The sudden, surprising and deadly attack launched by Hamas outside Gaza on the night of Oct. 7-8 may have shifted the Middle East as a whole into a dynamic that, in many respects, seemed to be moving away from lately. For more than two years, the region had been oscillating between tensions — some of them old, others new or renewed — and rapprochements — most of them transactional and cynical, but with a clear trend towards de-escalation, from Syria to Yemen, via the Iranian-Saudi detente.
What's happening today in Gaza can be described as a “breakthrough phenomenon.” A breakthrough and a tipping point too, perhaps, and undoubtedly a refocusing on a nagging issue that was drifting into oblivion: The issue of Palestine.
As is often the case in these situations, the same question arises again and again: How confined or contained will this conflict remain, and when and where will the famous "unicity of theaters" we hear more and more about come into play? Of these, it is of course Lebanon that is emerging as the main candidate for the status of second front.
The conflict between Hamas and Israel comes at a time when Lebanon is in the midst of a full-fledged socio-economic and political collapse, drifting towards a state of long-term chaos, a sort of enduring ungovernability with security institutions slowly melting. The system exploded, and nobody knows how long it will take for the country to recover.
Given the speed at which the situation is evolving, one shouldn’t dare to venture into any bets as to whether a second front to the Hamas-Israel war will be opened in Lebanon. There have, and will be, some skirmishes on Lebanon’s southern border. However, these skirmishes are the language that Israel and Hezbollah know and use well but remain contained. I am “optimistic” of the fact that Lebanon will stay at bay, and for at least three reasons.
The first one is technical. Hezbollah knows that given the situation in Lebanon, it would be extremely risky and costly to embark on a full escalation. The situation today is different from 2006, during the July Hezbollah-Israel war. Internally, Hezbollah doesn't have the domestic support it used to. The economic situation is disastrous, and Hezbollah couldn't take the burden of responsibility for completely destroying the country if a war were to break out. At the same time, Israel would be in a difficult place if it opens two or three fronts, noting that the Lebanese front is anything but easy. So it will not be a replica of 2006. Therefore, both parties have an interest in keeping the situation limited to the exchanges we’ve seen so far.
The second reason relates to the energy equation in the East Mediterranean. Regardless of our opinion on the maritime delimitation and the gas exploration in the south, this is creating a strong deterrent to conflict. Both parties do not want to endanger what is now becoming physical infrastructure (including platforms in Qana and Karish) and no one is ready to take the risk of blowing this up. Hezbollah was very clear in the past months, saying that any conflict would involve the maritime installations of Israel in the South. It is doubtful that anyone would endanger this that easily.
Finally, the third reason is geopolitical. If Hamas's actions in Gaza aim to torpedo or derail the rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf States by putting the Palestinian question on the table again – saying that if this isn’t addressed, nothing else can be done – then it is in the interest of the allies of Hamas, Hezbollah at the forefront, not to engage in the war. In other words, let Hamas and Palestine be at the center stage and not intervene.
For all these reasons, it is fair to say that Lebanon will remain a side show, some minor fire and rocket exchanges notwithstanding, but it will remain limited overall. In the eventuality that Israel engages in a full offensive on Gaza, with the possibility of seeing Hamas be eradicated as a result. Att that point, Hezbollah and Iran would reassess their involvement.
However, the automatism of opening a Lebanese front may well remain relative. Withs tensions heating up in the West Bank, a much more nebulous use of a platform for operations in southern Syria, actions by Iraqi groups against the American presence, the choices are now more open than before. For once, perhaps to Lebanon's advantage, it is this very "uniqueness of theaters", but also their multiplicity, which, paradoxically, could spare the country from being the only mailbox for the conflicts surrounding it.
This was originally published as an Op-Ed in L'Orient Today on October 13, 2023, in English and French.