Hezbollah antitank missiles killed two Israeli soldiers as they drove in a disputed area along the Lebanese border on Wednesday, a sharp retaliation for Israel’s deadly drone strike last week that killed six Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general.
The attack was the most severe eruption of hostilities in the area since the fierce enemies’ devastating monthlong war in 2006 and threatened to incite a significant escalation. But after a second Hezbollah strike of mortar shells on Mount Hermon and Israeli artillery, tank and air fire on targets in southern Lebanon, a tense quiet set in before dusk.
While both sides had domestic reasons for needing to show a strong hand, neither is eager for another all-out battle, analysts said, adding that the exchange on Wednesday appeared oddly orchestrated to signal a reluctance to escalate the conflict. They cautioned, however, that fighting along the increasingly volatile frontier, against a backdrop of Middle East chaos, could easily spiral out of control.
“It’s a very delicate game, because both sides want to respond hard enough that they’re not perceived as weak, but not too hard to start a war,” said Benedetta Berti of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. “It’s a very, very thin line. There’s plenty of room for miscalculations. If this is where it ends, we’re moving on to the next chapter, with the awareness that every single time this starts again, we get closer to a proper war.”
With its popularity plunging among the Sunni majority in the Arab world, Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite movement backed by Iran, has been under intense pressure to return its focus to its main mission of fighting Israel after two years devoted to helping the Syrian government combat a mostly Sunni insurgency. In Lebanon, several experts said Hezbollah’s strikes on Wednesday seemed intended to maximize publicity to please loyalists — and its Iranian patrons — and exact revenge without provoking a crushing response.