As the Israel-Hezbollah conflict escalates, what you need to know

Fears have been growing for months that the war in Gaza could spark a second conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, an armed militia loosely allied with Hamas and based just across the Israeli-Lebanese border.

Hezbollah fired 200 rockets and mortars and more than 20 drones into northern Israel on Thursday, the Israeli military said. The attacks caused air raid sirens to sound in the area for more than an hour.

There were no immediate reports of casualties, but Hezbollah said the attack was bigger than previous ones and was part of retaliation for the Israeli assassination of a senior Lebanese official the previous day in southern Lebanon.

Since the Gaza war began in October, the two sides have repeatedly exchanged attacks, killing Lebanese and Israeli civilians and combatants. Most of the civilian casualties have been on the Lebanese side. The fighting has also forced more than 150,000 people on both sides of the border to flee their homes and seek refuge in temporary shelters. This has put pressure on the Israeli government to drive Hezbollah out of the border areas and make the country safe for its residents again.

Here’s a look at Hezbollah on the brink of a new war and why it might still be averted.

Hezbollah has opposed Israel from its inception. It was formed in the 1980s in response to Israel’s attack on and occupation of southern Lebanon and its attempt to eradicate the Palestine Liberation Organization, then based in the country.

But Israel soon encountered a new enemy whose guerilla fighters were quickly becoming a nuisance to the much better-equipped Israeli military: Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim popular movement whose main goal is to drive Israel out of Lebanon.

By 2000, Israel had withdrawn from Lebanon, and Hezbollah had become a hero to many Lebanese. Hezbollah fought Israel again in 2006, launching a military operation into its southern neighbor, provoking a fierce counterattack. In that war, Israel rained bombs on southern Lebanon and the capital, Beirut, and more than 1,000 Lebanese were killed in fighting.

But Israeli forces were unable to subdue Hezbollah in the 34-day war, allowing the group and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, to emerge as stars in an Arab world accustomed to being defeated by Israel.

Hezbollah quickly allied with Iran and became its close partner.

While the group maintains many loyal supporters among Shiite Muslims because of the social services and political power it provides to them and the authoritarian tactics it uses to suppress dissent, many Lebanese see it as an obstacle to progress, threatening to drag the country into an unwanted war.

Hezbollah, considered a terrorist organisation by the United States and other countries, has evolved from a militant group into a dominant political force, exerting considerable influence over the Lebanese government.

Lebanon is currently at a political impasse, with little major change likely to occur without Hezbollah’s approval.

Lebanon can hardly afford a new conflict with Israel.

Lebanon has been hit by years of turmoil, an economic crisis that has impoverished countless Lebanese and a political crisis that has deprived the population of many basic services. The border attack has forced some 100,000 Lebanese to flee, depriving them of income and homes, and cost the country billions of dollars in lost tourism and agricultural income, Lebanese officials say.

Emile Hokayem, a Middle East security expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Lebanon also faces little hope for international support because its former colonial power, France, is preoccupied with domestic politics, and other Arab countries and Iran, which have poured money into rebuilding Lebanon since 2006, are less willing or able to help.

“It was already difficult in 2006, when the economic situation and Lebanon’s international standing had improved considerably,” Hokayem said. “The country is not in a position to deal with this conflict.”

Even some Shiite Muslims in southern Lebanon traditionally loyal to Hezbollah are questioning the cost of the current fighting. As a result, analysts say Nasrallah knows he must tread carefully. He has said Hezbollah does not want a broader conflict, but warned that its fighters are preparing for it and that Israel would face severe consequences if it broke out.

“If war breaks out, the resistance will fight without constraints, rules or restrictions,” Nasrallah said in a speech two weeks ago.

A war between Hezbollah and Israel could escalate into a major regional war far beyond the ongoing fighting — a conflict that could draw in Iran as well as the United States, which is trying to avoid further escalation.

Analysts and U.S. officials say Israel, Hezbollah and Iran do not want a full-scale war, despite growing fears as attacks by each side grow more frequent and lethal. But they say the only way to avoid war is almost certain: an end to the fighting in the Gaza Strip with a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas, whose Oct. 7 attack by Hamas triggered the war in the Gaza Strip.

Hezbollah has used propaganda videos and coordinated attacks to Expanded Armory Analysts say the weapons are capable of inflicting heavy damage on Israeli cities. Hezbollah forces also have extensive combat experience, having fought Syrian rebels for years. During the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah sent thousands of fighters to Syria to support the regime of President Bashar Assad, a close ally of Iran and Hezbollah.

Hokayem, the Middle East expert, said that if Israel attacked Lebanon, Iranian-backed militias in Iraq could also join the fighting.

Estimates vary on how many missiles Hezbollah has and how advanced its systems are. The Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook says the group may have more than 150,000 missiles and rockets of various types and ranges. It’s also estimated that the group has up to 45,000 fighters, though Nasrallah claims to have 100,000 fighters.

But analysts and Israeli officials say Hezbollah’s arsenal, which has precision-guided missiles capable of targeting Israel’s vital infrastructure and military assets, is significantly more dangerous than Hamas’s.

Hezbollah also showed off an explosive drone that could evade Israel’s Iron Dome, a detection and shoot-down system designed to protect the country from incoming rockets and missiles. The group also appears to have anti-tank missiles that fly too fast and low for the Iron Dome to intercept.

In a speech two weeks ago, Nasrallah warned that Hezbollah had so far only used a small portion of its weapons, saying that if necessary, the group could fire them at “an array of targets” in precision strikes.

“Our enemies must expect us to attack them by land, air and sea,” he said.

Some in Israel are wary of exposing their country to such an arsenal, but others say Israel must do something before Hezbollah gains power.

“The predicament Israel finds itself in is that Hezbollah appears to have reached a level of capability where it’s not worth a major conflict for Israel,” said Sam Heller, an analyst at Beirut-based Century International.

Ewan Ward Contributed report.

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