Thousands in Lebanon thronged the streets on August 4, to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Beirut port blast and to demand justice in holding responsible officials accountable. But just hours before they gathered, tensions on the border with Israel had escalated, sparking new concerns among an already weary population. Three rockets were fired from Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon towards Israel, two of which landed near Kiryat Shmona, while no casualties were reported. It is not yet certain who fired the missiles but numerous analysts have claimed that nothing moves in south Lebanon without Hezbollah’s knowledge.
Israel responded with artillery shelling and, according to the Lebanese army, fired 92 shells. The exchange carried on for two more days as the Israeli army launched airstrikes on August 5, in response to more rockets fired from Hezbollah territory, it said. These were the first Israeli airstrikes from across the border since 2014 and under the country’s new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
The border between Israel and Lebanon is among the most volatile in the world, though it has remained calm for years. Over the last decade, Israel hit alleged Iranian assets in neighboring Syria hundreds of times but it steered clear of provoking tensions with Lebanon.
On August 6, Hezbollah officially admitted to firing 20 rockets inside Israel and vowed to retaliate if Israel responded. “We wanted to tell the enemy that any airstrike by the Israeli air force on Lebanon will inevitably draw a response, though in a suitable and proportionate way,” said Hezbollah Chief Hassan Nasrallah. He conceded that the developments on the border were “very dangerous,” and insisted that Hezbollah did not want war. “We are not looking for war and we do not want to head towards war, but we are ready for it,” Nasrallah added.
As Lebanon grapples with a debilitating economic crisis, the recent clashes have left many in the nation befuddled at the timing.
As Lebanon grapples with a debilitating economic crisis, the recent clashes have left many in the nation befuddled at the timing and anxious there may be more to come. Indeed, a war with Israel is the last thing Lebanon needs. The World Bank has said Lebanon is going through the world’s third worst financial crisis since the 19th century. The currency has plummeted by over 100 percent and is trading at 20,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar, while the central bank of Lebanon still values it at 1,500 to the USD.
There are many reasons for Lebanon’s unimpeded collapse but its southern neighbor and arch enemy, Israel, has selectively blamed just one entity—the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia. “Lebanon is on the verge of collapse, like every country that Iran takes over,” Naftali Bennett said in a cabinet meeting in July, soon after he replaced Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s Prime Minister. He went on to state that Israel is closely watching the situation in Lebanon and is on alert.
It is no secret that Hezbollah and Israel have been at daggers drawn since the formation of the Iran-backed group, which describes itself as a resistance to Israel. Moreover, Hezbollah played an instrumental role in ousting the Israelis from Lebanon in the 80s and gave them a hard time again in the 2006 Israel–Hezbollah war.
Thus, it suits Israel to capitalize on disaffection among the Lebanese, to weaken Hezbollah domestically. There is, however, some truth to Bennett’s accusation. A part of Lebanese society questions Hezbollah’s insistence to keep its arms but have long been too afraid to speak out.
Yet, as Lebanon’s economy collapses, criticism of Hezbollah has increased on the ground. While the group has retained many of its followers in the Shi’ite community, its support is depreciating in other parts of society. Hezbollah is not seen as particularly corrupt by the Lebanese, but it is viewed as a hindrance to Lebanon’s economic revival since neither the US nor the Arab Gulf states would extract Lebanon from the debilitating financial crises as long as an armed Hezbollah is doing Iran’s bidding.
Hezbollah is not seen as particularly corrupt by the Lebanese, but it is viewed as a hindrance to Lebanon’s economic revival.
Hence, some Lebanese experts believe Hezbollah provoked Israel on the border deliberately. A little tension on the border, they argue, can work in the favor of the Lebanese political class. This includes Hezbollah, which is desperate to divert the attention in the country away from their failings.
Accordingly, Bennett’s comments are meant to lure the disenchanted Lebanese across sects and present Israel as a benign force. Israel has repeatedly expressed concerns over the situation in Lebanon and even offered to help. There are some in Lebanon who are ready to give Israel the benefit of the doubt, but most Lebanese don’t want to be dragged into an Israel-Hezbollah conflict.
“As an Israeli, as a Jew and as a human being, my heart aches seeing the images of people going hungry on the streets of Lebanon,” Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz recently tweeted. “Israel has offered assistance to Lebanon in the past, and even today we are ready to act and to encourage other countries to extend a helping hand to Lebanon so that it will once again flourish and emerge from its state of crisis.”
Nonetheless, Lebanon has steadily refused help from Israel, which it officially describes as an enemy.
Sami Nader, a Lebanese political analyst, told Inside Arabia that Lebanon continues to be a casualty of the hostilities between Iran and Israel. “What happened at the border on August 4? Who fired those rockets? We know that Hezbollah controls southern Lebanon. To me it is clear that Iran is using all its leverage to revive the nuclear deal as it was,” said Nader.
There have been ongoing speculations that Tehran is using its proxies to agitate US positions and allies in the region – such as Israel.
Indeed, there have been ongoing speculations that Tehran is using its proxies to agitate US positions and allies in the region – such as Israel – in order to sway the outcome of the current US-Iran negotiations over a renewed nuclear deal.
Furthermore, “Israel knows that Hezbollah is under fire inside Lebanon. One of the reasons is that it is backing the corrupt political order. If Hezbollah stopped supporting the political elite, [Lebanon] would have an independent government now,” Nader explained. “Israel, of course, is using tensions in Lebanon to its advantage, appeasing some Lebanese in the hope to further weaken Hezbollah’s support base.”
Israel has not yet responded to the 20 rockets fired by Hezbollah on August 6, but has said it will. While it remains to be seen when and where it will next hit, considering Lebanon’s fragile state and growing political discord, it appears there are various ways for Israel to use the current dynamics to its benefit.