Israel and the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah exchanged fire across the Israel-Lebanon border on Wednesday, marking the heaviest fighting between the bitter enemies since a 2006 war. The clashes raised the prospect of a wider conflict engulfing the region.
Barrage of Rockets from Lebanon Prompts Israeli Airstrikes
Hezbollah unleashed a barrage of rockets toward Israeli positions on Wednesday morning, firing around 30 missiles toward the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona. This represented the largest single-day number of rockets launched by the group toward Israel since fighting erupted earlier this month.
In response, Israel launched widespread airstrikes targeting Hezbollah sites in southern Lebanon, including what it said were rocket launch pads. Plumes of smoke could be seen rising across the border as Israeli jets pounded the area.
According to Israeli officials, Hezbollah fired a total of over 100 rockets by late afternoon. Most landed in open areas, though some struck civilian areas. At least three people were injured.
The fighting marked a serious escalation after months of rising tensions along the volatile border. It stirred fears that all-out war between the two enemies could erupt. Such a conflict would likely draw in Israel’s allies as well as Iran and could devastate Lebanon, which is mired in a severe economic crisis.
War of Words Heats Up as Leaders Trade Threats
As rocket fire intensified, Israeli and Hezbollah leaders unleashed fiery rhetoric, blaming each other for the violence while threatening strong retaliation.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave a televised address saying “the blood of the martyrs will not be in vain.” He said the group would responds to any future Israeli aggression with “power and severity.”
Meanwhile, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned that Israel sees Lebanon as responsible for Hezbollah’s actions. He threatened that if Hezbollah does not halt its fire, “all of Lebanon will suffer the consequences.”
Other Israeli leaders issued dire warnings as well. Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said “Nasrallah’s days are numbered” and that Israel would target him personally. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his Security Cabinet, which released a statement saying “Now is the time for a diplomatic solution, otherwise things could deteriorate into a wider confrontation.”
Factors Behind the Growing Tensions
Wednesday’s clashes are the product of months of rising tensions along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. Here are some key factors that help explain the escalation:
Hamas Fighting in Gaza – The latest tensions stem in part from over two weeks of bloody fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza. Hezbollah expressed solidarity with Hamas and may have unleashed rockets in order to take pressure off its allies in Gaza. Hezbollah and Hamas also recently held talks, possibly coordinating their actions.
Maritime Border Dispute – Lebanon and Israel have contested offshore gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea. The two sides were close to resolving the issue, but negotiations broke down in October. Hezbollah vowed to use force to prevent Israel from extracting gas in disputed waters.
Internal Lebanese Politics – Hezbollah’s political fortunes have declined amid Lebanon’s economic meltdown. Military clashes with Israel often allow Hezbollah to stir up nationalist sentiments and burnish its image as Lebanon’s champion against Israel. The group may cynically view the latest clashes as a way to strengthen its domestic political hand.
Specter of 2006 War Looms Large
For many, the current fighting raises uneasy memories of the last major conflict between Israel and Hezbollah – the 2006 Lebanon War. In that clash, sparked by Hezbollah capturing two Israeli soldiers, the two sides engaged in nearly six weeks of brutal warfare.
Hezbollah barraged northern Israel with nearly 4,000 rockets over the course of the conflict while Israel unleashed a massive air campaign across Lebanon. Over 160 Israelis and more than 1,100 Lebanese were killed.
That war was widely seen as at best a stalemate for Israel and at worst a strategic defeat given the steep costs and Hezbollah’s resilience. Since then, Hezbollah has expanded and enhanced its already substantial arsenal of advanced rockets and missiles, according to Israeli and Western intelligence. This poses a significant threat for Israel in any future conflict.
International Community Scrambles to Restore Calm
World leaders have scrambled to urge restraint and find a diplomatic solution to defuse the rapidly intensifying crisis.
The United States called the latest clashes “an incredibly concerning escalation” and said it is in touch with both sides to try to halt the violence.
Egypt and Qatar have reportedly reached out to Hamas and Hezbollah in hopes of preventing wider fighting from erupting. France has also offered to mediate between the longtime foes to restore calm.
Meanwhile, the United Nations peacekeeping force stationed along the border, UNIFIL, urged “maximum restraint” from both sides and asked Lebanon to halt Hezbollah fire into Israel. But it’s unclear what, if any, impact these international pleas may have.
The coming hours and days will prove crucial. Unless the violence halts quickly, the fighting threatens to mushroom into a devastating war that could destabilize the Middle East for years to come. Both sides have shown they are willing to endure terrible costs, meaning the prospects for peace remain tenuous.
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