Israel-Hamas: Will war spread to Hezbollah and ‘axis of resistance’?

The smoke had barely dissipated from Israel’s assassination of a senior Hezbollah commander in Lebanon when Antony Blinken visited Tel Aviv on January 9 as part of another tour aimed at deescalating tension in the Middle East.
The US’s top diplomat had spent previous days urging leaders in the region to do whatever they could to rein in Iran and its proxy militias.Hezbollah has attacked Israeli forces and the Houthis in Yemen have targeted ships in the Red Sea, prompting the US and UK to launch airstrikes against the group.
As the Israel-Hamas war enters 100 days, the question remains whether it will spread from Gaza and turn into a wider conflagration. But with the appetite in Israel for war against Hezbollah growing and American influence on its ally seemingly waning, the answer is more likely to be found in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem than Beirut or Washington.
Even as the Israeli army faces stiff resistance in Gaza and the death toll for both soldiers and civilians mounts, the country is still reeling from Hamas’s October 7 incursion, which killed 1,200 people. Many believe all of Israel’s enemies must now be confronted, not least Hezbollah, the Iran-funded Shiite militia that vows to destroy the Jewish state and has thousands of fighters located just across the border in Lebanon.
The group has traded fire almost daily with the Israeli military since fighting in Gaza began. Those skirmishes have forced almost 100,000 Israelis and thousands of Lebanese to evacuate their homes, yet neither side was willing to take things further.
That changed in recent days. On January 2, Hamas blamed Israel for a drone strike that killed its deputy political leader in Beirut. It was likely the first attack by Israel on the Lebanese capital in almost two decades. Within days, Israel had also assassinated two senior Hezbollah figures.
The day Blinken arrived, Israel struck a vehicle near the funeral of the Hezbollah commander, where thousands had gathered for the procession. Reports said the attack killed two people.
Rhetoric within Israel against Hezbollah, designated a terrorist organization by the US, has also become more belligerent. The time for a diplomatic resolution looks to be running short as Israel pushes Hezbollah to move back from the border. Lebanon’s government, meanwhile, has told several ministries and hospitals to be on high alert for the outbreak of war, an official with knowledge of the matter said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition — the most nationalist in the country’s history — say Israelis must be allowed to return to northern towns. Calls to force Hezbollah militias away from the Israeli border and enforce a buffer zone around 20 miles (32 kilometers) deep, as per a United Nations resolution, are growing louder.
“We will do whatever is necessary,” Netanyahu said on January 8. “Of course, we prefer that this be done without a wide-ranging campaign, but that will not stop us.”
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant went further. He said his forces could make Beirut a “copy-paste” of Gaza, much of which has been turned to rubble and where more than 22,000 people have been killed, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.
“If Israel does not want another war with Hezbollah, it certainly is not showing much restraint,” Bilal Saab, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, wrote for the Washington-based think tank. “If Israel continues with its decapitation campaign, or if it dramatically intensifies its bombing of the group’s military assets, Hezbollah will most likely lash out. Then, all bets are off.”
The US remains confident that Israel does not want a full-on war with Hezbollah, and that although both sides have taken escalatory steps, they will be able to dial back the tensions, a senior State Department official told reporters traveling with Blinken. The US believes Israel wants a diplomatic solution to the northern border.
For President Joe Biden, the trouble is that the US seems to have much less influence over the Israeli government than during previous Middle Eastern conflicts. Netanyahu has consistently said Israel will not be swayed by the US, let alone other allies, from its goal of destroying external enemies.
“From Netanyahu’s perspective, it’s a case of: ‘Who’s going to stop me?’,” said Tina Fordham, founder of London-based geopolitical risk firm Fordham Global Foresight. “There are very few constraints on Israel’s power. It’s clear to me that Israel will push as hard as it can for as long as it can.”
A war between the two would probably be far deadlier than the last one they fought in 2006, when 1,200 Lebanese and 165 Israelis were killed over 34 days. Israel’s death count could near 15,000 this time around, according to Eyal Hulata, who served as the country’s national security advisor.
Hezbollah is the most powerful militia in the Middle East. It has an arsenal of more than 100,000 rockets and missiles, according to Israeli intelligence estimates, far bigger than what Hamas could muster before October 7.
People in Lebanon, already suffering from an economic crisis and triple-digit inflation, are becoming more frightened. Flights out of Beirut filled up after the drone hit Saleh Al-Arouri, the Hamas deputy politburo head, on January 2.
Global markets are also unnerved. The Israeli shekel, after rallying in November and December on signals the war would largely be contained to Gaza, has started weakening again. It’s among the world’s worst performing currencies so far this year, dropping 3.5% against the dollar.
Then there’s concern about maritime attacks by the Houthis, the militia in Yemen that’s backed by Iran. Those have forced many ships to avoid the Red Sea and Suez Canal, and travel much longer around southern Africa.
The US and its allies have been fretting about soaring freight costs and the impact on global supply chains. The US and UK started military action against the group, which has been fighting a civil war for almost a decade, with airstrikes on Houthi targets on Friday and Saturday. The Houthis vowed to continue going after commercial vessels and said they would expand their campaign “very soon.” Oil rose 4% on the day.
Israeli generals and ministers are confident they would win a two-front war against Hezbollah and Hamas. But US officials have privately warned them of the sheer strain such a scenario would place on the country’s resources and economy, with some describing it as a nightmare scenario for Israel.
Moreover, it could further inflame public opinion in the Arab and Muslim worlds, with many governments already trying to contain fury against Israel for Palestinian deaths in Gaza.
Domestically, Netanyahu had been under political pressure for months before the Hamas attack. Facing trial for bribery and his poll numbers diving, many Israelis believe he has plenty of incentive to prolong the war and avoid an election.
Both Israel and Hezbollah have said they do not want to start a wider war. But Israel’s recent actions and more aggressive attempts to force Hezbollah away from the border area risk just such an outcome, according to Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst at consultancy RANE Network.
“The Israelis have to apply enough military pressure so that Hezbollah’s fear of war outweighs their fear of losing face,” Bohl told Bloomberg Television on January 11. “Yet it’s a very unstable dynamic and it’s entirely possible that over the coming weeks this Israeli campaign escalates into a much bigger war than either side intends.”

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