Israel’s deadly dance with Hezbollah has become a chess game

Israel carried out an airstrike in Lebanon on February 14 that eliminated “a senior commander in Hezbollah’s Radwan Forces, his deputy commander, and an additional terrorist operative in Lebanese territory yesterday,” the IDF said on February 15. This is an important development because it came after rocket fire from Lebanon struck Safed, killed an IDF soldier, and wounded eight other people.

However, the strike in Lebanon raises other important issues that should be addressed. First of all, the IDF says that the man who was hit with the airstrike was “a commander in Hezbollah’s Radwan Forces, Ali Muhammad Aldbas.”  The IDF says that “Aldbas was amongst those who directed the terrorist attack at the Megiddo Junction in Israel in March 2023. He led, planned, and carried out terrorist activity toward the State of Israel, especially during this war.”

This is important. However, it is also interesting that he was only eliminated now, a year after this serious Hezbollah escalation. It’s important to understand that the Hezbollah escalation against Israel to redraw the red lines in the north and alter the “equation,” as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah calls it, did not begin on October 8.

October 8 is the date Hezbollah decided to back the Hamas attack on Israel that had occurred the day before, October 7. Hezbollah was likely encouraged to begin attacks by Iran, which backs Hezbollah and Hamas. Iran then also keyed in the Houthis in Yemen and also militias in Iraq and Syria.

However, Hezbollah’s moving of the goalposts did not start on October 8. In fact, it had already begun to escalate in 2022 when it threatened war with Israel if Israel didn’t sign a maritime deal, brokered by the US, with Lebanon. Hezbollah used the lead-up to the 2022 elections in Israel to create threats and potential chaos. As such, Israel agreed to delineate the maritime border.

A Hezbollah flag flutters in the southern Lebanese village of Khiam, near the border with Israel, Lebanon July 28, 2020 (credit: REUTERS/AZIZ TAHER)

This showed Hezbollah was controlling Lebanon’s foreign policy in southern Lebanon. Rather than withdrawing from the area as it was supposed to do after the 2006 war, it was now showing it controls Lebanon and the borders of Lebanon.

 In early 2023, Hezbollah’s escalation increased. First of all, it enabled the Megiddo operation. It also set up a tent in Mount Dov, an area it claims is “disputed.” Then, it began to demand changes to the border near Ghajar, an Alawite village in northern Israel. This area had recently been opened to tourism.


Hezbollah wanted it closed down and wanted to cause trouble. Then Hezbollah went further over Passover when two dozen rockets were fired at Israel, one of them landing in Shlomi. Hezbollah had also threatened Israel’s gas platforms off the coast over the last several years.

Israel tried to downplay Hezbollah threats

 In 2023 before October 7 there was a kind of sleep-walking policy in Israel, trying to downplay these threats, just like the Hamas threats were downplayed. Instead, Israel concentrated on Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the West Bank and a short flare-up in Gaza.

It’s important to understand this background because even though Israel closed accounts on the Megiddo affair, Hezbollah is the one that has continued to dictate the tempo of operations. What happened on February 14? Hezbollah appeared to shy away from taking credit for the attack on Safed.

However, Al-Mayadeen media, which backs Hezbollah and is pro-Iran, sought to glorify the attack, claiming it was a precision attack and claiming that the attack had not been intercepted by Iron Dome. Later in the day on February 14, media reported that the attack was carried out by unguided grad rockets. Is it plausible to assume that Hezbollah wasn’t behind it and a deadly attack just happened to occur like this?

 It’s not clear, but what is clear is that Israel has preferred proportional responses to Hezbollah. There is a kind of janus-faced policy here. On the one hand, Israel’s leaders, including the Minister of Defense and Chief of Staff, continue to warn Hezbollah. We’ve heard over the last month that the likelihood of war in the north is higher than in the past and that Israel can do to Hezbollah what it did to Hamas and other claims.

However, the current policy is incremental and has some aspects of the policy of “deterrence” prior to the Hamas attack on October 7. What that means is that Hezbollah is supposed to be deterred from escalation, even though it has already driven through all the red lines and chosen the time and place of attacks in the north.

This is not to say Hezbollah doesn’t take losses. It does. It has lost some 200 of its fighters. Meanwhile, Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on February 15 that Israel recently had an ”intense day” in the north. Israel has also stepped up its response, “but it’s one step out of ten.” This leaves many questions.

The deadly dance with Hezbollah has become a dangerous chess game. Each side prefers only to advance pawns a bit, but this is not a game. There are 80,000 Israelis who have been evacuated from the north. The dance with Hezbollah does not take place in a vacuum. Iran wants to unify various “arenas” against Israel, and Iran has keyed Hezbollah in with limited attacks.

Even if there is an agreement with Hezbollah, it appears the incremental policy has now reached new heights. This means that even if there is an agreement, any tensions would then start where they left off, which is much more serious attacks by Hezbollah than in the past. Basically, what that means is that the Megiddo incident in March 2023 was seen as very serious in March 2023. Now, we are in a new world order in the Middle East, one that has largely been drawn by Iran and its proxies and partners. 

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