With the brazen killing of Hamas deputy political chairman Saleh al-Arouri in Hezbollah’s southern Beirut stronghold of Dahieh last Tuesday, Lebanon is at risk of being dragged, once again, into a destructive confrontation with Israel. The country is caught in a standoff between the Iran-backed armed militia Hezbollah, which has threatened to intervene if the war in Gaza drags on, and Israel, which is increasingly poised to target Hezbollah directly. Such an escalation would have devastating consequences for a country already on the verge of collapse due to a combination of political, economic, and social crises. The Biden administration, which has called for an end to Israel’s massive ground war, has now ramped up efforts to deescalate tensions through a direct diplomatic effort to stabilize the Israel-Lebanon border, seeking to avert a regional war — particularly, one between two regional geostrategic allies of the United States.
Hezbollah derives its legitimacy from its opposition to Israel and as an entity that occupies parts of Lebanon, including the disputed Shebaa farms. Many observers fear that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government, which have come under harsh criticism domestically and internationally for their handling of the Gaza conflict, will use the opportunity of war in Lebanon to distract from his personal troubles and increasing unpopularity at home, sparking a wider regional war with nightmarish consequences. The rhetoric inside Israel has grown more bellicose in recent weeks, with Netanyahu and his top officials repeatedly threatening Hezbollah. Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Daniel Hagari underscored that the Lebanese people will “bear the cost” for Hezbollah’s provocation, while the prime minister warned that if the Lebanese Shi’a group starts a war, he will order parts of Lebanon to be turned into Gaza. And now, even though Israeli officials have yet to claim responsibility for the death of Hamas operative Arouri, the attack was widely ascribed to Israel, leaving Hezbollah with no choice but to respond.
Tensions along Israel’s northern frontier have been escalating dangerously for months. To date, Israel attacked the US-supported Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) over 34 times since Oct. 7, bombed Christian villages, dropped white phosphorous bombs over civilian-populated and agricultural-rich areas of southern Lebanon, as well as targeted a clearly marked group of journalists, killing one and wounding three in one incident. Hezbollah, which has already lost more than 110 of its fighters in the cross-border exchanges of fire, will be hard pressed to intervene as civilian deaths in Gaza increase rapidly, already exceeding 20,000.
Several international actors, including the United States and France, have called on Hezbollah to retreat north of the Litani River to create a buffer zone between it and Israel. Moreover, these global powers are redoubling efforts to push for the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1701, unanimously adopted by the Lebanese and Israeli governments to cease bilateral hostilities in 2006. UNSCR 1701 requires that Hezbollah be disarmed and for the Lebanese army to be deployed to southern Lebanon; additionally it obligates Israel to respect Lebanon’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, which it continues to regularly flout with near-daily jet overflights and drone attacks. The implementation of a buffer zone would enable Lebanese and Israeli communities who reside in villages on either side of the border to return home and live in peace. But it would necessarily require bolstering the existing UN force of 10,000 peacekeepers, whose current ability to maintain stability in Lebanon’s south or to contain Hezbollah is stretched.
Just as critical now is for Israel and Lebanon, which technically are still in a state of war, to demarcate their land border, eliminating a major source of conflict. The border has for years witnessed routine albeit, until now, limited skirmishes between Hezbollah and the Israel Defense Forces. Since Oct. 7, such incidents have soared and grown in intensity.
The US is attempting to play a leadership role in this regard, through the intervention of Senior Presidential Advisor Amos Hochstein, who, in late 2022, successfully mediated a historic maritime border agreement between these two countries. Hochstein had already broached the issue during his visit last November, in addition to discussing ways to compel Hezbollah to pull back its forces from the border. Hezbollah’s pull back by some 18 miles and the creation of a buffer zone on the border with Israel would likely prevent war from escalating by addressing both Israeli and Lebanese security concerns. A full demarcation of this land border would also remove Hezbollah’s justification for deploying near Israeli territory, putting in question the group’s need to remain active militarily in Lebanon. Such a deal would nevertheless need to be accompanied by Israeli assurances that it will stop violating Lebanon’s sovereignty by conducting armed incursions as well as that it will withdraw its military presence from presently disputed areas.
If such a resolution is feasible, the Biden administration should suggest that the Lebanese Armed Forces be deployed to the border areas vacated by Hezbollah and that the LAF’s strength be proportionately increased to protect both the country’s southern and eastern borders.
In the absence of such a negotiated outcome, the outbreak of war in Lebanon could put the final nail in the fragile Levantine country’s coffin — and the potential spillover effects to the rest of the region would likely prove catastrophic. Southern Lebanon is presently Hezbollah’s fiefdom and the source of its support, so expecting the militia to retreat from this stronghold may not be immediately feasible. Yet the current state of affairs necessitates immediate action from the international community to prevent a widening of the Gaza war, and the US is positioned in a leadership role to mollify tensions, beginning with diplomatic actions to stabilize the Lebanese-Israeli border, helping to pacify the broader region as a result.
Renewed US assertiveness will send a message to partners and foes alike about Washington’s commitment to peace and stability in the region. However, both the Biden administration and key congressional members recognize that this can only be effective in the context of a more robust Lebanon policy that takes into account Iran’s inordinate influence in the country and the need to resolve the prevailing paralysis that is preventing Lebanon’s political and economic recovery from its catastrophic situation.
Edward Gabriel is the former the US Ambassador to Morocco and President of the American Task Force on Lebanon.
Photo by JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images
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