The Expanding Front: Israel, Lebanon, And The Regional Escalation Of The Conflict 

Beatrice Ala

The situation in the Middle East is ever-changing and susceptible to ever-increasing changes; the echoes are widening, involving more and more actors and expanding on a regional scale. The latest developments are moving away from the Gaza hotspot and towards Israel’s northern front with Lebanon, where mutual attacks between Iran-backed group Hezbollah militias and the IDF army have been going on since the beginning of the last phase of the conflict and is now intensifying.

Rockets fired from southern Lebanon are intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system over the Upper Galilee region in northern Israel on July 3, 2024. (Photo by Jalaa MAREY / AFP) (Photo by JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images)

Since Israel began its operation in Rafah, in southern Gaza, there has been increasing international pressure on its military conduct. The UN’s highest court deemed the humanitarian situation there as “disastrous” and ordered Israel to immediately end its contentious military operation last month. Reiterating his stance, Netanyahu stated that the war will go on “to achieve the goal of eliminating” Hamas even after a ceasefire, but also that the “intense phase of the war with Hamas (in Gaza) is about to end.”

The military’s attention has thus moved to Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where fighting with Hezbollah has intensified in recent weeks.

Since October 8, the day following the Hamas attacks on Israel, Hezbollah, which is considered one of the most potent paramilitary groups in the Middle East, has been carrying out deadly strikes from southern Lebanon targeting locations in northern Israel. As a response, Israel’s strategy seems still concentrated in preliminary strikes aimed not only at military targets, but also several Hezbollah fighters, including senior commanders.

Because of the escalating tension and the destruction caused by the exchange of fire, tens of thousands of Israelis have had to leave their homes in northern Israel; a mirroring situation occurred in southern Lebanon, where villages have also been abandoned. As reported by data collected by the Financial Times, Israeli attacks on Hezbollah military targets have resulted in the destruction or serious damage of buildings, infrastructure, farms, and forests. Some entire neighborhoods in the dispersed towns and villages that line the border have been leveled. Most of the devastation has occurred in a 5 km radius to the north of the UN-drawn Blue Line, which separates the two nations, in what has been identified as an attempt to create a buffer zone

A woman walks past buildings destroyed during previous Israeli military fire on the southern Lebanese village of Aita al-Shaab, near the border with northern Israel on June 29, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border clashes between Israeli troops and Hezbollah fighters. (Photo by AFP) (Photo by –/AFP via Getty Images)

The role of Hezbollah in this conflict has been continuous, and it is set to grow. 

Hezbollah stands as the center of a network of relations that are as delicate as they are fundamental to Middle East politics. In the increasingly frequent scenario of asymmetric warfare, Hezbollah is an extremely volatile subject, but with great political, trans-national and military effectiveness. It is a fundamental tool for Iranian strategy in the Middle East, as it constitutes the crown jewel of the “axis of resistance” arrayed against the region’s dominant Sunni powers and the West. Since the last outbreak of conflict in Gaza, the axis of resistance has started to further mobilize to counteract Israeli military activity. 

The expansion of the war front toward Lebanon has in fact triggered other actors: as the network calls upon largely Shia, pro-Iranian regional cells, the scope of the axis could be much wider than Israel can or wants to manage, spreading regionally and aiming at a larger number of targets, in addition to attacking Israel from the locations they’re based in. As Hezbollah expanded its influence into Syria, Iraq, and Yemen as it solidified its position as a regional force and a hub in the axis of resistance, it works with like-minded organizations to coordinate operations, training, and supplies. According to Al Jazeera, the axis can count on a capillary structure with several transnational group supports, including parts of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, or foreign and local fighters in Syria. 

The expansion of the front to the north could further trigger a regional escalation, and the international community is watching with growing alarm. In the case of a full-scale conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, US officials are concerned that the militant organization backed by Iran may overwhelm Israel’s northern air defenses, including the highly regarded Iron Dome system.

Shifting from Gaza to Lebanon is not a light decision and it conveys a much more complex and multifaceted military strategy. Although both Hamas, the cell that attacked Israel on October 7, and Hezbollah are both non-State actors, the international and geopolitical scenario surrounding the two, albeit related, is different. Lebanon, even if economically unstable and with a tormented political history, is an internationally recognized and sovereign State, with a proper UN seat; crossing the Blue Line would be perceived very much differently in the eyes of the international community. Furthermore, Lebanon is not an exclave surrounded by adversarial neighbors like Gaza is. Its political and geopolitical proximity to Syria, Iraq and especially Iran allows Beirut to benefit from strategic depth, which may prove crucial in the event of a large-scale conflict.

In fact, looking at the geopolitical balance in the Middle East, the long-standing equilibrium favoring Israel is beginning to shift. Its aggressive and mounting military actions are frowned upon even by its closest allies, and the US are increasingly showing their alarm for the idea of a intervention in the region; on the opposite front, the clashes between the IDF and Hezbollah  -if they escalate from the firing of rockets on the border- could trigger the intervention of much bigger powers if the threat of a ground war materializes.

AITA AL CHAAB, LEBANON – JUNE 29: Funeral of Hezbollah fighters Abbas Ahmad Srour and Mohammad Hussein Kassem on June 29, 2024 in Aita al Chaab, Lebanon. Hezbollah and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have been trading cross-border fire since the October 7 attacks. The conflict intensified in June when Hezbollah fired hundreds of rockets and drones at Israeli military sites. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

In this scenario, Iran is looming in the background. 

In April, Tehran launched a barrage of hundreds of missiles and drones at Israel in revenge for the Israeli raid on its diplomatic facility in Damascus. Now, as the likelihood that Hezbollah, the crown jewel, will get involved on the front lines is growing, Tehran is getting more explicit about its possible implication in the conflict: by warning Israel about the “obliterating” outcome of a Lebanese-Israeli war, and hinting at the “full involvement of all Resistance Fronts”.

The Israeli establishment, on the other hand, seems to be still granitic about the intention of going full-in about Hezbollah. National Unity Party leader Benny Gantz has expressed his conviction about the necessity to return the northern residents back to their homes; the duty to restore internal order and security comes first, even at the price of escalation. The pressure -both psychological and military- exerted by Hezbollah on the northern front is enough for Israel to act on it, and it can’t allow the enemy militias to come an inch closer to the border. 

The Israeli-Lebanese situation remains a complex geopolitical issue, deeply rooted in historical tensions, territorial disputes, and regional power dynamics. From a geopolitical standpoint, it is shaped by Lebanon’s internal political instability, Hezbollah’s influence, and Israel’s security concerns. Internationally, the conflict draws in major powers, with the U.S. and Iran exerting significant influence, and simultaneously underscores the global community’s concern for the increasingly real possibility of a regional, transnational and multilevel war that could involve state and non-state actors. 

For more information:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Expanding Front: Isra…

by Beatrice Ala time to read: 5 min