Operation Northern Shield, a potential regional escalation?

This post is the english version of an article published in French late December on the following website: https://lemonde-arabe.fr/21/12/2018/loperation-bouclier-du-nord-ou-une-potentielle-escalade-regionale/

On December 4th Israel Defense Forces (IDF)  announced the launch of “Operation Northern Shield”, to expose, prevent and destroy underground tunnels dug by Hezbollah from southern Lebanon into Israeli territory. The operation was launched with the army declaring some areas adjacent to the Lebanon border a closed military zone and deploying additional forces to the north.

The operation came hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a last-minute trip to Brussels to meet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in which the two discussed “ways to halt together Iranian aggression in the region,” including in Lebanon. Netanyahu asked Pompeo to pass on a message to the Lebanese government, telling them that if Beirut doesn’t stop Hezbollah’s armament efforts, Israel will have to take action. The United States later rejected the demand from the Israeli Prime Minister to sanction Lebanon, making no difference between the Lebanese state and Hezbollah. On the Lebanese side of the border, the army has reinforced its positions and said to monitor activities from the IDF. The UN observation mission (UNFIL) called all parties to remain prudent and also deployed additional monitors.

In response to the Israelis action, Hassan Hobballah, a member of Hezbollah’s political bureau in charge of the Palestinian dossier, said, “Hezbollah is monitoring the Israeli movements on all fronts. We are an integrated chain, and we cannot separate Gaza from Lebanon. Our enemy is one regardless of the number of fronts involved. We will not let one front face Israel alone.” Meanwhile, Islamic Jihad spokesman Musab al-Barim remarked, “The Palestinian resistance is taking the situation on the Lebanese border very seriously. It is carefully considering the strategic position and will not give up its role in the field.”

The well planned operation on the IDF, and the fact that the existence of tunnels has been well know by Israeli intelligence for months if not years, suggest that its is mainly driven by an internal Israeli agenda at a time when Netanyahu faces potential additional corruption charges and criticism on his Gaza policy following the resignation of Minister of Defense Lieberman. The timing of the operation has indeed lead to many questions as a senior military source told reporters that Israel knows all about the Hezbollah project and is aware of every one of its tunnels (in the IDF’s estimation).

The code name “Northern Shield” lends the impression of a defensive operation of paramount importance, which it does not appear to be. Added to that is the media circus which has not been seen on Israel’s northern border since the Second Lebanon War (2006), complete with live news updates throughout the day, as if there were some sort of emergency. A war-like atmosphere — featuring attack tunnels, an emergency operation, a call up of reserves, convening of the Security Cabinet — was created and then underscored by Netanyahu with a special broadcast to the nation on prime time, evening television. Media events of this kind, designed to convey to the public that things are under control, usually take place in times of war or after a multiple-victim terror attack. All the show around this operation has for sure, at least partly, diverted public opinions from the multiple charges that Netanyahu might face in court.

Playing such card, for an internal political benefit, could be extremely prejudicial to the entire region. While Hezbollah refrained from excessive reaction to the Israeli operation, the party would certainly be obliged to react if the IDF was entering Lebanese territory. This would then certainly lead to a full fledge invasion of Lebanon, a plan that the IDF has been working on since the 2006 war. Indeed Israeli Prime Minister has warned that Israel should dismantle Hezbollah’s tunnel network in Lebanon, and if the party responds by “provoking another conflict,” then Lebanon would receive a “devastating thrashing.”

Such scenario of Israel’s destruction of Lebanon could benefit Hezbollah in two ways, it would impoverish and devastate Lebanese society, undermining the large segment of Lebanese who reject Hezbollah’s agenda; and it would substantiate the party’s narrative of the need to prioritize resistance. And it could generate a reaction from the Palestinian factions, opening a new front in Gaza, and potentially in the West Bank. In theory, Iran could also call for Hamas and the Islamic Jihad to “retaliate” to an Israeli attack on Hezbollah and Lebanon.

Increasing the tensions, the head of American intelligence arrived on 5 december for an unplanned visit to Egypt and met with President al-Sisi and Egyptian Intelligence Chief Maj. Gen. Kamal Abbas and General Abd al-Halik, in charge of the Gaza file in Egyptian Intelligence. The subject of the meeting was apparently persuading Hamas and the Islamic Jihad not to fire rockets at Israel in the event of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah and Iran in the north. According to the same sources, Israel conveyed to Hamas a short and clear message that if they or the Islamic Jihad would develop a second front against Israel while dealing with Hezbollah and Iran, Israel would remove the gloves and hit organizations as strongly as they had never felt Israel’s arm.

In the current situation, the level of deterrence on the borders along with the wide potential area of confrontation between Iran and its allies on one side and Israel on the other makes a future war unlikely. But this is mainly due to the fact that such a war will certainly draw in other parties, which could make it a regional confrontation that no one in the world would want to see.

Hosam Matar, author of “The soft power war between the US and Hezbollah,” said all parties recognize the enormous price of any future war in the region. “The implications of such a war can’t be compared to any previous war. This makes the choice of war, with the uncertainty of a decisive or clear victory, an irrational choice.”

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