Expert on Arab affairs Marianna Belenkaya talks about potential Hezbollah-Israel escalation, Iranian politics, the possibility of the Biden deal, and 'the day after' the fighting stops in Gaza.

This week, the threat of war between Israel and the Lebanese movement Hezbollah became more palpable than ever in the eight months following October 7. However, Israel's military and political leadership has made it clear that an expansion of hostilities on the northern front will only follow the completion of operations in Rafah. This is happening alongside continued efforts by the USA, Egypt, and Qatar to broker an agreement between Israel and Hamas on a ceasefire and the release of hostages. Recently, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar, reiterated that the movement would agree to a deal with Israel only if it includes a guarantee of a permanent ceasefire. Iran, clearly unhappy with the increased pressure from Western countries, encourages Hamas to maintain its firm stance.

Should Israelis expect war in the north?

On Friday, eight months have passed since the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip began. Hamas was supported by other resistance forces, somehow connected with Iran – the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Houthi movement, who control a significant part of Yemen, and Iraqi Shiite groups.

So far, the main hostilities have been concentrated in the Gaza Strip, but the confrontation with Hezbollah has been escalating in recent weeks. The damage to Israel exceeds that received during the 2006 Lebanon war. Thousands of residents from the country's north have been living outside their homes for eight months. Forests and agricultural lands are burning from shelling. If such a situation had occurred before October 7, Israel would have already struck a serious blow to Lebanon. Currently, it is showing restraint, although in the last few months, according to media reports, Israel has eliminated about 300 Hezbollah fighters, including high-ranking commanders. However, this has not significantly altered the situation. Hezbollah has not yet used its full arsenal but has successfully bypassed Israeli air defenses using drones, testing the enemy's defense system. Israel's patience is running thin.

"Anyone who thinks they can strike us and we will sit idly by is making a big mistake. We are ready for very powerful actions in the north. One way or another, we will restore security in the north," declared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to Kiryat Shmona on Wednesday.

On the eve, the military cabinet discussed potential actions following the intensification of attacks from Hezbollah. Chief of General Staff Herzi Halevi stated that the military is nearing a decision regarding the expansion of the northern front. Ultimately, according to publications in the Israeli media, the country's military and political leadership decided to wait until the operation in Rafah in the Gaza Strip is concluded. However, the situation could change at any moment. It is no coincidence that rumors of an imminent war appear in the media; for instance, Al-Akhbar, a newspaper close to Hezbollah, claimed that London had warned Beirut that it could happen as soon as mid-June. Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati denies the information, which is also unconfirmed by the British embassy in Beirut. Yet few doubt that the threat of a more serious war is real.

After October 7, the USA and France did everything possible to contain Hezbollah, including exerting pressure on Tehran. At the same time, they explored diplomatic solutions to the problem—demarcating the land border between Lebanon and Israel, similar to what was done with the maritime border in 2022. The mediators planned to deprive Hezbollah of reasons to be near Israeli territory. The agreement required the withdrawal of fighters from the border. However, all this has yet to yield results. Nevertheless, the mediators continue to work, promising Lebanon various economic benefits if agreements are reached, including the development of regional energy projects. According to Amos Hochstein, the US presidential advisor on energy security, who is responsible for Lebanese-Israeli negotiations, peace between Israel and Hezbollah is not to be expected soon. However, a set of agreements could remove some causes of the conflict and lead to border demarcation.

External assistance is crucial for Lebanon as it is experiencing one of the most severe economic crises in world history. However, this is not necessarily in Hezbollah's interest. For this movement, resisting Israel is central to its existence; everything revolves around this. 

Meanwhile, Hezbollah is balancing between fueling the conflict and not wanting it to escalate into a full-scale confrontation like in 2006. At least, it does not want to be seen as responsible for such an escalation by the Lebanese people.

Over the past eight months, Hezbollah leaders have declared that the movement is simply supporting the Palestinians. They claim that if the "Israeli aggression" in the Gaza Strip ends, they, too, will cease fire. This is a logical scenario, but it doesn't mean that Hezbollah will abandon the idea of confronting Israel. Instead, they will take a wait-and-see approach. Moreover, the prospects for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip remain unclear, and it is uncertain what will happen the day after the war ends. Another question is what is currently in Iran's best interest.

In recent weeks, the administration of US President Joe Biden has warned Israel against even a "limited war" in Lebanon, reports Axios, citing its sources. Washington warns that such a scenario could push Iran to a more serious involvement in the regional conflict than currently seen. One scenario envisioned by the Americans involves Lebanon being flooded with militants from pro-Iranian militias from Syria, Iraq, and even Yemen, who would want to join the fighting against Israel near its borders.

Resentments of Iran

Against this backdrop, the first foreign trip of the acting Iranian Foreign Minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, after assuming office is noteworthy. He visited Beirut and Damascus—key centers of Tehran's influence in the region. 

During the trip, the Iranian minister spoke out against adopting a ceasefire plan and warned Israel against starting a full-scale war with Lebanon. "If the Americans are honest, then instead of proposing plans under the name of the ceasefire, they must take one step, which is end all aid to the Israeli entity," stated Bagheri Kani at a press conference at the Iranian embassy in Beirut.

In addition to negotiating with Lebanon's leadership—including the Prime Minister, the Speaker of Parliament, and the Foreign Minister—Ali Bagheri Kani also met in Beirut with the Secretary-General of Hezbollah and representatives of Palestinian factions based in Lebanon. They clearly discussed a joint strategy for opposing Israel and whether Hamas should agree to a deal with Israel. This topic was also discussed in Damascus.

Photo: Hezbollah Media Relations Office via AP

Tehran's ability to influence Hamas is a significant asset in its dealings with the West, particularly with the United States. In turn, Washington considers Tehran's capabilities to influence regional groups.

It is no coincidence that in the last six months, there have been two rounds of indirect negotiations between representatives of the USA and Iran, focusing on de-escalation in the Middle East. The latest round took place very recently. Afterward, there was news that Washington was doing everything possible to prevent the adoption of an anti-Iran resolution at the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meeting, which was being lobbied for by France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Ultimately, the USA joined its European partners, and for the first time in eighteen months, the IAEA adopted a tough resolution on Iran. Of 35 countries, 20 supported this document, 12 abstained, 2 voted against it (Russia and China), and one did not vote.

The authors of the document demanded that Iran increase its cooperation with the IAEA, including as part of the investigation into the discovery of uranium particles at two undeclared Iranian sites. They argue that "much in Iran's nuclear program is unprecedented for a state without a nuclear weapons program." Tehran promised to respond "seriously and effectively." In the past, in similar situations, Iran rapidly escalated its nuclear program development, but now it may take a different, less direct approach, thwarting US efforts to achieve a ceasefire first in the Gaza Strip and then in Lebanon. In any case, Iran will not push Hamas to cease fire; quite the contrary.

Will Hamas lay down its weapons?

Meanwhile, Israel is still awaiting Hamas' response to its ceasefire and hostage return proposal before the end of Shabbat. This was reported on Thursday by the Kan TV channel. It is expected that the response will be positive, but it will come with additional conditions – primarily the demand for Israel to commit to stopping the war in the Gaza Strip. This is inherently unacceptable to the Israeli government but predictable.

Hamas representatives have repeatedly stated this condition. In particular, according to The Wall Street Journal, this was stated by the leader of the movement in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar. "Hamas will not surrender its weapons and will not sign a proposal that requires this," the publication quotes Sinwar's words, voiced through Arab intermediaries. Additionally, on Wednesday, the Saudi channel Asharq reported that Hamas rejected the Israeli proposal after realizing that it fundamentally differs from the proposals made by US President Joe Biden a week ago and does not guarantee a permanent ceasefire.

Photo: Photo: AP Photo / Mohammad Zaatari

On May 31, President Biden unexpectedly delivered a speech in which he discussed the Israeli proposal to Hamas. In his speech, it sounded like a plan to end the war, very similar to what Hamas had articulated at the beginning of May. Not surprisingly, the initial reaction from the movement was positive. At the same time, Israeli media quoted words from the country's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, spoken at a closed Knesset's Foreign Affairs Committee session: "The proposal that Biden presented is incomplete. The war will be stopped to return our hostages, after which we will discuss the next phase of the settlement. There are other details that the US President did not present to the public." Thus, the Israeli government, as before, is not planning to set a timetable for the military operation in the Gaza Strip. Ultimately, where the "Biden proposal" came from remains unclear.

A full and official text of the Israeli proposal has not appeared in the public domain, but based on what Netanyahu and representatives of Hamas have said over the week, there are indeed differences between what Biden articulated and what Israel proposed. It might even be two different documents.

However, in any case, there is no unity within the Israeli government regarding a deal with Hamas, and the leaders of this movement are demanding explanations from the US about their future. Biden envisions the Gaza Strip without Hamas, but he does not explain how this can be achieved if the fighting there were to stop right now.

Despite reports from WSJ and Asharq, Qatar's official spokesperson from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Majed Al-Ansari, stated on Thursday that the mediators have not yet received a response from Hamas to the proposal transmitted to them; the document is still under review. According to Al-Ansari, Qatar, along with Egypt and the USA, continues its mediation work. 

Simultaneously, sources from the Qatari publication Al-Araby Al-Jadeed in Egypt reported that Cairo is expecting a Hamas delegation in the coming days and has already received "positive signals." Additionally, Cairo has attempted to secure support for the ceasefire deal from all key Palestinian forces beyond Hamas. Representatives from Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Fatah visited the Egyptian capital this week.

Simultaneously, the head of Egyptian intelligence, Abbas Kamel, along with the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Qatar, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani, met with representatives of Hamas's political leadership in Doha to discuss the deal and "the day after the war." Sources from Al-Araby Al-Jadeed claim that Hamas demands written guarantees from the USA to implement the plan Biden announced.

For their part, mediators and other international players continue to exert pressure on both Hamas and Israel to accept the "Biden proposal." This is mentioned in a joint statement by 17 countries led by the USA, whose citizens are held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In addition, the USA has presented a draft resolution to the UN Security Council with a similar appeal. While the initial version of the document only addressed Hamas, it now also demands that Israel implement the deal. The proposed resolution also states that the USA opposes any attempts to cause demographic or geographical changes in the Gaza Strip or to reduce its area. Israel's Ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, officially conveyed to the USA his rejection of such a resolution, including the call for a permanent ceasefire, Kan reported. However, Washington is very eager to see some progress toward ending the war in the Gaza Strip or at least to demonstrate that it is doing everything possible to achieve this.

Efforts to reconcile Fatah and Hamas continue

Other international players are not resting either. Beijing intends to make another attempt to reconcile Fatah and Hamas. A meeting of delegations from the two Palestinian factions is planned for mid-June. Reuters reported this news this week.

It should be noted that in the past few months, mediators have already organized two rounds of negotiations between Fatah and Hamas. Both attempts, in Moscow and Beijing, failed. However, China is not giving up. Yet, the new meeting has no chance of success—their disagreements are too serious. The main problem is that Hamas is interested in maintaining its power not only in the Gaza Strip but also in strengthening its position in the West Bank, which is controlled by Fatah (albeit very conditionally). As Reuters notes, citing its sources, Hamas realizes that it will not be able to become part of the Palestinian government after the war ends—this will not be allowed. Not only Israel but also the USA, the European Union, and some Arab countries are opposed. However, this does not mean that Hamas will give up its participation in political life, including the advancement of its figures in Palestinian authorities, including the Palestine Liberation Organization, where it is still not a member. The question then arises—will Fatah maintain its already shaky influence, which is also not popular among the local population?

Thus, while Fatah declares the need for Palestinian unity, it is not interested in reconciliation with Hamas. However, it cannot refuse to negotiate without being blamed as the obstructive party. Hamas is more interested, but this does not mean it is ready to make any concessions. Therefore, the mission to reconcile these two Palestinian factions is not an easy one. In many ways, the "day after the war" depends on how it all ends.