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Fears of Israel's war on Hamas 'expanding' to Hezbollah and region

A dangerous escalation unfolding along the Israel-Lebanon border could lead to a regional war that draws in Iran.

Palestine Red Crescent Society workers in Gaza
Palestine Red Crescent Society workers in Gaza (AN/PRCS)

The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah has escalated to the precipice of all-out war, stoking fears of a wider regional crisis. That could draw in Iran and throw the Middle East into chaos, officials and experts warn.

"We are on the eve of the war expanding," E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters ahead of a foreign ministers' meeting in Luxembourg on Monday.

"Every day, there are more bombings on both sides of the border with Lebanon," said the European Union's top diplomat. "Every day, the crisis is spilling over."

For eight months, Israeli Defense Forces and Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militant group that dominates southern Lebanon, have traded near-daily rocket fire. The situation has intensified since the deadly Oct. 7th attack on Israel by Hamas and Israel’s devastating military reponse.

Hezbollah launched barrages of rockets, missiles, and drones into Israel as part of what it calls a "support front" for Palestinians militants. Israel responded with punishing airstrikes inside Lebanon, killing senior Hezbollah commanders and destroying military infrastructure.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres issued an urgent plea for both sides to step back from the abyss, in a warning last week that any miscalculation could ignite a catastrophe that goes "beyond imagination."

"The risk for the conflict in the Middle East to widen is real and must be avoided," Guterres told a press briefing at United Nations' headquarters.

U.S. officials have echoed the alarm. Gen. CQ Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned on Sunday that retaliatory action by Iran was likely "if they felt that Hezbollah was being significantly threatened."

The fighting on the Israel-Lebanon border has claimed lives on both sides and displaced tens of thousands of people. Israeli strikes killed over 300 Hezbollah fighters and dozens of civilians, while Hezbollah's attacks took the lives of two dozen Israeli soldiers and civilians.

Some 150,000 civilians – 90,000 in Lebanon and 60,000 in Israel – fled their homes. Incessant bombings left unexploded ordnance, endangering civilians and aid workers. The U.N. reports a mass exodus is unraveling social structures in southern Lebanon.

A direct confrontation between Hezbollah, considered the world's most powerful non-state military force, and Israel, one of the world's most advanced militaries, would be devastating for both sides and the region. 

Previous Israeli military incursions into Lebanon failed to curb Hezbollah's capabilities, which expanded considerably since the Israel-Lebanon war in 2006.

Southern Lebanon, still recovering from the devastating 2020 Beirut port explosion, is on the brink, and the country, mired in deep economic and political crisis, is at risk of total collapse in the event of an Israeli invasion. 

"One rash move – one miscalculation – could trigger a catastrophe that goes far beyond the border, and frankly, beyond imagination," Guterres said.

Tensions at a fever pitch 

Neither side is showing signs of backing down. Last week, Israeli military officials said "operational plans for an offensive in Lebanon" to push Hezbollah back from the border regions were "approved and validated". 

Nothing short of the 60,000 evacuated Israelis being able to "return home" is acceptable, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a TV interview on Sunday.

He framed the decision about escalating the war as part of a "battle for our existence" in which military personnel and resources would be redirected to the northern border once the current Gaza offensive passes its apex.

"We can fight on several fronts," he said. "We are prepared for this, and we are preparing for this.” 

Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened a war with "no restraint and no rules" if Israel launches a major ground offensive in Lebanon. "There will be no place in [Israel] that would be spared our rockets and drones."

Israeli and U.S. estimates indicate Hezbollah has up to 200,000 rockets and could launch around 3,000 per day at Israel, potentially enough to overwhelm its Iron Dome missile defense system and strike Israeli cities.

Nasrallah left open the possibility of using ground forces – which he counts at 100,000 but experts estimate is closer to one-third that number – to invade Israel.

“This is a standing possibility that remains present in the context of any war imposed on Lebanon,” he said. 

U.S. officials scrambled to de-escalate, with the Biden administration assuring Israel's leaders the United States would fully back its ally in the event of a war in the north.  

The prospect of a negotiated de-escalation hinges on Hezbollah's red line of ending the fighting in Gaza in "solidarity" with Hamas. Diplomatic efforts to negotiate a ceasefire failed.

Netanyahu said Sunday he would only accept a "partial deal" in Gaza, rejecting a U.S.-negotiated truce, and vowed to fight until Hamas is eliminated, a goal his own military says is unrealistic. 

“We are committed to continuing the war after a pause in order to complete the objective of destroying Hamas,” he said. “On this, I’m not willing to relent.”

As ceasefire talks fall short, the fighting since October has killed over 37,000 Palestinians and injured thousands more. The United Nations says access constraints and a breakdown of civil order make aid delivery "almost impossible."