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Hezbollah and Israel are almost certain to broaden the range and intensity of their cross-border attacks in the coming days

This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 4 January 2023.

  • Israel is most likely responsible for killing a senior Hamas leader in a drone strike in Beirut on 2 January
  • Both sides seem intent on containing the conflict, but Israel appears to be demonstrating its preparedness for an all-out war

Hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah are almost certain to expand over the coming days and weeks. This is because of the assassination of a senior Hamas leader in Beirut on 2 January, which we assess was most likely by Israel. Although we assess that Hezbollah is probably not intent on a major escalation, the risk of this happening will almost certainly rise amid intensifying cross-border attacks by Israel and Hezbollah in the coming weeks.

Lebanon has blamed Israel for an explosion in the south of Beirut that killed a senior Hamas leader on 2 January. The available information suggests it was a drone attack by the Israeli army; the Lebanese prime minister has publicly said so, and social media footage of the attack seems consistent with a targeted drone strike. Israel has not said it was behind this. But its president said today, 4 January, that whoever carried out the attack ‘was targeting Hamas, not Lebanon’. Israel has long used assassinations abroad to retaliate or deter adversaries.

Israeli attack raises risk of all-out-war

Hezbollah is likely to respond to the assassination over the coming days and weeks. We assess that this will involve expanding the range and intensity of its attacks into northern Israel. We also anticipate such attacks to become less discriminate; since October Hezbollah has mostly targeted Israeli military positions with mortars, rockets and anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles. A missile aimed at a major Israeli city, such as Haifa, is also probable in the coming weeks.

Israel is now also likely to expand its aerial targeting in southern Lebanon to militant leaders, offices and infrastructure. So far it has mostly attacked Hezbollah and Palestinian militant outposts and rocket launch positions. In a sign that this is changing, Israel seemingly conducted a military strike in a residential area killing a local Hezbollah leader in the border town of Naqoura on 3 January, shortly after a speech by Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Such actions will very likely sustain the high risk of an escalation, especially if Israel begins a targeted campaign against Hezbollah’s infrastructure and its local leaders in southern Lebanon.

The risk of an escalation will probably remain high for the coming weeks. A heightened pace of attacks will make it more likely that attacks are misinterpreted by either side as a deliberate escalation. For example, if a Hezbollah attack inadvertently kills Israeli civilians or a significant number of soldiers, Israel would probably feel compelled to respond with greater force and begin targeting Hezbollah’s infrastructure. So far both sides have mostly targeted military positions.

The high risk of escalation also stems from the presence of overzealous fighters along the border, in our analysis. Despite a strong chain of command within the Israeli military and Hezbollah, there is precedent for fighters and soldiers making mistakes or acting without direct orders. Additionally, Hezbollah will probably give greater freedom to Palestinian groups in southern Lebanon to target urban centres in Israel. Such attacks provide Hezbollah with a level of deniability, but would still compel Israel to respond militarily.

Both sides appear intent on containing hostilities

Still, Hezbollah’s leadership is unlikely to view a major escalation to be in its interests. This is not to say it will not feel compelled to respond due to pressure from its base. But the recent attack in Beirut was against a Hamas leader (not a Hezbollah one) and was a targeted strike with minimal collateral damage. In what we interpret as a sign of Hezbollah’s aversion to a full-scale conflict, Nasrallah reiterated the independence of regional Iran-backed armed groups and the importance of their shared ideology and network, rather than a reliance on individuals, during his speech on 3 January.

In our analysis, this justification owes Hezbollah some room to limit its response (at least for now) without major backlash from its base or a major escalation with Israel. This is especially after Israel demonstrated its preparedness (not necessarily its intent) for an all-out war scenario by conducting a strike in Beirut. A direct and escalatory Hezbollah response could also be delayed; Iranian officials for example have yet to follow through on warnings of ‘revenge’ for the assassination of IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani in 2020 by the US.

Israel will probably also avoid pursuing a major escalation and so refrain from further attacks in central Lebanon in the coming weeks. This includes attacks against Beirut airport or other civilian infrastructure. In our analysis, it probably conducted the attack this week to show the Israeli public that it is going after Hamas’ leadership. But also to demonstrate its preparedness (as a deterrence) for a major escalation to Hezbollah. US pressure on Israel to contain the conflict and Hezbollah’s proven capabilities to sustain a long war means we continue to doubt Israel views such a conflict in its interests.

Risk to civil aviation unlikely to be elevated

On current indications, the currently moderate risk to civil aviation is unlikely to be particularly elevated over the coming weeks. Firstly, we have not seen evidence of Hezbollah possessing guided missiles able to reliably target Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. Past Hezbollah rockets launched at Tel Aviv and its airport have largely been unguided and effectively intercepted by Israeli air defences.

Secondly, since the start of the conflict, Hezbollah has not made direct threats to civil aviation. Cross-border attacks between Israel and Hezbollah since October have also not affected the flight route in and out of Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv or Rafiq Hariri International Airport in Beirut. A contact at the Israeli civil aviation authority told us this week that the authorities do not believe that Hezbollah’s weapons can reach civilian routes to and from Israel.

An Israeli strike at Rafiq Hariri International Airport in Lebanon in the coming weeks is also unlikely, in our judgement. Comments by Israeli politicians in the international press over recent days suggest that the military appears intent on not targeting civilian infrastructure, particularly in central Lebanon. Such an attack would almost certainly be viewed by Hezbollah as a declaration of all-out war. The US has been pressuring Israel to avoid such a scenario. A major escalation between Israel and Hezbollah would very probably cause severe disruption to civil aviation operations in Lebanon and Israel.

Image: The coffin of Hamas deputy chief Saleh al-Arouri is carried as supporters gather in Tarik al-Jadide area during his funeral on 4 January 2024 in Beirut, Lebanon. Photo by Marwan Tahtah via Getty Images).