The question is a serious one, and one that must be addressed in light of recent events. It is true that Hezbollah is busy fighting in support of President Assad’s forces in Syria. It is also true that the Shiite militant group is acting to defend its interests inside Lebanon by ousting Sunni jihadist fighters from Lebanon’s strategic Bekaa Valley in the east. Fighters from the al-Nusra Front and the now infamous Islamic State have intensified their attacks there against both Lebanese state and Hezbollah forces. These realities alone, however, do not remove the possibility that Hezbollah seeks to escalate tensions with Israel.
This summer’s war between Israel and Hamas highlighted the risks with misjudging an enemy’s will to fight. Few believed Hamas was in a position to wage a war against Israel. Its financial issues, political isolation, and growing rift with Egypt were all cited as reasons to avoid war. But it was mainly these deficiencies that Hamas eventually sought war. Israel has indeed been citing more overt Hezbollah activity on the border in recent weeks, seemingly preparing the public for more conflict.
Hezbollah attacked Israeli forces in the Shebaa Farms region on October 7. The rugged terrain of the Shebaa Farms has been a traditional zone for Hezbollah activity against Israel, and the attacks occurred in the same general area where Israel said it had engaged Lebanese gunmen two days earlier. Hezbollah almost immediately claimed responsibility for the October 7 operation, implying it was a retaliation. Militants snuck to the Israeli-held ridge line to deploy their IEDs within Israeli territory. The devices targeted an Israeli army vehicle, leaving two soldiers wounded. Another blast targeted the response team. Israel retaliated with dozens of artillery shells into the hills around Kfar Chouba, with the army saying it shelled two Hezbollah positions. Although Israel continued with shelling for several hours, the hostilities did not lead to a more widespread escalation. The attack was nonetheless very significant, one of the gravest since the 2006 war.
The border between Israel and Lebanon has been mostly quiet since 2006, yet tensions and occasional incidents of violence have occurred. Hezbollah’s latest attacks, however, threaten to undermine the status quo, which is possibly what the Shiite fundamentalist group wants. It was not the first time Hezbollah has claimed an attack against Israeli forces since the last war. But by attacking Israel so boldly, Hezbollah was propagating a message that it is not deterred from an escalation with Israel, despite its many commitments on other fronts. Hezbollah was likely testing Israel’s response, analyzing the intensity of the Israeli retaliation. This will be under assessment when planning future operations, as its leaders may doubt Israel’s willingness to take on the group in Lebanon so soon after the summer war with Hamas.
For its own domestic and strategic interests, Hezbollah may aim to exacerbate volatility by intensifying its operations on the border. Being perceived as in conflict with Israel is of great importance for a group that prides itself as the defender of Lebanon. To that point, Hezbollah has come under considerable pressure from its involvement in Syria, both at home and abroad. Thus while it should be considered they will avoid operations that could lead to a war, Hezbollah could nonetheless be seeking, more or less, to return the Israeli border to its previous state before the 2006 war. This period was marked by frequent clashes.
If so, this would demonstrate that Hezbollah has an ambition to initiate and control a steady escalation of violence. Such a power play, however, is not without serious risks, as it relies on a perceived understanding of Israel’s strategic intentions. In July 2006, Hezbollah launched one attack too many, bringing Israel into a war the group’s leader admittedly did not expect. With that in mind, the coming months will be indicative of whether they will return to this course. Regardless, further clashes should be expected as both sides are preparing under the pretense that another war is inevitable.