.

Sarit Zehavi, a reservist military intelligence lieutenant-colonel who runs the Alma Research and Education Centre, a think tank specialising in Israel’s security challenges based in Kfar Varidim, told the JC their fears were well-founded.

Ten years ago, she said, a Hezbollah TV station broadcast details of a battle plan almost identical to that executed by Hamas on October 7: an attack that would start with rockets and drone strikes, followed by incursions at multiple locations by thousands of fighters who would take hostages and use Jewish civilians as human shields.

Israel has found Hezbollah cross-border tunnels cut through solid rock 80 metres below the surface, an engineering feat far tougher to accomplish than the tunnels dug by Hamas through the Gazan sand. Meanwhile, Hezbollah has become the effective government of south Lebanon’s civilian communities, providing a wide range of health and soci. Against all this, Zehavi said, Unifil was powerless: “There is no international force that is capable of going house to house in Lebanon to look for rockets. And how can Unifil push Hezbollah away from the border when it is so entrenched?”

In the past week, Israel has assassinated terrorist leaders in Lebanon from both Hamas and Hezbollah, but so far there has been no sign of a Hezbollah ground attack. But according to Zehavi, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah “already has his victory, by forcing Israel to create the security zone where people have been evacuated”.

In the long run, she said, this situation was untenable, and could only be dealt with by military force, for “the only way to deter a terrorist organisation is to destroy its capability”.

Many in Israel hold the same view. There have been persistent reports that IDF reservists have been told they may soon be demobilised as the war in Gaza becomes less intense, but warned they can expect to be called up again later this year to join an Israeli operation designed to enforce Resolution 1701.

Strong pressure is being applied by Israel’s allies to stop that happening, and to talk Nasrallah into a diplomatic settlement: this week, Amos Hochstein, President Biden’s special envoy who negotiated last year’s gas pipeline deal between Israel and Lebanon is in Beirut, trying to do just that. But if his initiative fails, the challenge will be formidable.

According to Zehavi, Hezbollah’s arsenal includes 140,000 mortar bombs, 65,000 short-range rockets and a further 13,000 long- and mid-range missiles, some of which carry payloads in excess of 500kg with a range of 400km, placing almost all of Israel under threat. Most alarmingly of all, she said, hundreds of these long-range weapons contain precision guidance systems, while Hezbollah also possesses some 2,000 Iranian-made military drones.

Ofer Shelah, a former Knesset member and chair of its foreign affairs and defence committees, who is now a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told the JC: “I don’t think people realise the price we’d have to pay in the event of a full-scale war with Hezbollah. We would survive it. But it would be a hell of a price: hundreds of rockets fired every day at Haifa, and others at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Afterwards, people would ask: was whatever we achieved really worth it?”

Zehavi said he was right about the price: in Kfar Varidim, “we have about 15 seconds after the sirens go to take shelter — which means that if it comes to war, we will be living in our bomb shelters.”

But like Yechieli, she believed this would be hard to avoid, because of Israeli’s heightened sense of vulnerability since October 7: “Personally I am worried, for my country and my family life. My fear is that there will be a ceasefire — and then, when Israel has demobilised, Nasrallah and Iran will choose their moment.”

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