According to a top secret U.S. intelligence document, however, a massive attack by Hezbollah, the political party and militant group backed by Iran, would be unlikely. As of early this year, U.S. intelligence analysts saw a predictable if still violent balance between Israel and Hezbollah diminishing the risk of a full-scale war in 2023.
Those assumptions are being tested in the wake of last week’s attack by Hamas, in Israel’s south, which took Israeli and U.S. officials almost completely by surprise.
According to an analysis prepared in February by the intelligence directorate for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Israel and Hezbollah had settled into a posture of “mutual deterrence” since the conclusion of a historic agreement, in October 2022, in which Lebanon and Israel agreed to demarcate their contested maritime borders. The deal, 11 years in the making, signified a breakthrough and allowed each country to finally explore the lucrative gas fields off their coasts.
Israel and Hezbollah had taken steps to “maintain readiness” to use force, but had remained “within their historical patterns of engagement,” which meant avoiding casualties and responding to provocations in a proportional way, according to the U.S. briefing document, which The Washington Post obtained exclusively after it was shared on the chat platform Discord.
Hezbollah is Lebanon’s strongest armed group and political party. Along with its allies, it held the majority in parliament until elections in 2022 when it fell short a few seats. The coalition still maintained the largest number of seats in parliament.
As Lebanon falls deeper into an economic crisis, and in the absence of state institutions and benefits, Hezbollah has attempted to buttress its position as an alternative patron for much of the country’s historically marginalized Shiite community.
“Even during periods of heightened tensions,” Israel and Hezbollah had intended “to display strength while avoiding escalation,” according to the U.S. analysis. For example, the document explains, Israel might carry out sabotage operations in Lebanon or fire on empty land, while Hezbollah shoots down an Israeli drone or fires rockets into the northern part of the country. The actions are provocative, but they are designed to avoid casualties. Each side can demonstrate to the other that they’re on guard and capable of striking without igniting a wider outbreak of hostilities.
But the analysis points to other factors that could tip that balance, including Hezbollah’s “inability to restrain Palestinian militants” such as Hamas that also operate in Lebanon.
In April, 34 rockets were launched from southern Lebanon into Israel, an attack that the Israeli military said was carried out by Hamas operatives, whose leaders had met with the Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, a day earlier in Lebanon. For months, the U.S. analysis noted, “Israel perceived a high risk of miscalculation due to Lebanon-based HAMAS plots.” Essentially, while Hezbollah might not be courting a war with Israel, that outcome was not entirely within its control, the U.S. intelligence suggested.
An anti-Israeli stance lies at the heart of Hamas and Hezbollah’s identity. Hamas, a Sunni Palestinian group, and Hezbollah, a Shiite Lebanese group, have been at odds over the civil war in neighboring Syria, with Hezbollah propping up President Bashar al-Assad and Hamas supporting his ouster.
Senior leaders from the two organizations have met in the past few years in Lebanon — and as recently as April — to discuss the normalization deals taking place in the Middle East with Israel.
The State Department estimates that Hezbollah claims tens of thousands of members and supporters worldwide and receives hundreds of millions of dollars in annual support from Iran. Experts have described Hezbollah as the world’s most heavily armed non-state actor. According to public Israeli sources, Hezbollah has expanded its arsenal of rockets and missiles from around 15,000 in 2006 to 130,000 in 2021. Nasrallah has claimed the group commands 100,000 fighters.
“I think a lot of people made assumptions about how deterred Hamas and Hezbollah are,” said Matthew Levitt, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. While he broadly agreed with the U.S. intelligence assessment, Levitt said that Hezbollah was now more likely to take advantage of the war in the south, which has consumed much of the Israeli military’s attention.
“I do see [Hezbollah] gradually trying to change the rules of the game,” Levitt said. Both sides have exchanged artillery and rocket fire since the Hamas attack Saturday. Israel has deployed reservist troops to towns along the border with Lebanon.
“I expect that you’ll see small things happening along the [northern] border from time to time, as [Hezbollah] tries to remind that they are here,” Levitt said.
Hezbollah leaders’ rhetoric has already begun to shift. In the first speech by a Hezbollah official after the Hamas attack, Hashem Safieddine declared the group is “not neutral in this battle.” Hezbollah’s fighters “had given their salute to Gaza in Shebaa Farms in their own, special way,” he said, referencing the strikes Hezbollah launched into a contested region of northern Israel on Sunday.
But the group’s remarks that followed exhibited restraint. In a statement addressing the U.S. intervention, it called for displays of solidarity and protests, while emphasizing that the resistance is ready for confrontation.
In comparison, other anti-Israel armed groups in the area, such as Yemen’s Houthis and Iraq’s Kataib Hezbollah, threatened attack in response to U.S. military aid to Israel.
But, as the U.S. intelligence analysis warned, such provocations carry their own risks of escalation, especially if Hezbollah conducts what it intends to be limited strikes that end up killing Israeli forces or civilians.
“The potential for miscalculation is exceptionally high,” Levitt said.
Dadouch reported from Beirut. Shira Rubin in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.