On Sunday, an Israeli government spokesman reported that Hezbollah fired antitank missiles at a military base near Avivim, hitting Israeli military vehicles. Both Israel and Hezbollah confirmed that the missiles hit Israel Defense Forces targets, but they disagree on casualty figures. Israel confirmed that Israeli aircraft are carrying out airstrikes on unspecified targets in southern Lebanon. This follows on the heels of lesser threats and attacks in recent weeks and marks a significant escalation in the cross-border exchange of fire – but it’s in keeping with the military and political posture of each side.
The underlying significance of this bout of Israel-Hezbollah fighting is the extension of Iranian power through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Hezbollah is Iran’s foothold in Lebanon, and, indeed, Israel views the group as an Iranian proxy. Hezbollah has a substantial rocket and missile arsenal, much of which has the potential to hit the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv-Haifa triangle, the Israeli heartland. In this fight, Israel has two priorities: neutralize Hezbollah and cripple Iran’s advance – outcomes on which Israel is aligned with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.
In our 2019 forecast, we said we expected to see conflict between Israel and Hezbollah this year. We do not yet know if this incident portends a more extensive conflict. What we do know is that the Israeli Cabinet is meeting and that Israel has opened bomb shelters within 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) of its border with Lebanon. Israel has substantial forces stationed along its northern border, and it’s likely they will see Hezbollah targeting them with antitank missiles as a serious threat to Israeli interests. Keeping its side of the border secure is a strategic imperative for Israel. For its part, Hezbollah seems confident it can effectively engage Israeli forces, particularly given the group’s experience blocking Israeli infantry operations in 2006.
We’re not yet warning of war; this situation could still de-escalate to something more routine. But with these recent actions, the likelihood of a broader conflict between Hezbollah and Israel has significantly increased.