Crossing the Red Lines - Israel and Hezbollah's Spiraling Escalation

It has been six months since the daily fighting between Israel and Hezbollah erupted. But it is still difficult to envision a "closing mechanism" that will put an end to the hostilities.

Hezbollah has lost more than 270 men; the organization's military facilities in the Bekaa Valley, deep inside Lebanon, were hit several times; and Hezbollah and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) personnel were killed in numerous attacks in Syria. The latest targeted killing of the IRGC’s top commander in the Levant, along with six other IRGC officers, is just another example of Israel's willingness to raise the stakes of the conflict as part of its attempt to deter Hezbollah and Iran from continuing their attacks. 

At the same time, Israel has suffered damages to military and civilian infrastructures along the border, faced salvos of tens of rockets at a time launched into its northern territory, and multiple UAV penetrations into its airspace. The number of casualties on the Israeli side is less than 10% of those on the Lebanese side, yet it is unprecedented in recent years. On both sides of the border between Israel and Lebanon, tens of thousands of civilians were evacuated from their homes, becoming refugees in their own country, with little hope of returning home anytime soon.

This ongoing reality would have been unimaginable before the October 7 massacre in Israel that was carried out by Hamas. The unwritten understanding for the last 18 years was that neither Israel nor Hezbollah wished to engage in a war with the other side. Since the 2006 Lebanon War, which took a significant toll on both sides, Israel and Hezbollah have been cautious about keeping the joint border calm. Over the years, they have exchanged rare, limited, and highly calculated blows as part of a tit-for-tat policy within a framework of "equations."

Today, it seems that the two sides still refrain from the possibility of an all-out war, but at the same time, they have long passed each other's "red lines" and are operating on uncharted strategic ground. Acts that were unthinkable just seven months ago, such as Israeli air strikes deep inside Lebanon or Hezbollah launching 50 rockets at a time into northern Israel, have now become the new baseline. As each side has already crossed its opponent's red lines, the preexisting balance of deterrence has become less relevant.

As each escalatory step creates a new precedent that sets the bar for the next phase, the spiral of violence is rapidly evolving and pushing the two sides closer to the brink of full-scale war. Even though this is a mutually unwanted scenario, the dynamic created on the battlefield is hard to ignore, especially while diplomatic attempts to ease the tension appear to have had no success.

Another factor adding to this dangerous dynamic is the internal political pressure in Israel, as the government, as in every sovereign country, is expected to secure the lives of its citizens and enable them to go back to their homes. The manifestation of that need is rising calls from the Israeli public for the government to forcefully put an end to Hezbollah's attacks and push it away from the border.

From the Lebanese side of the border, the political environment has the opposite effect. Hezbollah faces political pressure not to escalate the conflict and is blamed for initiating a war with Israel in which Lebanon has no interest. Nevertheless, Hezbollah, which is operating with no formal governmental authority, holds limited accountability for the well-being of the residents in southern Lebanon, and its military operations are hardly affected by political criticism.

This situation will lead Israel to take a more aggressive approach as a part of its attempt to deter Hezbollah and Iran from continuing their attacks. Until now, none of the Israeli operations have been enough to change Hezbollah's calculations, and it appears that the organization’s leadership still considers the cost-benefit balance of its continuous attacks as positive.

At this point, only a radical change in the form and content of the diplomatic efforts to stop the conflict can change the dangerous dynamic from reaching a point where the sides will lose control over the spiraling violence. Without a concrete international roadmap and reliable guarantees for the full implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 that will ensure Hezbollah will not be able to continue its attacks on Israel, there is little hope for restoring the quiet.

Dror Doron is a senior advisor at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) focusing on Hezbollah and Lebanon. He spent nearly two decades as a senior analyst in the Office of Israel’s Prime Minister. Dror is on Twitter @DrorDoron