Israel wants to limit Hezbollah's ability to attack it, but Israel is wary of starting a conflict with Lebanon 12 years after a major conflict with its northern neighbor. Because of this, Stratfor's 2019 Annual Forecast said that while Israel will aggressively attack Iranian, Syrian and Hezbollah targets in Syria, it will tread more carefully in Lebanon.
The animosity between Israel and Iran is simmering beneath the Israel-Lebanon border. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced Dec. 4 that they had launched Operation Northern Shield the night before to destroy a small number of cross-border tunnels. Excavated by Iran-backed Hezbollah, the tunnels reportedly cross Israel's northern border with Lebanon, near the Israeli village of Metula just west of the Golan Heights. According to IDF spokesman Ronan Manelis, the IDF has long prepared for this operation. As the IDF assesses Hezbollah's potential reaction, Israeli authorities have warned northern farmers not to approach the border, called up some reservists and mobilized artillery units.
Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is expected to issue a statement on Dec. 4 in response to the Israeli operation. Meanwhile, the United Nations Interim Force has reinforced its presence in Lebanon, while major political leaders in the country have met to determine their response.
Why It Matters
The increased military activity along the border demonstrates the IDF's continued efforts to weaken Hezbollah and limit the Iranian-backed group's ability to strike Israel.
The operation's timing could also provide hints as to why the Israeli government has not launched a more comprehensive operation in Gaza, as the leaders did not want to fight a war on two fronts. Politically, the calculations might have factored into Avigdor Lieberman's recent decision to resign as defense minister. The former official was pushing to prioritize the threat in Gaza over the threat from Lebanon, but he may have quit after losing this debate.
The decision to partially mobilize reservists and artillery units suggests that further military action could be coming, though a full mobilization would more clearly suggest such an outcome. For now, the extra reinforcements are likely a precautionary measure.
Israel is intent on protecting itself from Iran-backed threats to its north and south. Though Israel and Hezbollah have not engaged in an all-out conflict since 2006, the prospect of an escalation between the two is a constant threat. This is particularly true because Israel continues to target Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria, risking retaliation. But a military response would put Lebanon, which is internally divided over support for Hezbollah, in an extremely difficult position in choosing a response due to the country's complicated political structure. To prevent border activity from snowballing into a greater military conflict, both sides have exercised care to avoid an uncontrolled escalation.
A Dec. 3 meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Brussels could also lead to more concrete action. The chief of the Israeli spy agency Mossad, Israel's military secretary and the head of the country's National Security Council attended the meeting, which focused primarily on Iran's regional activities — specifically those in Lebanon. Like the reinforcements along the Israel-Lebanon border, the meeting's timing suggests that further IDF military action might not be far away.