Israel Says Hezbollah Dragging Lebanon Toward War as Towns Empty

Israel said Hezbollah risks dragging Lebanon into a wider regional war after another night of intense cross-border fire with the Iran-backed militant group.

(Bloomberg) — Israel said Hezbollah risks dragging Lebanon into a wider regional war after another night of intense cross-border fire with the Iran-backed militant group.

As Israel’s military battles Gaza-based Hamas, following the group’s deadly attacks on southern Israel on Oct. 7, it has also been facing the threat to the north posed by Hezbollah, which last fought a war with its neighbor in 2006. 

Israel reported that anti-tank missiles were fired again from Lebanon Sunday and that it had intercepted a drone. In one of its most serious warnings yet, the military said Hezbollah was “playing a very, very dangerous game” and “dragging Lebanon into a war that it will gain nothing from but stands to lose a lot.” 

More than 60,000 people in Israel have been evacuated along the border with Lebanon including Kiryat Shmona, the area’s largest city, and residents of an additional 14 communities are set to leave, according to the Israeli Ministry of Defense. 

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Israel shelled border villages late Saturday, reaching areas deep into southern Lebanon primarily Jezzine, Tyre and Bint Jbeil. About 1,500 Lebanese and Syrian families took refuge in schools in Tyre that the municipality had set up in anticipation of worsening violence, Lebanese state-run National News Agency reported. 

One of the Middle East’s most powerful militias, Hezbollah is funded by Iran and is also represented by a political party in Lebanon with an extensive network of schools, hospitals, social services and even local lenders. Along with its allies, Hezbollah is one of the most influential parties in the country and has the majority and military might to block any government or parliament decision. 

Lebanon’s government, which exerts little to no influence over Hezbollah’s armed wing, has said it was preparing an emergency plan in the case of a war. Lebanon’s national carrier Middle East Airlines has parked some of its fleet in Turkey and authorities have discussed ways to secure its infrastructure and trade routes. 

At a televised news conference Sunday a Hezbollah lawmaker said the group’s goal was to prevent Israel from achieving its goals in Gaza. Speaking in southern Lebanon, Hassan Fadlallah also praised the residents for offering “the best of their sons” to face Israel. 

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Hezbollah has been attacking Israeli army posts and border towns on a daily basis for the past two weeks and has attempted to send drones into Israeli airspace. The series of attacks started a day after Hamas, which is designated a terrorist group by the US and European Union, launched an unprecedented incursion into Israel on Oct. 7, killing more than 1,400 people and abducting dozens more.  

Israel responded with an intense bombing campaign on the blockaded Hamas-run Gaza Strip, killing thousands of people. Israel is widely expected to launch a ground invasion, something Iran has said would further escalate tensions. 

Caretaker Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said the government was holding talks with Arab and international parties to stop Israel’s attacks on the southern region and prevent the war spilling over further into Lebanon. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Mikati late Saturday and “noted growing concern over rising tensions along Lebanon’s southern border,” according to the State Department. 

Israel’s military spokesperson Daniel Hagari said the fighting with Hezbollah “is mainly in the contact line.” Hezbollah has adopted similar rhetoric, saying the clashes remain within the so-called “rules of engagement,” which limits the battle to Lebanese areas Hezbollah considers occupied. 

Hezbollah has so far not entered real combat with Israel probably because it is sensitive to public opinion in Lebanon where people are worried what a war of that kind would cause according to Giora Eiland, a former national security adviser in Israel. 

“Hezbollah is aware that if a full scale war emerges in Lebanon, it will bring devastation to the city of Beirut. Beirut will look like Gaza,” Eiland, a retired general and now a media commentator, told journalists at a briefing late Saturday. 

Hezbollah has said it has 100,000 fighters and a stockpile of missiles that could reach all of Israel. Its involvement in the Syrian war alongside President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces has given its fighters more experience in guerrilla warfare, experts say. 

Hezbollah’s last war with Israel in 2006 left more than 1,000 dead in Lebanon, and more than 100 in Israel, as well as triggering mass displacement and damage. While the group claimed victory back then and enjoyed popular support in the Arab world, some of that landscape is different today. 

The group’s fighting against Syria’s popular uprising dented its image in parts of the Middle East. In Lebanon its critics blame the group for the country’s financial crisis and say Hezbollah is to blame for Arab benefactors like Saudi Arabia withholding much-needed funding for Lebanon. 

–With assistance from Omar Tamo.

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