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Creeping escalation along Israel-Lebanon border brings risk of bigger war

TYRE, Lebanon — The secondary conflict that erupted along the Lebanon-Israel border in tandem with the Gaza war has settled into something of a routine. Every day for the past six weeks, Israel has attacked Lebanon and Hezbollah has attacked Israel, a pattern that began as a tit for tat and has now blurred into a steady exchange of fire.

Almost always, the strikes are within 4 to 5 miles of the border on either side, a deliberate calibration designed to contain the violence and avert a far more devastating war.

But the range and intensity of the fighting is gradually increasing. Saturday saw Israeli jets strike an aluminum factory in the Lebanese town of Nabatieh, 12 miles north of the border — well beyond the traditional zone in which retaliatory fire has been considered acceptable by both sides.

Lebanon’s Hezbollah weighs dueling appeals: Ease attacks or escalate

And both sides have started using deadlier weapons. Israel is now regularly sending fighter jets to strike Hezbollah targets; Hezbollah is deploying drones and heavier caliber missiles. It claimed on Saturday to have shot down an Israeli drone, which Israel denied. Israel responded later in the day by targeting what it described as an advanced surface-to-air missile system.

Israeli officials have also ramped up their rhetoric: “Lebanon’s citizens will bear the cost of this recklessness, and of Hezbollah’s decision to be the defender of Hamas-ISIS,” Israel Defense Forces spokesman Daniel Hagari said last week. “The IDF has operational plans for changing the security situation in the north.”

In the first weeks of the fighting, Israel was shelling only in the evenings, said Adiba Fanash, 65, one of only a dozen residents who have remained in the border village of Dhaira, right on the Israeli border. “Now it is from the morning till the night,” she told The Washington Post while visiting Tyre to buy supplies. “It is escalating day by day.”

These sporadic escalations have yet to spark the conflagration many fear, but each violation of the unspoken agreement between Hezbollah and Israel brings them closer to the brink.

The last war, in 2006, killed over 1,200 people in Lebanon and 165 in Israel and left swaths of this beleaguered country in ruins. Both sides have warned that any full-scale conflict now would be far more devastating, and both have indicated that they have no appetite for such a war.

But as the weeks pass and the missiles fly, the risk that either side could miscalculate or overreach is growing, said Andrea Tenenti, spokesman for the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, a peacekeeping force that monitors activity on the Lebanese side of the border.

“Anything one of the sides could do, the other could decide it’s gone too far” and unleash a bigger fight, he said.

In ancient Tyre, a quaint port city of fishermen, cobbled streets and markets, fears are sky-high that violence will soon spread to the rest of Lebanon. The past 17 years have given the south its longest stretch of peace in five decades, and this town has flourished, luring tourists to its beaches, bars and boutique hotels.

The bars and hotels are empty now and there are few customers at the quay side restaurants “We want peace and we want food on our table,” said Sami Rizk, a fisherman who said demand for his daily catch has halved. “We don’t want war,” he added emphatically.

But whether war can be avoided is in question. The exchanges began within hours of the first Israeli airstrikes on Gaza on Oct. 7 when Hezbollah fired a handful of shells into a sliver of Lebanese farmland occupied by Israel as a gesture of solidarity with Hamas, drawing Israeli retaliatory fire. Now it is difficult to discern which strikes represent a response and which are meant to provoke, said Tenenti.

At school in southern Lebanon, an aid stop for people fleeing conflict

“Nobody is controlling it. We need it to stop. It’s very dangerous,” said Rita al-Darwish, who escaped her border village under fire six weeks ago and is among over 14,000 displaced people who have taken refuge in Tyre. Altogether, more than 46,000 Lebanese have escaped the border region to safer parts of the country and the number is growing by the day, according to figures provided by the International Organization for Migration.

There are intense talks behind the scenes to prevent a repeat of 2006, Arab and Western diplomats say. Their attention has focused on the calculations of Hezbollah — the Shiite party and militant group that is Lebanon’s most dominant political and military force — and the words of Hasan Nasrallah, the group’s powerful leader who has close and long-standing relations with Iran.

In two speeches since the war broke out, Nasrallah has indicated that Hezbollah sees its role as creating a diversion along Israel’s northern border to alleviate the pressure on Hamas, its ally in Gaza, rather than waging an all-out war.

It is not clear that Hezbollah could sustain the support of the Lebanese population should it take them into another costly conflict. The country is already gripped by political deadlock and teetering on economic collapse.

Lebanon’s Hezbollah weighs dueling appeals: Ease attacks or escalate

A woman from one of the border villages who has escaped to Tyre said her house and those of her relatives were destroyed by Israeli fire a day after she fled. Hezbollah fighters had taken over the homes, drawing Israeli strikes, she said. “I blame Hezbollah,” she said, cursing the fighters as “terrorists.” She spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

But people here are much more concerned about Israel’s intentions, and the prospect that it might try to finally rid itself of the militant presence along its northern border. Israel has invaded Lebanon twice and occupied the country for 22 years between 1978 and 2000.

Most Lebanese are convinced that Israel has a long-term plan to take over the country, said Samir Hussein, an engineer living in Tyre who runs an organization dedicated to civic dialogue.

“They have proved their intentions by invading us with blood[shed],” he said. “They want our land, our gas, our water.”

Israel’s heightened rhetoric and the prospect of a decisive Hamas defeat has left Hezbollah with difficult choices, said Mohammed Obeid, a political analyst close to the group.

“Thinking about the future, can you just let the Israelis win in Gaza?” he asked. “If they do they will focus on Lebanon next.”

Sarah Dadouch in Beirut contributed to this report.

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