‘Not an exaggeration’: Fears rise of Israeli incursion into Lebanon to push back Hezbollah

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A picture taken from northern Israel, along the border with southern Lebanon on March 4, 2024, shows smoke billowing following Israeli bombardment on the Lebanese village of Markaba. (Photo by JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images)

BEIRUT — US President Joe Biden may be hopeful that a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is days away, but former senior Lebanese military officials here have told Breaking Defense that whatever happens in the embattled enclave, there’s more reason than ever to fear the conflict is on the verge of escalating on another front with an Israeli ground incursion into southern Lebanon.

The possibility of a wider war in the south, where Israeli forces and the armed group Hezbollah have been trading deadly fire for months, “is not an exaggeration. As long as Israel considers Hezbollah an existential threat, a ground offensive is more probable,” retired Lebanese Armed Forces Brig. Gen. Maroun Hitti said in a phone interview. “The prospective escalation of war is more expected than ever.”

Despite some heated rhetoric on both sides, until now both Israel and Hezbollah appeared wary of broadening the conflict. As another retired Lebanese Armed Forces brigadier general, Naji Mlaeb, put it, “Hezbollah is ready [for a larger conflict] but it doesn’t want it, while Israel wants [larger conflict] but is not ready” to fight on two fronts.

However, Israeli military officials have maintained that Jerusalem will no longer accept what it calls the security threat to Israelis who live near the border with Lebanon. In January Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said that even if Hezbollah were to stop launching rockets “unilaterally, Israel will not cease fire until it guarantees the safe return of residents of the north to their homes” and added Israel was “preparing to create a safe situation for the return of residents, also through military means” should diplomatic efforts fail.

That, observers fear, was an allusion to at least a limited ground invasion, especially after Gallant said on Tuesday that Hezbollah’s “aggression is bringing us closer to a critical point in decision-making regarding our military activities in Lebanon.”

Last week CNN reported that US intelligence and administration officials were increasingly worried Israel may decide to launch an incursion into Lebanon “perhaps later this spring” in the words of one official. “An Israeli military operation is a distinct possibility,” the official said.

A Lebanese news report warned, citing US sources, that a “full-scale war” could break out as early as next week, though Israeli media reported that officials said that there’s “no date for going to war in Lebanon.”

Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts to avoid a ground incursion, much less a full scale war, are underway on at least two fronts: an American effort, led by US envoy Amos Hochstein, and a parallel French effort.

Last week Hochstein said that a “temporary ceasefire” between Israel and Hezbollah would not be enough. “A limited war is not containable,” he said.

Mlaeb said Hochstein’s involvement could be key.

“Hezbollah agreed to Hochstein’s mediated maritime border deal [in October 2022] so if there is a possibility for an agreement reached for ceasefire, the US special envoy is the only person who can facilitate it,” Mlaeb told Breaking Defense.

On the other track, French negotiators offered a plan last month in which Hezbollah fighters would withdraw ten kilometers (six miles) from the border with Israel, according to Reuters, though the outlet said Hezbollah representatives rejected that proposal. (Both Hitti and Mlaeb told Breaking Defense that if Israel does go ahead with a ground offensive, it would likely go up to but not beyond about the ten-kilometer mark.)

Another former senior Lebanese military official, Wehbe Katicha, said he wouldn’t expect Hezbollah to agree to such terms. Katicha, however, believed Israel could be operating on a different timeline than others suspect, predicting that Jerusalem would not launch an invasion into Lebanon until the Gaza conflict was resolved.

Should Israel invade, officials and experts have long warned an all-out fight with Hezbollah is a real possibility, which is expected to be much fiercer, deadlier and destructive than Israel’s conflict with Hamas, a relatively small and poorly armed group by comparison. Hezbollah has promised that it will match any Israeli escalation with its own.

All the while, residents in southern Lebanon who have not left their homes live day to day with the threat of war at their doorstep.

“Every night is worse than the night before. More bombs and strikes can be heard every night, and the drones [flying] in the skies can be heard on a daily basis,” one resident told Breaking Defense.