It’s decision time for Israel in the north as Hezbollah escalates

The choice, a much grimmer one now because of the long period of drift, is whether to destroy those forces or to allow them to continue their strategy of Israel’s slow strangulation.

By Jonathan Spyer, Middle East Forum

Escalation on Israel’s northern front reached a hitherto unseen intensity this week. Israel carried out a series of pinpoint strikes against Hezbollah and IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) targets, both close to the Israel-Lebanon border and far beyond it.

These included, according to several reports, an airstrike in the Aleppo area on Monday in which several Iran-linked operatives were killed. Among the dead was an Iranian IRGC official, Sayeed Aviar.

The opposition-linked Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that 17 people associated with Iran and its militias were killed in this strike.

According to SOHR, the targets were a copper smelting plant and a weapons depot maintained by the militias in the northern Aleppo countryside, between the towns of Hayyan and Tamoura.

The dead that were listed

SOHR listed the dead as consisting of two Iranians, of whom only Aviar is identified as a “military adviser;” three members of Lebanese Hezbollah; three Iraqi citizens (probably members of IRGC-associated Shi’ite militias); and nine Syrian citizens.

SOHR is pro-opposition, and the reliability of its reporting has in the past been questioned, especially by voices sympathetic to the Assad regime and its allies.

While no source’s claims should be accepted on trust, I can attest from personal experience to the truth of its claim to maintain extensive sources on the ground in Syria, and to the ability this has often given it to receive first reports of events in the country that were later proven to be accurate.

The Aleppo strike was only one of a series of targeted killings apparently carried out by Israel in recent days. It is of particular significance, however, because it is the first time since April 1 that Israel is known to have killed an IRGC operative on Syrian soil.

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The killing of IRGC general Mohammed Reza Zahedi in Damascus on April 1 triggered the large-scale direct Iranian attack on Israel on the night of April 13.

The Iranian rationale for the April response appears to have been not to launch all-out war with Israel (had they wanted that, they would have brought their main source of firepower against Israel, Lebanese Hezbollah’s missile array, into operation).

Rather, the Iranians wanted to set the price for Israel’s direct targeting of Iranian IRGC personnel at a sufficiently high rate that Israel would think twice about carrying out such activity again.

This week, Israel appears to have dismissed this Iranian effort. It remains to be seen if, and how, Tehran will respond.

More broadly, Israel’s strikes this week successfully targeted several notable Hezbollah operatives. The movement has named three members killed in south Lebanon in recent days – Ali Hussein Sabra, Muhammed Shakr, and Hussein Nasr al-Din.

Of these, Sabra appears to have been the most significant. An engineer involved in Hezbollah’s air defense structure, Sabra was killed when his car was targeted while driving close to the city of Tyre on Monday morning.

The intensified Hezbollah response in the subsequent days is clearly related to this continued successful targeting by Israel of Hezbollah fighters.

The organization launched rocket barrages at Katzrin, Kiryat Shmona, and Margaliot. The firing resulted in the large brushfires in the Katzrin and Ramim Ridge areas.

Hezbollah also scored a significant achievement late last week with the downing of an Israeli Hermes 900 drone.

The current situation in the North appears to be in a sort of unsustainable equilibrium. On the one hand, Israel is scoring tactical successes daily. The casualty figures – around 330 Hezbollah dead to 14 IDF soldiers and 10 Israeli civilians – reflect this.

On the other hand, Israel has proven unable until now to turn these tactical achievements into a desirable outcome. That is, the current rate of attrition is clearly not forcing Hezbollah to rethink its decision to continue rocket and missile fire.

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As a result, Israel’s North remains shut down, with over 60,000 Israelis currently internally displaced, and no solution in sight.

WHAT MAY happen next? The Arabic-language Al-Akhbar newspaper, which supports Hezbollah, this week published a gleeful article titled “Hezbollah’s rocket fire is devouring the Galilee.” The article listed areas struck by Hezbollah rocket and drone attacks.

As has become usual in pro-Hezbollah media, it also included false claims of the deaths of several IDF soldiers as a result of the attacks.

Claims of this kind have become common in pro-Hezbollah media, where the great discrepancy in deaths and casualties is explained away to supporters by the assertion that Israel is falsely concealing its true casualty figures.

In another article, titled “Message from London: The return of the threat of war,” on US envoy Amos Hochstein’s current diplomatic efforts in Lebanon, al-Akhbar describes what it refers to as “a message from the British side, which defined a date for an Israeli strike in mid-June.”

The article posits an imminent large-scale Israeli military operation, which would be intended to break the current logjam and force Hezbollah to choose between taking a step back and further escalation.

Might such an operation be imminent? It would certainly make sense. The current situation is one in which an Iranian proxy organization has been granted the power to bring life in Israel’s North to a standstill, in return for accepting an unpleasant but bearable rate of attrition of its own operatives and capacities.

The current lies regarding Israeli casualty figures by Hezbollah-associated media are a sign of distress.

But there is no reason to believe that this discomfort is anywhere close to the level that would force the movement and its patrons in Tehran to rethink their strategy since October 8 of a limited multi-front war against Israel and its allies.

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So unless Israeli policymakers want to tacitly concede that the current situation is an acceptable one for Jerusalem, the logic leads toward intensified military operations in the North, probably involving increased airstrikes and possibly some ground component, too.

IT IS difficult to speculate the precise form that such action might take. But Israel will need to take into account that it has no local allies in south Lebanon, and any desire to push Hezbollah north of the Litani River through a ground maneuver would need to consider that Hezbollah would likely return south following such a move.

It is likely also that any escalation against Hezbollah would be counter to the wishes of the US administration.

In an interview this week, Hochstein expressed continued hope for the possibility of reaching “understandings” between the sides, leading to an eventual land border agreement between Israel and Lebanon.

Such sentiments are starkly at odds with a reality in which the IRGC’s local franchise is now by far the strongest political and military player in Lebanon.

Still, where strategic myopia is the issue, there is plenty of blame to go around. The present situation in which Hezbollah is shutting down northern Israel is possible because for nearly 20 years, Israel allowed the development, growth, and strengthening of two Iran-supported Islamist armies on its borders.

While this was happening, the Israeli security system took great pride in its tactical achievements against these forces, while failing in any serious way to arrest their growth. These armies are now engaged against Israel, with all that it implies.

The choice, a much grimmer one now because of the long period of drift, is whether to destroy those forces or to allow them to continue their strategy of Israel’s slow strangulation. This is not a choice that can be postponed indefinitely.