In his much-trumpeted speech on November 3, Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, predictably praised Hamas’s October 7 invasion of Israel, the subsequent massacre of 1200 civilians and the abduction of some 240 hostages.  However he was at pains to emphasize that it had been a purely Palestinian enterprise. He asserted, whatever the truth of the matter, that neither Iran nor Hezbollah had had any part in planning or carrying out the operation, and that in present circumstances neither found it expedient to support Hamas by opening full-scale hostilities against Israel.  He wanted the subsequent conflict to remain Palestinian. 

Even so, changing circumstances could trigger an escalation of the fighting to encompass Israel’s northern border.  The initiative could come from Iran.  An unequivocal defeat of Hamas, known to be funded and equipped by Iran, could be the trigger.  Israel could not be seen to glory in victory over Iran’s proxy, so the baton could be passed to Hezbollah to continue the conflict. 

It might come from Nasrallah.  If Hamas was about to be destroyed, he might feel that Hezbollah could be the next target, and move to launch a full-scale pre-emptive attack on Israel.  Britain’s prestigious Royal Institute of International Affairs, otherwise known as Chatham House, in a recent wide-ranging survey of the prospects of an Israel-Hezbollah war, believes so.  It maintains that the closer Israel gets to defeating Hamas, the more likely it is that Nasrallah will widen the war.  It points out that he heads an army of more than 100,000 battle-hardened fighters equipped with thousands of missiles, rockets, and armed drones that can hit targets deep inside Israel with pinpoint accuracy. 

.           Incidentally, provided the Iranian ayatollahs are able to continue fighting Israel by way of their Hezbollah proxy, they are unlikely to grieve overmuch at the destruction of Hamas.  Although happy to use Hamas, to fund, equip and support it, Iran must always have regarded it as expendable.  Hamas is a Sunni organization.  The ultimate ambition of Iran’s Islamic Revolution is to impose the Shi’ite tradition of Islam across the whole world.  Unlike Shi’ite Hezbollah, Hamas could never form part of Iran’s Shia Crescent.  It would eventually have been cast aside.

Meanwhile, with Iran’s connivance, the Shi’ite Houthis have ramped up their attacks against shipping in the Red Sea, while the cross-border armed exchanges between Hezbollah and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have been increasing in number and ferocity.  There are incidents on a daily basis.

Throughout December 24, for example, air raid sirens were sounding south of the Lebanon border in Avivim, Margaliot, Yiron, Shlomi, and the border Bedouin village of Arab al-Aramshe.  The IDF attacked the source of rockets launched towards Avivim, and bombed Hezbollah infrastructure with a tank near Kibbutz Yiron.

There were also alerts in Sasa, Matat, and Dovev following a suspected enemy drone infiltration and rocket attack.  Several rockets were also fired from Lebanon at the Keren Naftali peak in the Galilee Panhandle.  The IDF said it shelled the source of the fire with artillery, and attacked the source of Hezbollah fire and a cell of Hezbollah operatives close to the border near Shtula in the Western Galilee.

And so it goes on, day after day, while the toll in fatalities and casualties mounts.  Seven Israeli soldiers and four civilians have been killed since October 7, as have 121 Hezbollah fighters and 10 Lebanese civilians.   

Chatham House has pointed out that the initiative for a full-scale escalation of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict is not restricted to Hezbollah or Iran.  It could also come from the Israeli side.  It asserted that there are those in the Israeli government, including certain ministers, who see an opportunity in the present situation to neutralize the threat to Israel’s northern front once and for all.  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not yet reached that conclusion, said Chatham House, implying that it is not beyond possibility.  If ministers threatened to resign over this issue, for example, he might change his mind in order to maintain the integrity of his government.

Chatham House is not alone.  In early November the media were reporting concern in Washington about Israel’s intentions on its northern border. The worries may have been accelerated by the mass evacuations of Israeli towns and villages within easy striking distance of the Lebanon border.  Almost certainly undertaken by Israel to pre-empt any possible Hezbollah invasion on the lines of Hamas’s murderous incursion of October 7, suspicious minds in Washington may have seen in it preparations by Israel for a second front.

Under the headline: “Scoop”, the on-line news media Axios reported on November 12 that US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had phoned his Israeli counterpart, Yoav Gallant, the previous day to urge restraint in the escalating tensions along the Israel-Lebanon border. According to Axios there was growing anxiety in the White House that Israeli military action in Lebanon could lead to a regional war.

Moreover, according to Chatham House, the White House believes some senior officers in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) believe that a war in the north is inevitable.  It is the possibility of a pre-emptive Israeli strike, leading to a forceful Hezbollah response, that concerns Washington, since the US would inevitably be drawn into such a conflict. The last thing US President Joe Biden wants during re-election season is a war between Israel and Hezbollah that could lead the US into a direct confrontation with Iran.

So the US is intent on avoiding all-out war between Israel and Hezbollah. In an attempt to deter Hezbollah from launching deadlier attacks against northern Israel, Biden has ordered the deployment of a substantial amount of additional military assets to the Middle East, including an aircraft carrier, warships, a nuclear-powered vessel, attack helicopters, fighter jets, and 5,000 sailors.

On December 15 US National Security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters that the US believes the threat to Israel from Hezbollah “can be dealt with through diplomacy and does not require the launching of a new war.”  The best way to ensure that the tens of thousands of Israelis who have evacuated their homes in the north can return, he said, “is to come up with a negotiated outcome.” 

Is an Israel-Hezbollah war possible?  Certainly.  Is it inevitable?  Surely not.

By Neville Teller

Neville Teller’s latest book is “"Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."