Natural Gas May Soon Spark War Between Israel and Hezbollah | Opinion

Many Lebanese blame their country's financial meltdown on the entrenchment of the corrupt "old guard," which includes the Iranian-sponsored terrorist militia Hezbollah. Hezbollah's loss of credibility and political power may alter the calculus for the group in its "resistance" efforts against Israel, which have been largely deterred since the devastating 2006 Lebanon War. Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah later regretted the kidnap of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers that provoked that war. However, there are signs that a new Hezbollah attack may be coming in the next few weeks. This time the context is a natural gas dispute between Lebanon and Israel now being mediated by the United States.

Nasrallah wants to prove influential by pressing Israel during the negotiations, and his increasingly belligerent messaging could be read as a precursor to war. He recently stated, "If the extraction of oil and gas from Karish [oil field] begins in September before Lebanon obtains its right, we would be heading to 'a problem' and we'll do anything to achieve our objective." For its part, Israel remains committed to extracting oil from an undisputed section of the Karish field in a matter of weeks—notwithstanding the promising mediation underway—and has responded to Nasrallah's threats in kind. The IDF's Northern Command spoke to the matter, stating that there is a reasonable risk of an armed clash in the near future. The IDF is now contemplating a preemptive strike against Hezbollah and has recently trained in Cyprus for a potential war deep inside Lebanon.

Hezbollah Celebration
Supporters of Hezbollah hold up their phones and wave the party flag during a celebration marking the 40th anniversary of the Shiite movement in Beirut on Aug. 22, 2022. ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images

Nasrallah's rhetoric could be seen as a bluff to play up Hezbollah's relevance, but there is a good chance the threat is real. Hezbollah has confronted Israel since 2006, in response to an Israeli assault. In 2019, the terrorist militia fired missiles at an Israeli army post after an Israeli air strike that killed two Hezbollah operatives in Syria and a drone strike that damaged Hezbollah infrastructure in the suburbs of Beirut. Although the Hezbollah strike did not cause any casualties, it demonstrates the group's willingness to challenge Israel militarily while also conforming to traditional notions of proportionality. Moreover, the group's limited response reflects its wariness of causing a broader war.

If Hezbollah strikes first, it would be knowingly putting at risk the entire country of Lebanon, which is already teetering on the brink. Israel would then face a difficult choice: It could restrict its response to the rules of proportionality while eroding its deterrence or reestablish deterrence by disproportionately broadening the war beyond a few days, and robustly attacking Hezbollah's launch sites in southern Lebanon. This would likely include destroying Lebanese civilian infrastructure that could potentially be used by Hezbollah—as Israel did in 2006.

An all-out war would be disastrous for Israel as well. Hezbollah has precision missiles that it could fire off at 4,000 a day within the first phase of any conflict. It maintains an arsenal of over 150,000 rockets and missiles that can hit the entirety of Israeli territory. This will inevitably overwhelm the multi-layered Israeli missile-defense network, and Israel will suffer heavy casualties and severe damage to infrastructure. Hezbollah's elite Radawan unit may try to invade Israeli territory and take an Israeli village near the border. The group also has myriad drones and a naval unit that it could use to attack offshore Israeli assets related to the maritime dispute.

An additional factor to consider is Iran, Hezbollah's patron. With a revived nuclear deal looking less and less likely, Iran may give the green light to Nasrallah to attack Israel as an indirect show of Iranian power projection in the region, one that will play well on the Arab streets. Israel is preparing a contingency to attack Iran's nuclear sites, but signs indicate these plans are not ready for execution. Thus, the Iranian home front will probably not be in danger unless Iran directly involves itself in the war.

If the war does spread beyond Israel and Lebanon, it would be to Syria, where Israel already acts with virtual impunity to target Iranian-backed groups such as Hezbollah. Also, the question looms as to whether any Gaza terrorist groups, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) or Hamas, would join the fight. Given that Gaza is still reeling from the latest clash between the IDF and PIJ, and that Hezbollah and Palestinian forces in Gaza rarely coordinate attacks, an exchange between Hezbollah and Israel would probably not involve the various Gaza factions unless the conflict escalated to a regional war.

It seems likely that Hezbollah will act should Israel cross Nasrallah's "red line" and begin extracting gas before a deal is reached. However, its move will probably be calculated such that Israel could respond to it proportionally. Nasrallah is isolated but remains a powerful figure in Lebanon—his back is not yet against the wall. However, Israel may not take the bait, as a minimized and contained conflict would benefit Hezbollah.

Hezbollah presents the most lethal threat to Israel. Israel would likely go to great lengths to neutralize this threat if provoked, notwithstanding the dire consequences to the Israeli populace. Israel's response to any act that targets the IDF, Israeli civilian infrastructure, or the homeland will probably be disproportional given the primacy of the Hezbollah threat. To restore full deterrence, Israel will almost certainly respond to any aggressive behavior by attacking Hezbollah's base in southern Lebanon and widening the war to attack Hezbollah in Syria. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said: "The guerilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win." For an asymmetrical war such as one between the IDF and Hezbollah, a win for the IDF must be decisive, a lesson learned after the Pyrrhic victory of 2006. Anything less will be a boon to Hezbollah's stature.

Nicholas Saidel is associate director of the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis and Response. He previously was a fellow at the Penn Law School's Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law; an associate at the law firm of Wolf, Block LLP; a legislative aide to Rep. Robert A. Brady (D-Pa.); and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.