Maroun el-Ras, Lebanon – Local farmers pensively inspect their crops, no doubt fearing the worst. Some of the tobacco and olive fields are still smouldering, but for the most part, the flames have been quelled. Tensions with the apparent arsonist, Israel, are simmering too – but like the fire, hostilities have calmed. Last week’s brief cross-border firefight marked the first major exchange between Iran-backed Hezbollah militants and Israeli armed forces in over a decade. Escalation seems to have been averted, but as Israel’s Iranian proxy war expands, lasting peace is far from certain.
Relations between the uneasy neighbours took a bombastic turn on August 25, when Israel Defense Forces (IDF) drones struck targets in Beirut. It followed a similar attack on Syria-based Hezbollah troops, and was the final straw for the Lebanese militants. Their response was robust: a handful of anti-tank missiles hurled at an Israeli army base. Replying in kind, Jerusalem shelled the launch site, igniting fires along border farmland.
And that was that. Seemingly content that scores had been settled, militant chief Hassan Nasrallah told foreign allies that no further retaliation could be expected. Similarly keen to avoid escalation, the IDF took their own extensive measures to calm tensions. An elaborate stunt was devised to soothe Hezbollah’s fury: feigning injury, soldiers at the bombed base were rushed away in a mock evacuation. The ruse worked – the militants had, it seemed, their pound of flesh, while Israel avoided any real casualties.
But in Jerusalem’s widened proxy conflict with Iran – of which the border skirmish was a part – there has been little play-acting. On more and more fronts, Israel is confronting its regional arch-enemy with deadly force. The strike in Syria targeted Iranian launch sites which, according to military sources, could have facilitated cross-border drone attacks. Weeks prior to that, Israeli warplanes bombed an Iran-backed militia base in Iraq, destroying an arsenal of guided missiles. Breaking with custom, Prime Minister Netanyahu publicly acknowledged the assaults, warning that “Iran has no immunity anywhere”.
Hemmed in by the US’s campaign of ‘maximum pressure’, Tehran is looking to broaden the battlefield with America’s regional allies. Iranian support of militia groups across the Middle East has been intensifying in recent times – including rapprochement with Hamas, the Islamist group bitterly opposed to Isreali involvement in Gaza. Ties between the two were severed when Iran backed Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on Hamas’s Sunni co-religionists, but with the Syrian war winding down, Iranian money – as much as $100m a year – is flowing to the group once more.
But it is Tehran’s material backing of Hezbollah that has particularly alarmed Jerusalem. The August 25th strike targeted Iranian-made equipment being used to upgrade the militants’ missile guidance systems. Their current rockets, while numerous, lack precision; enhanced weaponry would allow the group to cast aside its amateurish reputation and target vital Israeli infrastructure.
That seems to be more of a future aspiration than an immediate intention. Hezbollah and their backers in the Lebanese establishment cannot afford a war with Israel, no matter how much Iranian pressure is exerted on them. One of the most indebted countries in the world, Lebanon is crippled by a stratospheric fiscal deficit. Struggling to push through economic reforms, the government is on the precipice of declaring a ‘state of economic emergency’. Wars are expensive, and Beirut simply cannot pay for one right now.
Jerusalem is equally loathe to encourage conflict, but for more political reasons. Unable to form a government earlier in the year, Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu is returning to the polls this month. His campaign is built on a bedrock of strength – ‘Mr Security’ is a favoured moniker – but a grinding conflict with Lebanon will do little for his electoral prospects. History reflects badly on political contenders who have used war to burnish their leadership credentials, experts say.
“[Netanyahu] would do well to remember the fate of one of his predecessors, Shimon Peres,” said Nicholas Blanford of the Atlantic Council, a think tank. A brief war with Lebanon prior to the 1996 general election turned into a “political disaster” for the politician. “More than 100 [civilians] were killed in the shelling, effectively destroying Israeli and US plans to weaken Hezbollah. The other result was Peres losing to Netanyahu at the polls the following month,” Blanford adds.
The residents of Maroun el-Ras will care little for Bibi’s electoral fortunes, but they have a mutual interest in peace – the area saw some of the worst fighting in the last major conflict. But amid the expansion of Israel’s proxy war with Iran, Lebanon – alongside Syria and Iraq – is now an active battleground. And with the American noose tightening around Tehran’s neck, further escalation can be expected. Peace, it seems, will not last for long.