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Following Israeli strike, Hezbollah ups its theatrics in Lebanon

On 27 July, tensions flared between Israel and Lebanon, after the Israeli military reported that a number of Hezbollah fighters crossed into Shebaa Farms, which is disputed territory. The Lebanese militant group quickly denied the move, and the mysterious incident falls within Hezbollah’s psychological warfare, which targets Israel and Hezbollah’s popular base as the group faces mounting challenges at home.

Monday’s failed infiltration, which was seen as a response to Israeli strikes on Iranian interests in Syria a week before, that killed Hezbollah fighter Ali Kamel Mohsen Jawad was unusual in many ways. According to media reports, a Hezbollah cell comprised of three to five fighters crossed the blue line border a few meters into Israeli-controlled territory in the Shebaa Farm region, where it was repelled by Israeli troops.

“The attack is in itself peculiar as it took place during the day in an area under heavy drone surveillance,” said Nicolas Blanford, senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council.

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While the group denied responsibility for the operation, a source close to Hezbollah’s fighters confirmed the group was behind the operation.

Brahim Beyrarm, a journalist and analyst close to the organization also believes the group to be behind the attempted infiltration, which he says is part of the group’s psychological warfare on Israel.

As pressure mounts on Hezbollah, and the group faces larger repercussions for its military interventions around the region and support from its popular base shrinks at home, the party will rely more heavily on psychological warfare. Lebanon’s dire economic situation also contributes to this shift.

This will translate in two types of operations: Hezbollah could resort to small covert operations by “unknown” groups on the borders or in disputed territories such as the Shebaa Farms.

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“This was the case in March 2014, when four Israeli soldiers were hurt by an IED (improvised explosive device) blast near the demilitarized zone between the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in Syria, and Israel. While Hezbollah never claimed the attack, everyone knew it was behind the bombing,” added Blanford.

Propaganda and theatrics are other tools Hezbollah could opt for, as they project an aura of power while maintaining the status quo, explained activist Ali Amin. This approach is seen as part of a tacit agreement between Israel and Hezbollah. A case in point is the escalatory strikes last September on the border. At the time Hezbollah launched a retaliatory attack in south Lebanon, after two drones hit its stronghold in the Beirut suburbs. It is believed that the Israeli military then faked injuries of soldiers to make Hezbollah believe it caused damage during the following round of fighting on the Lebanese border.

The million dollar question that remains is whether theatrics and propaganda will prevent the escalation of violence on the Lebanese and Israel Border. In a recent interview, Deputy Hezbollah leader Naim Qassem, dismissed the prospect of any military escalation with Israel.

Yet a source close to Hezbollah fighters explains that “Hezbollah will definitely retaliate a second time, given the first attempt failed,” and added that if the organization did not, its credibility will be further damaged given the unpreceded disastrous economic situation the country is facing.

Hezbollah and its allies are backing the current government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab.

“They are caught between a rock and a hard place,” the source said.

Yet Middle East Strategy Intelligence analyst Avi Melamed, who follows Israeli politics closely, explained that while Israel has no interest in an all-out war with Hezbollah, Israel’s strategic interest is to disrupt Iran’s attempt to build military infrastructure in Syria that could target Israel.

Read more: Lebanon’s PM Diab urges caution amid Israel’s ‘dangerous military escalation’

That means ultimately that Israel is willing to risk an extensive war on more than one front if they wager a war would be in their strategic interest.

“Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah is wrong to think that by threatening Israel, it will avoid Israel acting against Iran’s hostile deployment. Israel will continue to attack Iran’s hostile deployment whenever and wherever it decides to. Accordingly, the odds for [an] Israeli-Hezbollah massive collision increases,” Melamed concluded.