April 22, 2024 | The National Interest

Understanding Israel-Hezbollah Clashes Since October 7

After six months of trading fire, we can observe three distinct stages of the fighting between Israel and the Iranian proxy group.
April 22, 2024 | The National Interest

Understanding Israel-Hezbollah Clashes Since October 7

After six months of trading fire, we can observe three distinct stages of the fighting between Israel and the Iranian proxy group.

Eighty thousand Israelis have evacuated their homes near the country’s northern border as Hezbollah rockets rain on their communities. Yet, Israeli forces are drawing the most fire on the Lebanese border. The rocket and mortar fire across the border can seem like skirmishes without a pattern or purpose. However, a closer look shows there have been three distinct stages to the fighting that began when Hezbollah fired the first rounds on October 8 to demonstrate its solidarity with Hamas. 

Initially, Israel restricted its response to targeting Hezbollah launch sites near the border, yet in mid-November, it shifted to attacks deeper inside Lebanon with an eye toward degrading Hezbollah’s military infrastructure. Then, in January, the Israelis struck Dahiyeh—Hezbollah’s South Beirut stronghold—killing senior Hamas official Saleh Arouri. This prompted Hezbollah to match the Israeli escalation, yet Israel retains the initiative and has inflicted far greater damage while its adversary remains wary of provoking an all-out war.

Israel is determined to restore security for the tens of thousands of its citizens who live within range of Hezbollah rockets and mortars in southern Lebanon. In contrast, Hezbollah has to weigh the risk of provoking a massive response for which the Lebanese people across the political and religious spectrum would hold Hezbollah responsible. The group also needs to keep its powder dry so it can threaten retaliation in the event of an Israeli attack on its patrons in Tehran.

One day after Hamas launched the surprise attack that killed over 1,100 Israelis, Hezbollah intervened on Hamas’s side with rocket and artillery fire across Israel’s northern border. The attacks quickly spread across the breadth of the Blue Line—the de facto border between Israel and Lebanon—but their depth was limited, focusing on border towns and moshavs (collectives) like Shtula and Shlomi. The IDF retaliated by striking at the sources of the rocket and artillery fire, including southern Lebanese towns like Marwahin and Ayta Ash Shab. This choice of targets signaled that Israel sought to avoid escalation yet would exact a price from any unit that fired across the border.

Hezbollah conducted its strikes with a mix of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and a handful of drones, while the IDF employed artillery, drones, and helicopter strikes, as well as the Iron Dome defense system. In his first public address during the war, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah claimed, “our operations on the border have forced the IDF to divert forces, weapons and equipment from Gaza and the West Bank to the Lebanese front.” Nasrallah’s words likely capture what Hezbollah hoped to accomplish, although there’s no clear indication that Israel faced any shortages on other fronts because of Hezbollah’s assault.

The Israelis’ targeting of an aluminum factory in Nabatieh on November 17 and Hezbollah’s retaliation against the headquarters of the IDF’s Ninety-First division in Biranit on November 20 signaled a shift towards the employment of an expanded range of weapons and a broadening of the clashes’ geographical boundaries compared to the initial phase. Israel’s strikes now stretched deeper into Southern Lebanon, reaching towns like Jezzine and Jibchit. For the IDF, this was a calculated departure from mere retaliation, aiming instead at dismantling Hezbollah’s capabilities. 

Hezbollah, too, adjusted its strategy, turning its sights on IDF bases and barracks along the border. Yet, their strikes had minimal impact compared to Israel’s, as Hezbollah’s assaults often deliberately hit unmanned outposts and emptied barracks. With the geographical boundaries of conflict redrawn, Israel seized the opportunity to strike preemptively, targeting Hezbollah’s military infrastructure across the Lebanese south. It was a proactive stance, a declaration of intent to neutralize any threat posed by Hezbollah.

An Israeli precision strike that killed top Hamas official Saleh Arouri on January 2 marked the beginning of the third phase of the conflict in the north. Israel struck Arouri in Dahiyeh, Hezbollah’s south Beirut stronghold, marking a seismic shift toward a more aggressive approach that included the targeting of high-value assets and leadership.

Hezbollah responded by targeting the Meron air traffic base in northern Israel with sixty-two rockets. Yet, the IDF kept striking high-value targets such as Wissam Tawil, deputy commander of Hezbollah’s elite Radwan Force deputy, on January 8. Subsequent exchanges included an attack by Hezbollah on the IDF’s Northern Command HQ in Safed. At the same time, the IDF responded with the elimination of Hezbollah drone unit commander Ali Hussein Barji on January 9 . IDF also eliminated senior Radwan Force commander Ali al-Debs and his deputy on February 14 after an IDF soldier was killed in an attack on the Northern Command’s HQ. The latest targeted attacks eliminated Ali Ahmed Hussein, a senior operative in the Radwan Force, on April 8 and Yousef al-Baz, the coastal region commander in Hezbollah, on April 16.

Hezbollah’s operations also expanded geographically in this phase, targeting IDF bases in Golan Heights, yet their impact remained limited. Meanwhile, Israel conducted numerous strikes north of the Litani River, hitting significant targets like weapon storage facilities in Ghaziyeh, an air defense facility in Baalbek, and an Iranian-built airfield in Birket Jabbour.

Despite its attacks’ wider geographical reach, Hezbollah refrained from employing advanced weaponry like precision-guided missiles to prevent escalation to a full-scale war. Instead, there has been a rise in the use of Katyusha rockets targeting IDF sites more than ten miles from the border. However, the effectiveness of these attacks has been mitigated by Israel’s Iron Dome system, in addition to the low quality of the weaponry used by Hezbollah.

Looking back over the three phases of the conflict in the north since October 8, Hezbollah has clearly paid the higher price. It has suffered over 270 fatalities and extensive damage to its military infrastructure in southern Lebanon. The Radwan force has withdrawn from its positions on the border.

Israeli military analyst Alon Ben David sheds light on Hezbollah’s weakened state. He believes “its rocket and anti-tank missile capabilities have struggled to make an impact against Israeli forces, surprising even Hezbollah itself.”

On the domestic front, the conflict has exacerbated tensions within Lebanon. Criticism is mounting against Hezbollah’s decision to fight amidst a serious economic crisis. Civilians, already burdened by hardship, reject the use of their towns as launching pads for Hezbollah attacks, further straining the group’s support base.

It is difficult to say how long the fight’s third phase will continue on the northern front. In Israel, speculation looms over an expanded IDF operation deep inside Lebanese territory. Conversely, Iran may activate Hezbollah to expand strikes on Israel following Tehran’s salvo of more than three hundred missiles and drones on April 13. Dramatic changes could happen at a moment’s notice, as they did on October 7.

Ahmad Sharawi is a research analyst at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on Middle East affairs, specifically the Levant, Iraq, and Iranian intervention in Arab affairs, as well as U.S. foreign policy toward the region.  Follow him on X: @AhmadA_Sharawi.


Hezbollah Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Israel Israel at War