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Source: The Guardian

Jan 7, 2024

Israel, Gaza, Lebanon, Iran … how far could war in the Middle East spread?

Attacks in the Red Sea. An airstrike in Baghdad. As the conflict with Hamas bleeds across borders, is wider violence inevitable?

By Peter Beaumont in Beirut

Mohammad Atout, a Palestinian resident of the Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut, was eating with his children on Tuesday evening when the news broke across the Lebanese capital that Saleh al-Arouri, deputy head of Hamas’s political bureau, had been assassinated.

“Someone told me there had been an attack [in Beirut]. Moments later the television said it was Arouri. Then people came out in the streets. It hit them very hard. He was an important leader for us.”

In the coffee shop he owns, which opens on to a street decorated with Palestinian banners, his customers have been watching Al Jazeera footage of the war in Gaza.

“We never thought that the Israelis would dare to do this in Beirut,” Atout says. He believes the reason for Arouri’s killing was Israel’s failure to find and kill Hamas’s leaders inside Gaza, including the head of the movement, Yahya Sinwar.

He suggests Arouri, whose office was struck by missiles, was low‑hanging fruit – his ­assassination a cover for Israel’s slow progress in meeting its declared war aims.

“This step came out of anger over their lack of progress. They are trying to show they are achieving something,” he says – although he remains unconvinced that the growing escalation will lead to all-out war between Hezbollah and Israel.

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, giving a televised address after the strike on Lebanon. He has called the attack a ‘violation’. Photograph: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

That is the question that has dominated debate in Lebanon and the wider region in the days since Arouri’s killing, even as a tenuous normality has returned to Beirut’s sprawling southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, in wake of the attack.

While streets that emptied in the immediate aftermath of the strike have become busy again, anxiety lingers. The mood was summed up by Lebanon’s outgoing prime minister, Najib Mikati, who on Friday talked of “the danger of attempts to drag Lebanon into a regional war … with serious consequences, particularly for Lebanon and neighbouring countries”.

On Saturday morning, as Hezbollah fired dozens of rockets into northern Israel, saying the barrage was only its first response to Arouri’s killing, Mikati’s warning took on an added resonance. The cross-border exchanges have highlighted the fact that, three months on, Israel’s war against Hamas is starting to bleed ever wider across the region.

Since 8 October, limited exchanges across the border – including airstrikes and drone attacks – have become a daily occurrence between Israel and Hezbollah, as well as other factions in Lebanon, inflicting casualties on both sides.

Iran-backed groups in Iraq have stepped up attacks on US military bases, while Yemen’s Houthis – who, like Hamas and Hezbollah, have long enjoyed Iranian support – have launched long-range drones and threatened commercial shipping around key routes in the Red Sea.

Last week, Islamic State claimed responsibility for two blasts which ripped through a crowd in southern Iran, killing at least 84 people, while a US airstrike in Baghdad killed the commander of an Iranian-backed Shia militia.

But it has been in Lebanon, above all, where the situation has become most dangerous, undermining a fragile understanding between Hezbollah and Israel that has persisted since the hugely destructive second Lebanon war in 2006.

Last week, as Hezbollah’s general secretary, Hassan Nasrallah, made two nationally televised addresses in the wake of Arouri’s assassination, he referred specifically, and not for the first time, to the “rules” that have mitigated the sometimes performative violence between the two sides.

Amid the threats and rhetoric, those rules have long defined how far either side has been prepared to go, either in targeting or retaliation, while remaining short of all-out war.

And across the region, in areas where the Gaza conflict has spilled over, Israel’s war with Hamas has served to energise already existing tensions.

In Lebanon, the issue has been the failure on both sides to implement the UN-mandated truce that ended the 2006 war and was supposed to bring a withdrawal of Hezbollah fighters from the border.

What is clear is that Arouri’s assassination has pushed that mutual “equilibrium of deterrence”, to use Nasrallah’s framing, to the very brink, following the first Israeli strike on Lebanon’s capital since 2006.

And while some have argued that the killing of a senior Hamas official (rather than a Hezbollah figure) allows Hezbollah some wriggle room, on Friday, Nasrallah reiterated for the second time in three days that his group was now obliged to retaliate, adding that otherwise all of Lebanon would be vulnerable to Israeli attack.

“We cannot keep silent about a violation of this seriousness,” he said, “because this means that all of our people will be exposed. All of our cities, villages and public figures will be exposed.” The repercussions of silence, he added, would be “far greater” than the risks of retaliating. A response, he insisted, was now inevitable.

Even as he was speaking, however, Nasrallah’s words were being parsed by analysts, officials and journalists to weigh rhetoric against intention: to determine whether, as many have suggested over the past three months, Hezbollah is seeking to avoid a full-scale confrontation.

The assassination of Arouri aside, analysts see the limited conflict around the border as a negotiation about unresolved issues from the 2006 war, with Nasrallah himself signalling – perhaps significantly – on Friday that Hezbollah was open to a “solution” once the war in Gaza was over, presenting it as a “historic opportunity” to regain territory long occupied by Israel.

Like the Kremlinology of the cold war, the unpacking of Nasrallah’s careful ambiguities is as much art as science. Was he smiling more, some asked last week, as others sought to identify the audiences for different parts of his messaging.

Was talk of a solution aimed at the US, to suggest Hezbollah was pragmatic? At Israel? Was he speaking just for Hezbollah, or for a wider array of pro-Iranian proxies, as he sketched out a vision of the region’s future with US influence diminished?

For Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, the surprise return of US special envoy Amos Hochstein to Beirut last week signalled the possibility that, behind the violence on the border and talk of wider war, there will be efforts to find a mutually agreeable way out.

A “face-saving” solution might be in the works, she added, that would walk both sides back from the brink, even as Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, told Hochstein that the window for a diplomatic solution was small and closing.

Vakil argues that it is in neither Hezbollah’s nor Israel’s interest to escalate. “The big difference between what happened after 7 October and the war in 2006 is that Hezbollah has changed its calculus and its appetite for risk … It has much more to lose now.

“Hezbollah has become much more of an institutional key player in a Lebanese political system that is very fragile. Hezbollah cannot be seen to be the trigger of Lebanon’s formal collapse. Once it went from being a non-state actor to becoming part of the state, then there is accountability.”

On the Israeli side too, for all the talk of high states of military readiness and a declared ability to fight on two fronts, the emerging consensus is that the country – in the midst of the severe economic and social impact caused by 7 October and the subsequent war against Gaza – would also prefer to avoid a widening conflict.

Houthi supporters gather to commemorate rebels who were killed by the US Navy in the Red Sea. Photograph: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

Set against that analysis, however, are other factors.

With the fighting on the border already having displaced tens of thousands of evacuees on both sides, the very fact of the conflict – one without an end in sight, at present – is in danger of creating its own dynamic.

The transformation of Israel’s north into an emptied, militarised zone, ringing with daily blasts, is creating a growing political momentum to solve the problem of the northern border with Lebanon, either by a negotiated settlement or military means.

Already, over the course of the past three months, the geographical scope of the strikes, at least on the Israeli side, has crept ever deeper into southern Lebanon.

That Nasrallah has felt it ­necessary to speak twice on the issue in the space of three days has underlined both the sense of urgency for Hezbollah to respond and the pressure that Arouri’s assassination has put the movement under.

Nasrallah has had to explicitly justify the risks Lebanon is facing and what benefits those risks might bring.

“Hezbollah has to respond quickly, because in the context of a war, you have to restore the balance of deterrence,” Amal Saad, an expert on the group, told the Financial Times last week, adding that it needed to encompass “a ­qualitative escalation in terms of scope and intensity, but [fall] short of high-intensity war.”

And whether or not the posturing, both military and diplomatic, ultimately represents no more than a dangerous negotiation, what is clear to many is the risk of a fatal “miscalculation” on either side that cannot be predicted either by Israel’s military planners in the Kirya in Tel Aviv or by Nasrallah and his advisers.

In his coffee shop on Saturday morning, Atout reflected on Hezbollah’s emerging response.

“The Arab countries are not doing anything for the Palestinians. We only have God, ourselves and the Shia who are fighting on our behalf. Wherever there are Shia [such as Hezbollah] there are people being active.”

And for now at least, the reality of the cross-border exchanges has a greater clarity than the rhetoric enfolding them.

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