Hezbollah's decision to "retaliate" after a week of threats is a major gamble for the organization thirteen years after it launched an attack on Israel in 2006 that led to a difficult conflict. Initial reports indicate Hezbollah used anti-tank missiles to target areas inside Israel. Hezbollah's action risks a major escalation but it is in line with its rhetoric over the past week, promising to do something.
Hezbollah is in a complex situation because last Sunday, August 25, it claimed to have discovered and brought down Israeli drones. In subsequent days Hezbollah held on to the drones while Lebanon's Prime Minister and President both said Israel had violated Lebanon's sovereignty and that the country was on the verge of war. Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah gave speeches and statements indicating that a response would be forthcoming and Hezbollah sought to mock Israel, claiming that Israelis were worried about its response.
But this appeared to be bluff for several days. It comes amidst rising tensions between the US and Iran over Washington's "maximum pressure" campaign and its attempt to sanction Iranian officials and oil exports. It also comes amid tensions in Syria where Israel launched an airstrike against the IRGC on August 24. That airstrike was in response to Hezbollah members and the IRGC bringing "killer drones" toward the border with the Golan. In addition, Israel released details last Thursday showing how the IRGC was seeking to upgrade Hezbollah's missile arsenal of some 130,000 missiles. Hezbollah has said in the past it can reach all of Israel with its rockets.
Hezbollah has maneuvered to make itself indispensable to Lebanese politics and military affairs.
Hezbollah had choices over the past week, but it narrowed them as it said it would do something. It has made threats in the past, more general in nature. But Hezbollah wants an excuse to legitimize itself. It wanted to pave the way for war. It sought to do this by getting Prime Minister Saad Hariri and President Michel Aoun to release statements. Hariri is ostensibly opposed to Hezbollah. Hezbollah is accused of having killed his father in 2005. But Hezbollah has maneuvered since then to make itself indispensable to Lebanese politics and military affairs. For instance, Hezbollah claims to be "resisting" Israel by asserting Israel occupies the Sheba'a farms or Mount Dov area on the border. Hezbollah also emerged from the Syrian civil war as a kind of victor, having sent fighters to Syria in 2012. It lost many men in Syria but it also put down roots and infrastructure and helped to work with Iran as Iran sought to expand its presence through Iraq to Lebanon. This is Iran's "road to the sea" or "land bridge" that includes Shi'ite militias in Iraq and Iranian-backed groups in Syria.
Hezbollah also sought to make sure that it had message discipline with Tehran, waiting for IRGC Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani to legitimate a "response." The issue for Hezbollah is that it heard over the past week warnings from the US, including attempts to de-escalate the crises in Lebanon and also clear messages of backing from the US for Israel. Hezbollah's gamble on September 1 is that it can "retaliate" and not create a massive war. It has been looking at Gaza and also Israel's airstrikes in Syria and it believes that it might be able to commit itself to a "tit-for-tat" escalation without precipitating a massive conflict that has regional implications. Hezbollah naturally understands that it is sitting on a fuse that can ignite a much larger conflict. But it painted itself into a corner with threats to do something.
Seth Frantzman, a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (Gefen, 2019). He is the op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.