How the U.S. Risks Being Roped Into a War Between Israel and Hezbollah
As violence and threats of future attacks escalate, the United States risks being sucked into the proxy conflict involving Iran
Drones are a familiar sight to the residents of Beirut’s southern suburbs. That’s just a reality of life under Hezbollah’s watchful eye. But the drones deployed over the weekend signaled a new turning point to the violence: They were packed with bombs and intentionally flown into one of the Shiite militant group’s offices. And these drones allegedly came from Israel.
While violence between Hezbollah and Israel dates back to the early 1980s, the recent proxy conflict involving Iran has intensified in recent weeks, stoking tensions throughout the Middle East that threaten to ensnare the United States.
The Trump administration has thrown its support behind Israel in its confrontation with Iran and Hezbollah. On Thursday, the United States moved to sanction a series of Lebanese banks and companies for close financial ties to Hezbollah.
The target of the sanctions, Jammal Trust Bank SAL, is a holding company that provides financial services in Hezbollah-controlled sections of Lebanon, and, according to the Treasury Department, is instrumental in money laundering for the group. Both Iran and Hezbollah have admitted that U.S. sanctions — some of which were added when the Trump administration withdrew from the 2015 nuclear agreement — have crimped their budgets.
From a military standpoint, Israeli officials warn they are willing to use any means necessary to block Hezbollah, a known proxy to Iran, from upgrading its missile and rocket arsenal. To that end, Israel has escalated the clashes beyond its borders to Iraq and Syria — two countries where U.S. troops remain stationed. Last month, Israel bombed Iraq for the first time in 40 years, targeting two senior commanders of an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia.
Lebanon, Syria, and many elements of Iraqi leadership have denounced these strikes as acts of war and threatened to retaliate. Should they follow through, the United States risks becoming entangled in the conflict along with its Israeli allies.
“For now we see a difference between U.S. and Israeli forces in the region,” says Abu Hasan, a security commander for Hezbollah in southern Beirut. “But if the Americans strike Iran on behalf of Israel or involve [themselves] in Lebanese affairs, we will adjust our thinking.”
The Beirut attack on Sunday, which appears to be the first time Israel has used commercial drones carrying small bombs to directly crash into targets, zeroed in on Hezbollah facilities located in a crowded urban area in southern Beirut. The Lebanese press has suggested the drones destroyed sophisticated equipment used in Hezbollah’s rocket and missile development efforts. There were no casualties on the ground.
Israel’s decision to strike targets linked to Iran and Hebzollah puts the Pentagon in a tough position in Iraq, where an estimated 4,000 American troops are currently stationed.
“These drones were launched from Israeli ships off the coast of Beirut,” says Abu Hasan. “They targeted the activities of the resistance and failed, but there will be a response from Hezbollah.”
These threats have led Israel to enforce strict measures along their northern border with Lebanon, barring Israeli military personnel from traveling certain roads for fear of kidnapping (something Hezbollah has done with some success in the past), and closing the border to commercial air traffic.
Israel’s decision to strike targets linked to Iran and Hezbollah puts the Pentagon in a tough position in Iraq, where an estimated 4,000 American troops are currently stationed to help in the fight against ISIS. The U.S. has commitments with the Iraqi government to help protect its air space as it builds a modern air force. And while it did not condemn the attacks, the Pentagon issued a statement this week distancing its operations from potential Israeli strikes. Still, hardliners in Iraq, aligned with Iran, demanded that the Iraqi government force the United States to leave the country.
Hezbollah’s threats of retaliation against Israel sparked fears that any cross border incident would quickly escalate into a regional confrontation and drag in Russia, Turkey, and the United States, three countries that maintain military units in Syria.
This fear is compounded by statements from both sides in Beirut and Tel Aviv that an all-out confrontation would not be confined to southern Lebanon, as most past outbursts of violence have been. Instead, top Israeli officials have warned that the entire Lebanese state faces widespread destruction from Israeli air raids, while Hezbollah officials have repeatedly threatened to expand any future conflict to include attacks from Syria, as well as confrontations inside Israel itself.
“Both sides are talking as though they wish to look strong and confront the other,” says an official with UNIFIL, the UN peacekeeping mission along the Israel-Lebanese border. “But there’s always a risk of a wider escalation no matter how much speech is spent by both sides claiming they want to avoid that.”