Will Hezbollah’s new arsenal be enough to deter war with Israel?

The risk of escalation between Hezbollah and Israel after more than eight months of border clashes has shown no sign of stopping.

Hezbollah has upped the ante, seeking to demonstrate that it can counter Israel’s crucial technological advantages in air power and air defences and launching rocket and drone attacks on an unprecedented scale.

Meanwhile, Israel has conducted strikes increasingly deeper inside Lebanon and shown less restraint over assassinating senior Hezbollah members.

Hezbollah has exchanged daily fire with Israel since October 8, shortly after Israel launched its ongoing campaign in the Gaza Strip.

While these clashes initially remained confined mainly to border areas, attacks against targets deeper inside Israel and Lebanon have become much more common in recent weeks.

“Hezbollah is trying to say that if Israel expands its operations, it has the option to expand its own against both expensive and high-value technologies and hardware”

In May, after Israel launched its operation in southern Gaza’s Rafah, Hezbollah steadily escalated. It fired missiles deeper into Israel and even launched missiles from a drone within Israeli airspace, a notable first.

On the ground, Hezbollah fighters targeted an Israeli military post controlling a surveillance balloon over the border with anti-tank guided missiles and shot down the balloon over Lebanon.

The situation worsened in June, with the grim prospect of all-out war appearing closer than ever.

Hezbollah’s capabilities

Hezbollah announced it had shot down an Israeli Hermes 900 Kochav drone on June 1. Israel confirmed a surface-to-air missile hit one of its drones in Lebanese airspace.

On June 5, Hezbollah claimed it targeted an Iron Dome air defence system in Ramot Naftali inside Israel using a guided missile.

The following day, the group announced it fired air defence missiles at Israeli jets operating in Lebanese airspace. Hezbollah claimed it fired the missiles at Israeli aircraft “attacking our skies … forcing them to retreat beyond the border.”

Hezbollah has been careful not to escalate beyond minor skirmishes [Getty].

“I think these new claims by Hezbollah are part of the escalation ladder that the group is deliberately climbing that is trying to target more strategic and high-cost Israeli targets and react to Israeli escalation,” Ryan Bohl, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at the risk intelligence company RANE, told The New Arab.

“Essentially, Hezbollah is trying to say that if Israel expands its operations, it has the option to expand its own against both expensive and high-value technologies and hardware,” Bohl said.

“As usual, this is designed to show the potential costs of full-scale war as Hezbollah wants Israel to believe that none of its assets are safe.”

Nicholas Heras, senior director of strategy and innovation at the New Lines Institute, believes Hezbollah’s patron, Iran, is following a “porcupine strategy” by arming Hezbollah “thoroughly” against Israeli military targets on land, at sea, and in the air.

“Hezbollah has the capability to find, fix, and finish Israeli drones of all types, with some anti-air capability needed to threaten Israeli aircraft that might be flying close air support for IDF ground forces,” Heras told The New Arab.

He also highlighted the significance of Hezbollah’s “pioneering” use of anti-tank missiles for precision strikes in recent months. That capability is “perhaps the most dangerous new skill that Hezbollah presents” since it could enable the group to directly threaten Israeli army staging grounds if Israel decides to launch another cross-border ground offensive into southern Lebanon to uproot Hezbollah.

“This is essentially the geopolitical equivalent of an immovable object meeting an unstoppable force”

On Tuesday, an Israeli airstrike killed Taleb Sami Abdullah, the most senior Hezbollah member Israel assassinated since fighting began last year. Hezbollah vowed to respond by intensifying operations “in severity, strength, quantity and quality.”

The next day, the group announced it launched eight attacks in retaliation. On Thursday, it claimed it targeted nine Israeli military sites in a coordinated attack using rockets and attack drones. As of writing, these are the biggest single rocket and drone attacks since clashes began, further upping the ante and risk of escalation.

“Where we’re at right now is certainly the most dangerous phase of the escalation ladder since 8 October, but we’re still not yet at the point where either side wants to tip over into full-scale war,” Bohl said.

“Hezbollah is fighting a solidarity campaign with Hamas and Gaza that it wants to keep limited to the borderlands in Lebanon and Israel,” he added. “It’s very unlikely that that calculus will change short of a major Israeli provocation like a high-profile assassination of senior Hezbollah leadership like (secretary-general) Hassan Nasrallah.”

With escalation on the cards between Hezbollah and Israel, who will blink first? [Getty].

While Hezbollah seeks to heighten the stakes with unprecedented cross-border rocket and drone attacks, Bohl believes Israel is trying to pressure Hezbollah to “finally break and offer concessions” in the form of a buffer zone.

“Israelis are not yet ready to carry out a major sustained ground campaign in southern Lebanon on the scale they’ve done in Gaza, but I don’t think that’s their first option anyway,” Bohl said. “Israel will continue to steadily turn up the heat on Hezbollah and see if they can get them to blink first.”

“The problem with this approach is that it seems quite unlikely Hezbollah is going to cede any territory over to the Israelis either formally or informally for a new buffer zone,” he added. “This is essentially the geopolitical equivalent of an immovable object meeting an unstoppable force.”

Heras believes Israel is using the present clashes with Hezbollah to reestablish deterrence by demonstrating it still has much more advanced intelligence, technological capabilities, and weaponry.

“Israel is clearly trying to deter Hezbollah through complex, intelligence-intensive strikes against senior Hezbollah commanders who are responsible for in-theatre military operations such as drones, rockets and missiles, and ground operations inside Israel,” Heras said.

“This is the IDF [Israeli army] telling Hezbollah that the Israelis have intelligence superiority over Hezbollah that, when combined with Israel’s drone and AI targeting networks, will eviscerate Hezbollah forces in the event of an all-out war,” he added. “This is the messaging that Israel is trying to send Hezbollah, and beyond it to Iran.”

On June 16, the UN Special Rapporteur for Lebanon sounded the alarm over increased Hezbollah-Israel tensions, pleading for both sides to “put down their weapons and commit to a path of peace.” But with Hezbollah forces increasingly ready for total war with Israel, perhaps that moment has already been and gone. 

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon

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