Is Israel-Hezbollah fighting about to spiral?


Fighting between Hezbollah and Israel took a dangerous turn this week with Israeli strikes deep into Lebanese territory, further stoking fears of all-out war between the arch-foes.

Hezbollah, a Hamas ally, has exchanged near-daily fire with the Israeli army since war erupted between Israel and the Gaza-based Palestinian militant group on October 7.

Despite the bellicose rhetoric on both sides, neither seems to want a war that could set the whole region ablaze. AFP looks at the situation on the ground, the risks and possible solutions.

- What's happening? -

From the day after the Israel-Hamas war erupted, Hezbollah began launching cross-border attacks which it says are in support of Palestinians and Hamas in Gaza.

Israel has in turn been striking targets in Lebanon, with Hezbollah and Hamas commanders and officials also in its crosshairs.

The exchanges have killed at least 284 people on the Lebanese side, most of them Hezbollah combatants but also other militants including Palestinian fighters as well as 44 civilians, according to an AFP tally.

On the Israeli side, 10 soldiers and six civilians have been killed, according to the Israeli army.

On Monday, Israeli strikes targeted Hezbollah bastion Baalbek in east Lebanon, some 100 kilometers from the Israeli border, the deepest such raid into Lebanese territory since the hostilities began.

Two Hezbollah fighters were killed, and the Iran-backed group retaliated with rocket fire, but not at a comparable depth inside Israel.

Military analyst Hisham Jaber said that while Israeli strikes were targeting deeper into Lebanon, Hezbollah was still restricting its activities "to within around 10 kilometers" across the frontier.

Hezbollah has been acting carefully and only using a fraction of its arsenal, holding back on its "high-precision ballistic missiles that could reach Israeli cities," the retired Lebanese military general told AFP.

Neither Hezbollah nor its patron Iran were interested in a broader regional war that could engulf the Middle East all through to the Gulf, he said.

Israel in turn was mainly targeting "fighters who launch rockets" towards the frontier and low-level Hezbollah commanders, Jaber added.

- Risk of broader war? -

"The risk of wide-scale conflict of course can't be ruled out, but it is unlikely," Jaber said.

But it would only take a mistake on either side for the situation to degenerate.

Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth daily said a Hezbollah rocket fired towards the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on Monday landed near a busload of school students.

Monday's exchanges "show how fragile the situation in the north is," Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff wrote in the daily.

Israeli military analyst Amir Bohbot said that "the security reality is far from the situation of an uncontrollable escalation."

The two sides "are walking on tiptoe despite the amount of smell of explosives in the air," he wrote on Israeli news portal Walla.

- A diplomatic solution? -

Hezbollah has said it will only stop fighting once Israel ends its Gaza offensive.

On Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said there would be no let-up in Israeli action against Hezbollah even if a Gaza ceasefire and hostage deal were secured.

A French diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity that a plan from Paris to defuse hostilities focused on applying a U.N. resolution that ended the last war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006.

Paris submitted the plan to both sides last month.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 called for the Lebanese Army and U.N. peacekeepers to be the only armed forces deployed in the country's south.

While Hezbollah has not had a visible military presence in the border area since the 2006 war, the group still holds sway over large swathes of the south, where it has built tunnels, hideouts and launches attacks.

The Paris plan also calls for Hezbollah and allied fighters to withdraw to around 12 kilometers from the frontier, and a halt to Israeli attacks, the diplomat said, while France, the United States, Israel and Lebanon would monitor the ceasefire.

A Lebanese official, also requesting anonymity, told AFP that Beirut was studying the proposal.

But Lebanon has pinned higher hopes on U.S. proposals that include a broader deal to end the Gaza war, the official added.

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