The latest clashes between Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah militia mark the worst flare-up in tensions since a month-long war fought in 2006, as my colleagues report. On Wednesday, anti-tank missiles fired from Hezbollah positions struck a convoy of Israeli military vehicles patrolling the Israel-Lebanon frontier. Two soldiers were reported killed, while seven were injured.
Hezbollah claimed the attack was retaliation for an Israeli airstrike on Jan. 18, when a missile fired from an Israeli warplane hit a Hezbollah convoy in the Golan Heights. Six Hezbollah members were killed, including the son of a deceased, famed Hezbollah commander, as well as an Iranian general traveling with them.
The two sides traded fire on Wednesday, with Lebanese officials reporting some 50 artillery shells landing in villages near the Israeli border. A Spanish soldier deployed as part of a U.N. peacekeeping force in south Lebanon was also reported killed in the crossfire. The U.N. said it observed six rockets fired toward Israel.
Fears are mounting over an escalation in hostilities, though it appears that neither side at present is keen to engage in a full-blown conflict of the sort waged eight years ago, or this past summer between Israel and the Islamist militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Still, some Israelis, including hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, want to see a "forceful and disproportionate" response.
Israel and Hezbollah, a Shiite organization that has close ties to both Iran and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have been locked in an extended struggle of mutual deterrence. Hezbollah is an influential player in the deeply divided political landscape of Lebanon, and has been able to maintain a parallel military infrastructure on its own. As the conflict in neighboring Syria rages, Israel has launched a number of airstrikes aimed at disrupting Hezbollah's arms supply networks from Iran.
Israel's ability to actually cripple the militant organization is far less clear. The month-long conflict in the summer of 2006 was inconclusive and bloody, and eventually cast as an Israeli failure. It was triggered initially by the abduction of two Israeli soldiers posted along the Lebanese border, though some sources suggest the Israeli government of then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had been planning an offensive against Hezbollah months before the incident.
Israel's reaction to Hezbollah's incursion was devastating: it blockaded Lebanon's coasts, and launched both airstrikes and a ground offensive into the southern part of the country. Hezbollah, meanwhile, rained rocket fire down on Israel while battling the Israel Defense Forces on the ground. Whole towns were blanketed with cluster munitions, leaving civilians prey to unexploded ordnance, while Israeli bombing even damaged a number of UNESCO World Heritage sites in Lebanon.
Lebanese casualty estimates remain unclear, but it's believed roughly 1,000 civilians died amid the Israeli campaign. The death toll for Hezbollah fighters ranges dramatically between 70 to 500. Israel counted the deaths of 44 of its civilians and 119 IDF soldiers. More than a million civilians were displaced on both sides by the fighting.
Human Rights Watch reported that "the IDF rained an estimated 4 million submunitions on south Lebanon, the vast majority over the final three days when Israel knew a settlement was imminent" in mid-August. Yet the scale of the Israeli onslaught was not matched by military gains: one U.S. military observer estimated that sustained airstrikes were only able to degrade 7 percent of Hezbollah's military assets.
In the months that followed, Israel saw heated political infighting and recriminations. An Israeli government-appointed panel concluded that the war "was a big and serious failure," marked by poor planning and intelligence. It doomed the Olmert government.
Eight years later, the political context is different. Israel is on the verge of elections, a contest which may unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Hezbollah's popularity in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Arab world, meanwhile, has plummeted due to its continued support of the embattled Assad regime in Syria. Neither side may want to face up to the risks posed by another all-out war.