Israel anxiously watches its northern border for warning signs of a wider regional war

Lebanese soldiers stand on a hill that overlooks the Israeli town of Metula as a man waves the Palestinian and Hezbollah flags at the Lebanese side of the Lebanese-Israeli border in the southern village of Kfar Kila, Lebanon on Oct. 9, 2023. (Mohammed Zaatari/Associated Press)

In the wake of the weekend’s conflict, Israel’s northern border with both Lebanon and Syria has become an alarming flashpoint. Experts caution that this could serve as an indicator of an impending, broader regional war in the Middle East.

Israeli military forces have, thus far, predominantly concentrated their efforts on eliminating Hamas threats in southern Israel and targeting them in the Gaza Strip. However, the nation has begun strengthening its defenses along its northern border with Lebanon, in anticipation of a possible secondary front with Hezbollah.

This shift in defense posture follows an incident on Monday, where six people were killed — three Hezbollah members, an Israeli officer, and two Palestinian militants — after a minor intrusion across the northern border into Israeli territory.

Israel has declared war with Hamas after the Palestinian militant group launched a surprise attack that killed hundreds. The National breaks down how Hamas went seemingly undetected by Israeli intelligence for months and days leading up to the attack and what could happen next.

A Calm Before the Storm?

Tuesday saw an unsettling tranquility in the northern region as inhabitants on both sides of the border anxiously awaited Hezbollah’s next move, and whether they might support Hamas in the ongoing conflict.

Furthermore, The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, using open-source information, has highlighted the deployment of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Lebanese Hezbollah units to Syria’s border with Israel earlier this week. This deployment, the Institute posits, could point to the Gaza conflict’s expansion into a more extensive war enveloping Israel.

International Responses and Speculations

Retired Canadian major-general Denis Thompson, having served as the commander of the multinational peacekeeping force in the Sinai, expressed his concerns, stating, “It’s quite worrisome.” He elaborated, “It would be an order of magnitude more difficult for Israel if Hezbollah enters the war.”

Additionally, Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, remarked in Foreign Policy magazine about Hezbollah’s potential role in the ongoing conflict. He points out that while Hezbollah has consistently supported the Palestinian cause, directly engaging with Israel would pose significant risks.

Members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah take part in Ashura commemorations in a southern Beirut suburb. Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images

Hezbollah’s Capabilities and Intentions

Historically, Hezbollah, backed significantly by Iran, has been a substantial threat to Israel. Last spring, Israel’s defence minister Yoav Gallant disclosed that Iran funds Hezbollah to the tune of $700 million US annually. With Iran’s assistance, Hezbollah’s arsenal, which includes rockets and missiles capable of reaching deep into Israel, has expanded.

Furthermore, while Hamas is limited to the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah has control over vast territories in southern Lebanon, areas of Beirut, and significant parts of Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. Politically, they also hold sway with 62 seats in the Lebanese parliament.

Wider Geopolitical Implications

From a broader perspective, the swift incursion of Hamas into southern Israel, coupled with the threat of Hezbollah’s involvement, could be a ploy to refocus global attention on the Palestinian issue. Especially as several voices in the Arab world are inching towards establishing normalized relations with Israel.

Thompson expressed concerns about Iran’s potential isolation if Arab states begin normalizing ties with Israel. He mentioned, “They are nervous if a number of Arab states normalize relationships.” The Institute for the Study of War also indicated a shift in Iran’s strategy from solely vocal opposition to Israel to emphasizing the significance of ground operations and urban warfare.