BEIRUT — The Iranian strike on Israel over the weekend has refocused attention on the border with Lebanon where Iran’s ally, Hezbollah, has long been fighting a muted war that could be the target of an Israeli retaliation.

The Israel Defense Forces and Hezbollah, both a military force and Lebanon’s strongest political party, have been regularly skirmishing since Hamas’s Oct. 7 blitz into Israel. Attacks have ebbed and flowed as the war in Gaza dragged on, punctuated by U.S. stabs at negotiating a diplomatic solution to resolve long-standing security issues.

But the unprecedented direct Iranian attack on Israel Saturday could upset the delicate balance of tit-for-tat attacks, with recent incidents suggesting that the way could be open for a long threatened Israeli assault.

It is an assault Hezbollah appears not to want, as evidenced by its delayed statement extending congratulations on the Iranian attack — which it, significantly, did not participate in.

A full blown war with Israel, which would devastate a Lebanon already beset by an economic crisis, would weaken Hezbollah’s position in the country. That said, while the group has claimed it does not want a new war, it says it is ready for one.

A series of explosions in the Lebanese territory of Tel Ismail caught several Israeli soldiers from the Golani Brigade that had crossed the border, Hezbollah announced Monday. The statement described how it had sown the area with explosive devices after monitoring Israeli movements and anticipating an infiltration.

“They are preparing the northern front,” a senior Israeli security official said, confirming to The Washington Post that the soldiers were injured inside Lebanon. Speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential military plans, he said that following Israel’s retaliation against Iran, it is likely that “Iranian leaders will instruct Hezbollah to activate. We have to be ready for next week.”

The week has since seen a particularly violent escalation on the border with a string of attacks and retaliations that could escalate into a full blown operation. On Tuesday, Israeli strikes killed three members of Hezbollah, including a field commander.

Hezbollah then responded Wednesday with a drone and missile attack on the Israeli border community of Arab al-Aramshe, wounding 18 Israeli soldiers, six of them severely. Israeli jets responded with strikes deep into Lebanon, north of the city of Baalbek in the Beqaa Valley, some 60 miles inside the country, hitting what it said was the infrastructure of Hezbollah’s air defense capabilities.

“If we thought, before the Iranian attack, that we had time to deal with Hezbollah, now the clock is ticking faster,” said the Israeli official. “Israeli tolerance for Hezbollah is about to end.”

Hezbollah’s military capabilities dwarf those of Hamas, which Israel has been battling for the past six months with the avowed goal of dismantling the whole organization.

Israeli officials say the group has been preparing for combat with Israel for years and estimate it has 100,000 missiles in its arsenal, including mid- and long-range capabilities as well as an extensive subterranean tunnel system.

Since the month-long Israel-Lebanon war in 2006, Iran has dramatically rearmed the Hezbollah, the Israeli security source said. The group also gained invaluable combat experience through its intervention in the Syrian civil war next door, where it helped prop up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

However, the Israeli official emphasized that the IDF has gained its own experience from the war in Gaza and would be sure not to let Hezbollah rebuild this time around — “this time, it has to work.”

Any conflict would likely be much worse than the 2006 war which killed around 250 Hezbollah members, by the group’s count, and nearly 1,000 Lebanese civilians. Already in the skirmishes to date, Hezbollah has reported 270 of its members killed. Approximately 60 civilians have been killed also. At least 11 Israeli soldiers and four civilians have been killed, according to Israel.

Lebanon’s civilians, especially those in the south, have braced themselves every summer since the war for a renewed onslaught, and this time their fears may come to life. The south is already being bombarded on a near daily basis, specifically targeting lands and houses owned by Shiites, said a senior Lebanese official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. Hezbollah draws its main support from Lebanon’s Shiite community.

One aim for the bombardment could be to create a de facto no man’s land in the south, making it more difficult for residents to return to destroyed houses and farming lands, the official said.

For the past six months, the United States has been trying to head off any conflict by pushing through a deal between the two sides to demarcate the land borders, push Hezbollah forces away from the border and intensify the Lebanese army presence in the border area.

White House envoy Amos Hochstein has led the negotiation efforts to broker the deal, meeting with Israeli officials and negotiating with Hezbollah via Lebanese intermediaries.

Both sides have stymied negotiations: Israel has refused to budge on some sticking points, Western and Lebanese officials said, and Hezbollah has repeatedly publicly and privately asserted that it will not continue such negotiations until a cease-fire is reached in Gaza.

Rubin reported from Tel Aviv.





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