The MED This Week newsletter provides informed insights on the most significant developments in the MENA region, bringing together unique opinions and reliable foresight on future scenarios. Today we turn the spotlight on Lebanon, focusing on the risks that an escalation between Hezbollah and Israel would pose for the entire region.
Since Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel, tensions have been simmering on the country’s northern border with Lebanon. Several weeks after the beginning of the war, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah finally broke his silence, with a long-awaited speech that focused especially on the group’s actions in the past month. In his speech, Nasrallah stressed that the limited fighting along the border area in the past weeks already accounts for Hezbollah’s entry into war. Such a statement suggests that – similarly to Israel – Hezbollah is not interested in a broader conflict at this stage. For the time being, both sides have engaged in a low-intensity war of attrition which, however, still poses many challenges. Moreover, the risk that current tensions might lead to an unwanted escalation should not be underestimated. In this context, Lebanon’s political and economic crisis remains a cause of concern. If the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel were to escalate, the country’s economy and its battered population would pay a heavy price.
Experts from the ISPI network react to the risks of an escalation between Hezbollah and Israel.
The 2006 war nightmare forces Hezbollah and Israel into a low-intensity war
“Neither Hezbollah nor Israel wish to move into a full-scale war. In his recent speech, Hassan Nasrallah repeated several times that he wanted a ceasefire in Gaza. He also made it clear that, in the meantime, he was opting for a low-intensity war of attrition. The Israeli defeat by Hezbollah in 2006 is still fresh in everyone’s mind. A commission of inquiry – the Winograd Commission – was set up at the end of the conflict to identify the causes of the debacle. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert left office with only 2% of favourable opinion in the polls. Amir Peretz, Minister of Defence and leader of the Labour Party, lost both positions. Dan Halutz, military Chief of Staff, was prosecuted after discovering that he had sold all his shares on the Tel Aviv stock exchange just a few hours before the launch of the offensive (insider trading). Benyamin Netanyahu cannot have forgotten that.”
Aurélie Daher, Professor, University of Paris-Dauphine
Beyond rhetoric, Nasrallah has no desire for an escalation
“Nasrallah’s speech turned out to be an excellent act of political camouflage. On one side, by stating that Hezbollah has been at war since October 8th, the Sayyed has indirectly tried to placate its supporters who demand more efforts from the Party of God to support Hamas. On the other, Nasrallah accused the US of being the puppet master of Israeli violence, blaming Israel for a potential escalation. Further, he once again reiterated Hezbollah’s deterrence capacity to increasingly threaten the enemy. Nasrallah, who spoke on behalf of the Axis of resistance, issued a clear warning to Israel: respect the shared ‘grammar of war’ or we will be forced to respond appropriately. In this growingly unstable context, each missile and drone could lead to where both sides do not want to go: to war. This is the reason why Nasrallah issues threats, but with a careful, restraint, akin to having the handbrake pulled.”
Luigi Toninelli, ISPI MENA Centre
With war in Gaza, Hamas’ Lebanese branch might take a military stance
“Palestinian factions have a long history of organising in Lebanon. Some groups along the pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian axis have military capabilities exceeding the light arms found in the refugee camps and have occasionally launched rockets towards Israel. Interestingly, Hamas’ exile leadership in Lebanon has long maintained that it solely plays a political role, and that its armed struggle is confined to the Occupied Territories. This might now be changing. On November 6th, the Hamas-linked Qassam Brigades claimed they had launched rockets from South Lebanon. Moreover, some Palestinian refugees ostensibly connected to Hamas have attempted to cross the border. It is nonetheless important to remember that Hezbollah has dominated the southern front against Israel since the late 1980s. It relies on Palestinian allies mainly for deterrence and, this far, had not allowed them to take a leading role. We must assume that any militant activity in the South is coordinated closely with Hezbollah.”
Erling Lorentzen Sogge, Senior Lecturer, University of Oslo
The conflict risks exacerbating Lebanon’s economic crisis
“Lebanon’s economy faces three possible outcomes: bad, worse, and catastrophic. Decades of financial turmoil have eroded confidence, and the renewed conflict on its southern border spells only negative impacts. The already costly logistics of goods and transportation — thanks to state mismanagement and poorly-run state owned enterprises—are now burdened with higher insurance costs, inevitably leading to a spike in consumer prices. As usual, these blanket increases will disproportionately affect the poor. For this reason, the conflict’s course, the trajectory of economic recovery, and social malaise are closely interwoven. Even if the current price surges prove temporary, the nation’s reliance on imports and price-fixing cartels in key sectors such as energy, means costs are likely to remain high. With the government in perpetual crisis and no resolution to the financial crisis in sight (not least through an IMF deal) the imminent consequence of this chain of events is heightened pressure on households and some sort of social unrest—the severity of which is the only uncertain variable in this equation.”
Sami Halabi, Director of Policy & Co-Founder, Triangle