Apr 7, 2023 - World

Inside Israel's decision not to target Hezbollah in striking Lebanon

Israeli soldiers deploy in an open area near the border with Lebanon.

Israeli soldiers deploy in an open area near the border with Lebanon. Photo: Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Images

Israel focused its overnight strikes in Gaza and Lebanon on Hamas targets in an effort to avoid a wider conflict with Hezbollah, two Israeli defense officials said.

Driving the news: In discussing their response to a barrage of rockets launched from Lebanon on Thursday, Israeli ministers concluded that Israel didn't have any interest in getting dragged into a war in Lebanon that would risk turning into a regional conflict, the Israeli officials said.

  • The domestic unrest in Israel over the government's judicial overhaul plan destabilized the country's economy, military and international standing.

Catch up quick: Dozens of rockets were fired toward Israel from Lebanon Thursday afternoon in the most serious escalation between the two countries since the 2006 war.

  • The rocket fire came after a violent raid by Israeli police in Jerusalem's Haram al-Sharif compound, also known as the Temple Mount, late Tuesday after Muslim worshippers had barricaded themselves in the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
  • Blaming Hamas for rocket fire from Lebanon, Israel retaliated with strikes against tunnels and weapons manufacturing sites in Gaza that the IDF said were used by the armed group. Palestinian militants in Gaza then launched dozens of rockets overnight.
  • Israel also launched rare strikes against Hamas targets in southern Lebanon.
  • Hamas did not claim the rocket fire from Lebanon but said it holds Israel "fully responsible for the grave escalation and the flagrant aggression against the Gaza Strip and for the consequences that will bring onto the region.”

State of play: Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Gaza were quiet on Friday morning local time.

  • The IDF lifted all restrictions on the movements of civilians in the towns and cities near the border with both Gaza and Lebanon — a key sign that the situation had calmed down.
  • Still, the IDF said in a statement it had called in some reserve forces, mainly from air defense and air force units.

Behind the scenes: In the consultation held by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant ahead of a security cabinet meeting Thursday, the IDF and Mossad presented different assessments on what Hezbollah’s response would be to Israeli air strikes in Lebanon, a defense official said.

  • Mossad chief David Barnea argued Hezbollah would likely respond to any Israeli airstrike and therefore Israel should strike the organization in addition to Hamas and Lebanese targets, according to the defense official.
  • But IDF chief of staff Herzi Halevi said the Israeli interest was to keep Hezbollah out of the equation and, to do that, Israel's response should stay focused on Hamas, the official said.
  • Halevi's position ultimately prevailed as the recommendation to take at the security cabinet meeting, the official added.

Between the lines: After the initial rocket fire from Lebanon on Thursday, Hezbollah passed messages to Israel through several international mediators that it wasn’t part of the attack and didn’t know about it in advance, according to one Israeli defense official.

  • The defense official said that Israeli military intelligence assessments tended to accept Hezbollah’s claim as factual.
  • The Mossad and the IDF declined to comment.

During the Israeli security cabinet meeting later Thursday, one of the main issues discussed was what the scope of the Israeli response should be in Lebanon, Israeli officials said.

  • A defense official said that the security chiefs told the ministers that a wider response against Hezbollah would likely result in the organization launching precision missiles toward Israeli cities, which could escalate into a war.
  • All the ministers voted in favor of the IDF's recommendation to focus the response against Hamas, two defense officials said.
  • A key goal of the response was to avoid a violent clash with Hezbollah in Lebanon and to keep Hamas fronts in both places from uniting, according to two Israeli officials. "This goal has been achieved so far," one of the officials told Axios.

The big picture: Hezbollah officials appeared to downplay the Israeli air strikes and refrained from escalating the rhetoric. A Hezbollah lawmaker who was asked about the issue on the organization’s radio station on Friday morning replied: "No comment."

  • Lebanese commentator Ibrahim al-Amin, who is close to Hezbollah’s leadership, wrote this morning in Al-Akhbar newspaper, which is affiliated with the organization, that if Israel assassinates Hamas leaders in Lebanon or threatens the security of the people in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah would react.
  • But he stressed that “local attacks” by Israel in Lebanon are meaningless and will not necessarily prompt a Hezbollah response.
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