On the Lebanon-Israel border, a handshake deal keeps violence from escalating into all-out war

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BEIRUT — Eight months of unbridled war, widespread death, destruction and suffering in Gaza have captured the world’s attention. But across its northern border with Lebanon, Israel has also been engaged in a much more subdued conflict with a different Iran-backed militia.

This lower-level fighting — when compared to the combat in Gaza — has nevertheless led to lethal violence on an almost daily basis with regular rocket fire from Hezbollah and artillery and airstrikes from Israel. Hundreds of people have died and tens of thousands have been displaced from their homes on both sides of the border.

In the past several weeks, the fighting has ratcheted up, with Hezbollah using increasingly sophisticated weapons to fire far deeper into Israel. On Wednesday it launched a massive barrage of rockets that the militant group’s Al-Manar TV station said was in retaliation for Israel’s killing of one of its commanders, Taleb Sami Abdullah.

Israel has been firing back with greater frequency, and its leadership has become increasingly bellicose, threatening to invade Lebanon once again and take Hezbollah head-on.

But this conflict comes with a built-in stopgap: Experts say the fighting has not exploded into an all-out war because of unique “rules of the game” that have governed the fighting between the two sides for almost three decades, restraining it for the most part but preserving the potential for a much more serious conflict.  

Israel Lebanon Cross Border Tensions (Kawnat Haju / AFP via Getty Images)
Israel Lebanon Cross Border Tensions (Kawnat Haju / AFP via Getty Images)

Although Hezbollah, which has an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 rockets and missiles of various ranges, has ramped up attacks on Israel since its invasion of Gaza, Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general, made a direct reference to the tacit agreement between the sides in an exclusive interview last month.

“We will not accept that the Israelis transgress the rules of engagement that are currently set in the south of Lebanon. If the Israelis increase their attacks, we will increase our attacks, as well,” he said. “For us, we consider this level of war and this level of use of power from our end is the right contribution to support Gaza and Palestine.”

A handshake deal

Born of an oral agreement in 1993, “the rules” were informally brokered by then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher to end a weeklong Israeli air and artillery assault on southern Lebanon known as “Operation Accountability” in response to Hezbollah rocket fire into Israel.

Under the handshake deal, Israel agreed not to strike civilian targets in Lebanon and Hezbollah pledged not to fire into Israel.

The rules may have been informal, but they set a crucial precedent, implying that Israel was willing to confer a certain legitimacy on Hezbollah’s resistance to Israel’s occupation as long as it remained beyond Israel’s borders.

Three years later, after yet another violent flare-up, a variation of “the rules” was committed to paper in the form of the Israel Lebanon Ceasefire Understanding.

Without explicitly naming Hezbollah, it said armed groups would not fire into Israel, while Israel would “not fire any kind of weapon at civilians or civilian targets in Lebanon.” A five-country monitoring group comprising the U.S., France, Syria, Israel and Lebanon was set up to make sure neither side was targeting civilians.

The informal but written agreement remains a blueprint for U.S.-led negotiations between Israel and Hezbollah today.

By then they had been bitter enemies for well over a decade, dating to Israel’s occupation of parts of south Lebanon from 1982.

Hezbollah members Lebanon (Mohamed Azakir / Reuters)
Hezbollah members Lebanon (Mohamed Azakir / Reuters)

Hezbollah, which means “Party of God,” was founded with the help of Iran in the early 1980s as a Shia resistance movement set up with the aim of expelling Israel from the country and resisting Western influence in the Middle East.

“The rules” provided a framework for the conflict, and until Israel withdrew entirely from Lebanon in 2000, the two sides communicated regularly even as they fought each other — sometimes apologizing for mistakes and excesses.

A monthlong war in 2006 gave both sides a searing lesson in the consequences of breaking “the rules” after Israel, in response to Hezbollah’s launching a series of cross-border raids that left three Israeli soldiers dead and several more as hostages, launched a ground invasion into southern Lebanon.

In a rare moment of contrition, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah admitted he had miscalculated after he sparked the war, which killed more than 1,000 civilians and fighters, along with more than 100 Israeli soldiers.

After Oct. 7

The day after Hamas’ terrorist attacks on Oct. 7, Hezbollah announced its solidarity with Hamas — which is also backed by Iran — and began a near-daily barrage of missile and rocket attacks over Israel’s southern border.

On its website documenting casualties since Oct. 7, the Israeli military has attributed two deaths to Hezbollah rocket fire. It has recorded eight more deaths in northern Israel.

It has also evacuated about 60,000 people from more than 40 northern communities. On the Lebanese side, the fighting has displaced around 74,500 people, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Hezbollah said Wednesday that Israel had killed 341 of its fighters.

The limited conflict is about more than just solidarity with Hamas, observers of the group say.

“Hezbollah benefits from the rules of engagement because they allow it to present itself as a ‘resistance’ force while avoiding engaging in full-on war with Israel, which would damage Hezbollah’s standing in Lebanon and Syria,” Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, a think tank based in Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, wrote in an email.

Hezbollah’s prolonged engagement is neither necessarily bound by conventional military strategy nor merely performative, said Matthew Levitt, an expert on Islamist groups at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank.

Defying Israel and merely surviving also pierces Israel’s image of invincibility on the global stage, and “the rules, however obscure and inconstant, offer that prize at a manageable cost, Levitt said.

“They don’t need to take a hill and hold it. They don’t need to blow up a base,” he said. “It’s enough to them that we stood up at the end of the day, just like in 2006, declaring divine victory by virtue of not being destroyed.”

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