By Matthew Williams:
The volatile relationship between Israel and Hizbullah has worsened since early 2015 and has threatened to deteriorate into open war. A Third Lebanon War would have significant repercussions not only for Israel, but for the entire region. Lebanon faces a major crisis: it now contains over 1-1.5 million Syrian and Palestinian refugees; and its neighbour Syria is in the midst of a civil war that has left an estimated 240,000 dead,
Tension is growing between Israel and Hizbullah. This was underlined by the violence between the two parties in January-February 2015, which left two Israeli soldiers dead and threatened to escalate into open war. This tension could be the catalyst for the breakdown of the Lebanese government’s capability to control the civil war already spilling over into Lebanon. This is illustrated by the refugee crisis, the presence of extremist cells like ISIS in Lebanon, and the operations of Hizbullah and the Lebanese government forces against such groups.
While a third war has failed to materialise thus far, a future crisis may await in the Levant; indeed, Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Liberman has declared that a third war is ‘inevitable’. From Netanyahu’s perspective, the Arab Spring provoked insecurity across the region and Israel had to respond. The insecurity was brought about by the original phase of protests and upheavals that constituted the Arab Spring, the subsequent deterioration of many of these protests into protracted violent conflicts (as exemplified by Syria), and the rise of Iranian influence and involvement in such civil wars across the region. From the outset Netenyahu’s response has been to consolidate Israel’s control over the West Bank by expanding settlements, increasing military spending, strongly condemning Iranian involvement in these various conflicts, and reinforcing ‘the bunker mentality of Israel’s right-wing government’ in what has become an unpredictable regional environment.
However, the Knesset has endured a difficult year in 2015, calling into question the sustainability of this strategy. The Iranian nuclear deal has left Israel’s coalition government exposed to heavy criticism, with both parties from the left and the right describing the deal as a major foreign policy disaster. Politicians across the political spectrum fear that Netanyahu’s coarse diplomatic approach to the matter has not only produced a foreign policy disaster for Israel, but also damaged relations with the Obama administration through heavy-handed criticism.
The potential removal of sanctions on Iran, a key sponsor of Hizbullah, will be a significant cause for concern amongst the Israeli security services, as the lifting of embargoes on conventional arms will be perceived as an opportunity to strengthen Hizbullah both financially and militarily. Sources close to the organisation have argued that ‘additional Iranian support would not come in the form of weaponry, but rather in the form of institutional resources — schools, hospitals and roads — increasing local support, while propping up Shiite militias and regime forces in neighbouring Syria.’
However, the implications of the Iranian nuclear deal, while important in changing the future dynamics of the Hizbullah-Israeli conflict, serves to distract attention from the way that Hizbullah has established a degree of parity with the Israeli military that was absent in the 2006 Lebanon war.
According to Jeffrey White, Hizbullah has unilaterally expanded its missile capabilities alongside significant innovations in its defensive layout in southern Lebanon, while their military support for Bashar al-Assad has meant that the group has gained considerable potential in offensive strategy. Israeli intelligence has estimated that Hizbullah ‘would likely…sustain fire of around a thousand rockets and missiles per day, dwarfing the approximate daily rate of 118 achieved in 2006.’ Such an increase in military power means that in the event of an attack major damage would be dealt to Israeli civil and military infrastructure, as well as the killing of scores of Israeli civilians.
Covert Iranian support for Hizbullah, while prevalent, has been over-emphasized by Western media. According to Uzi Rubin, it was ‘Syrian rockets (that) played the major role in the Second Lebanon war (2006), while Iranian rockets were practically absent from it’ and ‘few if any Iranian rockets hit Israel throughout the entire (2006) campaign.’ Whether or not Iran covertly supports Hizbullah or not in the next war will not determine the group’s capacity to do formidable damage to Israel.
An ill-timed military campaign designed to weaken Hizbullah, while considered legitimate to the hawkish Israeli government, will provide more problems than solutions for Israeli security, as well as increasing problems for its European allies, and further destabilizing the wider region. The conflict would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East and Europe and present Western leaders with yet another war in the Middle East to navigate.
The Lebanese government and Hizbullah are already struggling to provide for a huge number of refugees, which has produced a major socio-economic and humanitarian crisis in Lebanon. This is not an entirely new phenomenon. The Palestinians and its refugee population have, historically, had a difficult relationship with the Lebanese population. But the Syrian refugees provide a new and unpredictable dynamic to this relationship between local and refugee populations.
If Lebanese civil and military infrastructure and its civilians are treated in an indiscriminate manner by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in the pursuit of Hizbullah, it will create a new humanitarian crisis by displacing thousands of Lebanese civilians while undermining governmental capacity to provide for its Palestinian and Syrian refugee populations. In the second Lebanon War (2006) the IDF severely damaged Lebanese civil infrastructure and displaced 900,000 Lebanese civilians, as well as killing over one thousand.
A war now would have far greater impact, making these statistics pale by comparison. Not only is the regional context significantly less stable than it was in 2006, but there is also a more belligerent government in power in Isreal. Netanyahu’s coalition is drifting towards an open embrace of ethno-religious nationalism. It continues to introduce increasingly discriminatory policies against Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, and perseveres in its use of draconian military tactics, many of which have invited international condemnation.
In the second Lebanon War, according to Human Rights Watch, ‘94 attacks show that Israel often, even though not deliberately attacking civilians, did not distinguish between military objectives and civilians or civilian objects.’ The heavy casualties and critical damage resulting from these attacks illustrated ‘the failure of the IDF to take adequate safeguards to prevent civilian casualties’ in the fight against Hamas during the 2014 Gaza War, the IDF obliterated entire areas of the Gaza Strip, much of which remains in ruins, leaving thousands of Palestinians homeless and dependent on a trickle of humanitarian aid. This seems to demonstrate that the IDF has barely changed its military conduct.
Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian refugees will be caught in the cross-fire and thousands will be forced to flee. These refugees would struggle to enter Israel – Netanyahu has reaffirmed the Knesset’s policy of zero tolerance on providing asylum for refugees, who he contends will destabilise the geographic and demographic integrity of Israel. The alternative for these refugees fleeing a third Israeli-Lebanon war is Assad or ISIS, an unrealistic alternative that may force thousands to flood to Turkey, Jordan or to Europe. This will exacerbate the ongoing migrant/refugee crisis there and further destabilise a the fragile Balkan countries.
A third Lebanon War would additionally increase Israeli isolation while providing an opportunity for ultra-violent extremist splinter groups affiliated with Islamic State and radical jihadist cells to strengthen their position in a disordered eastern Lebanon. Eastern Lebanon remains fiercely contested by Lebanese Armed Forces and Hizbullah fighting against insurgents associated with ISIS who have been pushed into Lebanon by the Syrian military.
These are plausible scenarios as Israel’s stature in the international community continues to slide, as typified by the wide-spread international condemnation of the brutal Gaza War, Netanyahu’s souring relationship with Barack Obama, and the anti-Arab rhetoric he used against Israeli Arabs to swing the March elections in Likud’s favour.
Is the war inevitable? As Ari Shavit notes, a balance in military deterrents could prevent an escalation. However the precarious January crisis proved that small incidents can escalate into open hostility (the second Lebanon war was an even graver example). Amidst the unpredictability of the radically changing Middle East and the unprecedented changes occurring in Israeli society and politics, conventional military deterrents may not be enough in the long-term.
The remaining solution is for Israel to reform its diplomatic approach in the region and with the international community, and for Western policymakers to make serious efforts to reach out to the new (and legitimate) and conventional regimes in the Middle East. This could prove decisive in preventing an escalation in hostilities and mediating a swift ceasefire between the two parties should conflict break out, meaning that impact of the war upon Lebanon and Israel would be limited.
The Arab-Israeli conflict dynamic remains a dangerous blind-spot in the current Middle Eastern crisis that cannot be neglected. For Israel, a protracted war with Hizbullah would not only be a costly military confrontation, it would also further damage Israel’s standing amongst its western allies. These allies suspect that Netanyahu’s unilateral attempts to secure national security will trigger a destabilising conflict between Israel, Lebanon and Hizbullah, thereby undermining one of the West’s wider strategic objectives in the Middle East: the containment of the regional violence and instability.
Future military and diplomatic hostilities between Israel and Hizbullah are inevitable. What is crucial is how Israeli politicians, Western policymakers, and Hizbullah’s leadership contain this rivalry to limited and intermittent confrontations. This will decide whether or not the conflict will ignite a regional inferno.
Matthew Williams recently completed his MA in Conflict, Security and Development in the Department of War Studies and King’s College London. You can follow him on Twitter @Matthew431 or view his personal website www.archivesofconflict.wordpress.com/
 Muriel, Ausseberg, “The Arab Spring and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Vicious Cycle of Mutually Reinforcing Negative Repercussions,” in An Arab Springboard for EU Foreign Policy eds. Sven Biscop, Rosa Balfour and Michael Emerson (The Royal Institute for International Relations): 86.
 Alessandra, Masi, “Will A Nuclear Deal With Iran Strengthen American Enemies Across The Region?,” The International Business Times, July 14th, 2015, accessed September 18th, 2015, http://www.ibtimes.com/will-nuclear-deal-iran-strengthen-american-enemies-across-region-2008602.
 “A War Like No Other: Israel vs. Hezbollah in 2015,” last modified 29 January 2015, accessed September 14, 2015, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/a-war-like-no-other-israel-vs.-hezbollah-in-2015.
 Uzi, Rubin, “The Rocket Campaign against Israel during the 2006 Lebanon War,” The Begin-Sada Center for Strategic Studies, 71 (2007): 6-7.