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PoliticsMiddle East

Lebanese fear war despite de-escalation efforts

Jennifer Holleis | Abbas al-Khashali
January 13, 2024

The growing tensions between Israel and the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia are stoking fears of a spillover of the Gaza conflict into Lebanon as the situation on the Red Sea escalates, as well.

A woman walks between the walls at the Palestinian refugee camp of Burj al Barajneh in Beirut
Lebanon's population fears an escalation of the Israel-Hamas conflict, as many lack trust in their own armed forces. Image: Jose Colon/Anadolu/picture alliance

The atmosphere in the region along the border between Lebanon and Israel is already pretty close to what war feels like. 

Unmanned Israeli drones whiz through the air, the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia exchanges fire with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and most civilians have left the region on both sides of the border.

"I fear that Hezbollah drags us into a war that we, the Lebanese, have nothing to do with, and Lebanon is not ready for war," a 40-year-old resident of Beirut, who asked to not publish his name for fear of retribution, told DW. "Everything in the country, including hospitals and infrastructure, is unprepared."

Meanwhile, many Lebanese have started stocking up on non-perishables and water ― at least those who can afford it amid the economic crisis and the freefall of the currency.

After weeks of limited fighting that started with Hezbollah's attacks on Israel's north on October 8, a day after Hamas, which is classified by multiple countries as terrorist organization, carried out the deadly attack on Israel with around 1,200 dead and 240 kidnapped people, the situation seems now on the brink of escalation. 

So far, 188 Lebanese have been killed, including 141 Hezbollah members as well as the Beirut-based Hamas's deputy chief Saleh Arouri, who was assassinated by Israel on January 2. Also, 14 Israelis, including nine Israeli soldiers have been killed, according to a tally compiled by the French news agency AFP.

An Israeli soldier wearing a patch on the back of his flack jacket showing Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah as a target, stands in front of a self-propelled artillery howitzer in Upper Galilee in northern Israel
The tensions between Hezbollah and Israel in the current conflict have lead to deaths on boths sidesImage: Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty Images

"I would say we are to some degree already in a regional confrontation," Kelly Petillo, Middle East researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW.

Meanwhile, international efforts to de-escalate the situation are running at a clip. EU’s most senior diplomat Josep Borrell and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock paid visits to Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati this week in hopes to stop an escalation into a wider Middle Eastern war.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock sits with Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati in Beirut
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati both hope to bring down the risk of a wider Middle Eastern warImage: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS

On Thursday, Amos Hochstein, US President Joe Biden's special coordinator for global infrastructure and energy security, concluded talks in Beirut with the hope for "a diplomatic solution that will allow for the Lebanese people to return to their homes in south Lebanon... as the people of Israel need to be able to return to their homes in their north," Hochstein told reporters in Beirut.

But Hezbollah's military wing is considered a terrorist group by several countries, including the US, and the European Union as well. So representatives from those countries and blocs won't negotiate with Hezbollah directly.

Lebanese government: Only limited influence

Since October 8, Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati has repeatedly said that he wants to prevent Lebanon from entering into war. But that alone isn't enough to reduce the risk of war.

"What the Lebanese government does or doesn't do does not really matter here in the end," Heiko Wimmen, Lebanon project director at the non-governmental conflict prevention organization International Crisis Group, told DW. "The actor that decides the course of the conflict is Hezbollah."

Wimmen sees that the Lebanese population and the Lebanese government are "bystanders" at best.

"Hezbollah follows its own strategic interests which are not necessarily identical with Lebanon's interests," Wimmen said, adding that "Hezbollah is part of the regional coalition [also called Axis of Resistance] with Iran and other actors, who have much larger political objectives than defending Lebanon or preserving its stability."

The Axis of Resistance, an Iran-led regional alliance that also includes Hamas in Gaza, Lebanon's Hezbollah and various Iraqi paramilitary factions, considers the United States and Israel the enemy.

However, David Daoud, senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies highlighted this week in an op-ed that Hezbollah is not entirely detached from Lebanese ground either

The political wing of Hezbollah is presented in the Lebanese parliament, runs local hospitals and other facilities that benefit its supporters.

"This attack [on Hamas' deputy and Hezbollah liason Saleh Arouri] will pin Hezbollah between its obligations to the Resistance Axis and its need to navigate Lebanese political and social dynamics; the latter of which it is also a full participant in," Daoud wrote.

"Hezbollah is hyper-cognizant of the importance of popular support to its longevity and durability and risks unnecessarily compromising that support — including among its supporters — were it to embark on some military adventure of whatever size against Israel," Daoud concluded.

Kelly Petillo from the European Council on Foreign Relations puts emphasis on the fact that Hezbollah and Iran have been calibrating their responses to the Israeli killing of the Hamas leader in Beirut so far despite the increasingly harsh rhetoric and the current escalation.

"But this is a very delicate game and there is a high potential for an error that might tip this balance if we can call it that," Petillo said.

Lack of trust in armed forces

A tipped balance comes close to the worst fears of the Lebanese population that has little trust in the capabilities of the country's army. 

"We need someone to protect us," a 42-year-old woman in Beirut told DW. She also asked to not publish her name.

In her view, Hezbollah would be best suited for this role as the Lebanese armed forces are limited in number and their equipment is inferior to the Hezbollah arsenal, which is funded by Iran. 

However, as of now, Petillo pins her hopes on the "fact that fundamentally Iran and Hezbollah are still not keen to engage in a full-on war."

At the same time, though, she is convinced that "with Iran's support, Hezbollah and Hamas are preparing some response to the latest events as they are under pressure to show that they are ready to respond."

"We aren't sure what this could be or when it is coming, but I think we can rest assured that it is coming," she added. 

Hezbollah leader vows retaliation after Beirut blast

This article was updated on January 18 2024.

Edited by: Carla Bleiker

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa