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Peace and Conflict

Escalation on the northern border | Update 10th January 2024

 Escalation on the northern border via BICom

What’s happened: Both Israel and Hezbollah have stepped up their attacks and counter-strikes in southern Lebanon and northern Israel.

  • On Monday, Israel carried out a targeted assassination of the commander of Hezbollah’s elite commando Radwan Force, Wissam al-Tawil.
  • On Tuesday Hezbollah retaliated with extensive attacks across northern Israel using missiles, rockets, and UAVs.
  • As a result, air raid sirens sounded in 26 northern communities.
  • One of Hezbollah’s attacks targeted the IDF’s Northern Command’s main headquarters in Safed. Whilst some were shot down, two UAVs evaded interception and exploded in the base causing no injuries and only minimal damage. According to Hezbollah, this attack was in revenge for the killings of al-Tawil and Hamas commander al-Arouri.
  • In response, the IDF struck and killed the squad that launched the UAV.
  • In addition, the IDF also targeted and killed Ali Hussein Burji, who served as the Hezbollah commander of their aerial unit in southern Lebanon and was responsible for the UAVs targeting the northern command. Lebanese sources claimed he was killed by a missile striking his vehicle close to the site of al-Tawil’s funeral.
  • This morning, the IDF renewed their strikes in southern Lebanon.

Context: Since the war began, 14 Israelis have been killed in northern Israel, whilst 158 Hezbollah operatives have been killed by the IDF.

  • In total, Hezbollah has carried out over 600 attacks. The damage would have been far higher on the Israeli side, if not for 42 communities that been evacuated, which includes 60,000 Israelis. In addition, over 20,000 have voluntarily left their homes in the north.
  • Although the evacuations have saved lives, it poses a complex set of dilemmas as to when they will feel safe to return home.
  • Hezbollah has demonstrated an array of methods to attack, including anti-tank missiles with a high degree of accuracy, and sophisticated UAVs. There is also concern that these UAVs could in the future be deployed en masse, with a swarming effect that could overwhelm Israeli defences.
  • The attack on the northern command HQ was Hezbollah’s second attempt to strike a strategic site in the north, following the attack on the Mount Meron air control base.
  • It appears the IDF has changed its approach and is now focusing on targeted killing operations against senior Hezbollah commanders.  
  • Israel’s objective remains to remove the elite Radwan Force commandos from close proximity to the border area, but without crossing the threshold that would start a full-scale war. The IDF is managing the northern arena, whilst the campaign in Gaza remains the main focus.
  • Hezbollah’s agenda is complicated: on one hand it creates the linkage within the Iranian backed axis and the war in Gaza (they began their assault on October 8th.  When there was a temporary ceasefire, during the release of hostages Hezbollah also held fire, even though not part of the agreement). On the other hand, Hezbollah leader Nasrallah has stated that his calculations are independent of Hamas and based on pre-existing claims against Israel.
  • The Iranian agenda supports Hezbollah’s continued attacks against Israel, to keep it in a perpetual state of conflict but below the threshold of all out war. The assumption remains that Iran seeks to keep Hezbollah’s most lethal capacity as an insurance policy against any future attack against the Iranian regime.        
  • Israel strives to restore its deterrence, based on strikes against Hezbollah and the damage inflicted in Gaza, to create pressure inside Lebanon to restrain Hezbollah.
  • In the last three months, the IDF has claimed a series of achievements in the north: 
    • They have displayed an impressive intelligence and operational capability to target cells and individual commanders.
    • To a degree, some of the Radwan Force has been pushed away from the border fence, though not as far north as the Litani River.
    • There has been extensive damage to Hezbollah’s infrastructure and command posts.
    • All this whilst keeping civilian casualties to a minimum.
  • Both sides appear to be reliant on their advanced UAV capabilities, both for attacks and intelligence gathering.
  • US Secretary of State Blinken related to the challenges in northern Israel, saying yesterday, “the United States stands with Israel in ensuring its northern border is secure. We’re fully committed to working with Israel to find a diplomatic solution that avoids escalation and allows families to return to their homes, to live securely in northern Israel and also in southern Lebanon.”

Looking ahead: The calculations for both sides to keep this conflict relatively contained remain precarious. 

  • There is still hope that the US’s diplomatic efforts to end the fighting in the north will prevail.
  • Hezbollah still has a significant stock of precision guided missiles, along with an array of long range missiles with large warheads, that could inflict heavy damage on Israel’s home front, far from the northern border.
  • Any subsequent ground operation could also be on a substantially larger scale than that seen in Gaza.   

via BICom