On Dec. 10, a large explosion rocked the Palestinian camp Burj al-Shemali outside the southern Lebanon city of Tyre. The site of the explosion was a center belonging to the Palestinian terror group Hamas that includes a mosque and a health clinic. Residents told local media that a fire from the blast spread to the mosque, where it triggered the explosion of weapons stored inside.
On the surface, the explosion served as a reminder of Hamas’ habitual use of civilian structures for military purposes and of the group’s military activity in Lebanon. But, more important, the incident highlighted that Israel may finally be breaking with its shortsighted public posture that Hezbollah bears no responsibility for Hamas’ activity. Shortly before the explosion at Burj al-Shemali, there were long overdue signs of Israel developing a new willingness to acknowledge reality and hold Hezbollah responsible for attacks carried out in the country the group controls.
In 2018, Israel publicized an assessment of Hamas building training camps and weapons facilities in Lebanon with assistance from Hezbollah, but its posture toward Hezbollah in Lebanon mostly impeded its willingness to take any overt action to deter the buildup. Then the issue resurfaced this past May, during the brief war between Israel and Hamas. While the fighting was focused in Gaza and southern Israel, on three separate occasions that month, an unidentified group, which the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) at the time maintained was a Palestinian faction, fired rockets at Israel from southern Lebanon. Most of them landed in the Mediterranean or failed to make it into Israeli territory. The IDF responded with artillery shelling, and that was the end of it. No second front opened up in the north, and Hezbollah didn’t join the fray.
After the May war ended, there were two more such rocket attacks, in late July and in early August. The last one saw a slight escalation in Israel’s response as the IDF used airstrikes in addition to artillery fire, but struck nothing of value. In turn, Hezbollah decided it needed to respond in order to preserve what it calls the deterrence equation, which says such Israeli strikes inside Lebanese territory cannot be left unanswered. Its response was therefore formulaic: a barrage of 20 rockets deliberately fired into open terrain in the Golan Heights. Once again, Israel and Hezbollah had performed their dance, and it ended there. There were no other rocket attacks by this so-called Palestinian faction.
While the attack-counterattack sequence was a predictable feature of the status quo, the Israeli response over the past six months was significant for how absurd it was. The messaging that came out of Israel about the power dynamics in Lebanon and what the proper Israeli course of action should be, presumably informed in part by the IDF, pushed two main points. First, that Hamas’ activities, although assisted and supervised by Iran, actually presented a challenge for Hezbollah. That is, Hamas supposedly was looking to operationalize a second front against Israel irrespective of or even against Hezbollah’s preference, which could in turn embroil Hezbollah in a conflict it didn’t necessarily want. Second, that Israel’s response to any provocation from Hamas in the north should be in Gaza, not necessarily in Lebanon, so as not to play into Hamas’ hand.
What this messaging was about, really, was Israel’s posture toward Hezbollah. Israeli officials understood that it was Iran and Hezbollah who allowed Hamas (assuming it was Hamas or even a “Palestinian faction”) to fire those rockets during the last Gaza war, and that by doing so they were engaged in a probing exercise designed to test Israel’s response. Iran and Hezbollah wanted to see if they could extend the rules of engagement that Israel has agreed to in Lebanon—Israel avoids striking in Lebanon, Hezbollah does not activate the Lebanese front—to Hamas (or an “anonymous” party). This would establish a precedent in which Hamas—or, for that matter, any unnamed faction—could harass Israel from Lebanese territory under Hezbollah’s protective umbrella. Israel would be dissuaded from retaliating with serious strikes inside Lebanon by the risk of setting off a broader war with Hezbollah. The gambit was to influence Israel’s operational calculus in Gaza and the West Bank, and even in Jerusalem, as Hezbollah stated explicitly during the May war. More generally, it would allow Iran and Hezbollah to heat things up with Israel, from Lebanon, cost-free.
The IDF’s response to the attacks between May and August on the one hand signaled Israel’s refusal to accept an alteration to the existing rules. On the other hand, it communicated that Israel was not interested in changing them itself. Against that backdrop, all the presumably IDF-informed commentary reinforced this posture: Israel sees Hamas’ operations in Lebanon as independent from — or even intended to embroil — Hezbollah. By endorsing the fiction that Hamas is an independent actor in Lebanon capable of going rogue, Israeli officials justify not countering aggression from Hezbollah. The nominal benefit of that tactic is that it avoids allowing minor incidents to escalate into a larger war—but at the cost of allowing Iran and Hezbollah to manipulate Israel’s self-deterrence and push the envelope.
There are signs, finally, that Israel has potentially reevaluated this approach and is bringing its public messaging closer in line with reality. A week before the Dec. 10 explosion at the Burj al-Shemali camp, an unsourced report in Israel’s Yediot Ahronot laid out the latest, presumably official assessment of Hamas activities and plans in Lebanon and their relation to Hezbollah and Iran. The report retained some of the standard silliness, but significantly, it held Hezbollah responsible for Hamas’ activity. The report stated plainly that Hezbollah oversaw the establishment of whatever capability Hamas is said to be building in Lebanon and added, correctly, that the Shiite group had a veto over any movement by Hamas it did not approve of. It then went on to say that any Hamas attacks from Lebanon will require “a strong Israeli response in Lebanon,” even as it reiterated that neither Hezbollah nor Israel were interested in a major conflict.
Is this a meaningful shift? And, if so, why now? While subtle, this modification is in accord with another message Israel has conveyed: Should Hezbollah press ahead with local production of precision-guided missiles, the IDF would jettison the existing rules and target the assembly facilities in Lebanon. As for timing, it’s not entirely clear why this is happening now except that perhaps Israeli officials recognize that they are running out of time.
After a decade of misreading the United States’ intentions on Iran, the Israelis are now watching in horror as the same Obama administration crew is leading them, once again, toward the endgame of a nuclear Iran. Forced to reckon with the fact that it will be up to Israel to deal with that threat, the Israeli government is now openly talking about plans for a strike on Iran’s nuclear program.
Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.