JERUSALEM/BEIRUT (Reuters) – During a flare-up along Lebanon’s border on Sunday, Israel faked soldier injuries to dampen any inclination of Hezbollah to escalate hostilities, showing a keenness of the longtime enemies to avoid all-out war at a time of soaring regional tensions.
Israeli media photographed an army helicopter performing what appeared to be the evacuation of two wounded soldiers to hospital after the Iran-backed Hezbollah launched anti-tank missiles over the border.
But a person briefed on the evacuation, and who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the soldiers were in fact unharmed and bandaged with fake blood in what he called “a psy-ops stunt”.
Hezbollah said it had destroyed an Israeli armoured vehicle, killing and wounding those inside, and it broadcast what it said was footage of two rockets hitting a moving vehicle. Israel said there were no casualties.
The flare-up began after a drone attack on what a security official said was a target related to precision-guided missiles in a Hezbollah-controlled Beirut suburb. Hezbollah blamed the incident on Israel, raising fears of a wider regional conflict.
Hezbollah, whose forces have fought in support of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war, also said two of its men were killed in an Israeli strike in Syria on Saturday. Israel said its attack thwarted an Iranian-led drone strike against it.
But after the Hezbollah missile volley, scores were apparently settled and the two sides, who fought a one-month war in 2006, returned to business as usual on Monday, with the border area reverting to calm.
Israel had raised the stakes last week by accusing Iran of stepping up efforts to provide Hezbollah with precision-guided missile production facilities. Hezbollah denied this.
And Israel has increasingly been blaming Lebanon as a whole for letting Hezbollah, which is part of the Lebanese coalition government, grow in military and political power.
In a video statement in Twitter on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held out the prospect of future military action to prevent Hezbollah obtaining missiles that could be fired with increased accuracy at targets in Israel.
“We will continue to do whatever is necessary to defend Israel at sea, on land and in the air. We will continue to act against the threat of the precision-guided rockets,” he said.
Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said on Monday he had asked Germany to tell Lebanon that if it does not stem Hezbollah’s activity against Israel, “Lebanon in its entirely will be struck and badly damaged
“Israel has no desire to aggravate the situation, but still, Israel is ready to continue responding forcefully for any attack on it and will see the state of Lebanon as bearing exclusive responsibility for that,” Katz said.
WARINESS OF NEWWAR
But neither side can afford a return to 2006 when conflict was triggered by a Hezbollah cross-border raid. That eruption killed nearly 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and 158 Israelis, mostly soldiers.
“What is constraining them is that neither side wants a war. Each wants to use it as part of their own internal propaganda machine, but neither side genuinely wants a war,” said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut.
Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud party, has been projecting strength during a re-election campaign ahead of a vote less than three weeks away, but a border war could complicate his efforts.
He said Israel was prepared for all scenarios after the latest clash, but did not seem eager for a full-scale war.
Sources allied to Hezbollah made it clear any response to Israeli attacks would be “calculated”.
A new eruption in Lebanon could strain an already difficult economic situation where authorities are seeking to implement long-overdue economic reforms. Last week Fitch downgraded Lebanon’s credit rating to CCC on debt-servicing concerns.
“Continued heightened geopolitical tensions between the two factions would weigh on investor and on depositor confidence … shifting the balance of growth and government funding risks to the downside from an already very fragile situation,” said Moody’s senior analyst Elisa Parisi-Capone.
Hezbollah is well aware that a new conflict could harm the fragile economy and breed resentment among Lebanese.
A senior Israeli security source said that shortly after the Hezbollah attack and Israel’s military response on Sunday, messages from Nasrallah and Hariri were conveyed to Israel by three countries, which the source did not name, that “as far as Hezbollah is concerned, the incident is over”.
“Today Lebanon cannot stand one hour of Israeli strikes with all the rating agencies downgrading us,” said Sami Nader, director Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, a Beirut-based think-tank. “Hezbollah does not want to bear the responsibility of any drift that will lead to economic and financial collapse.”
Hezbollah is involved in neighbouring Syria’s conflict, where its fighters have backed President Bashar al-Assad against rebels and Islamist militants.
Georges Hayek, a writer and a member of the Christian anti-Hezbollah Lebanese Forces party, said the border clash underlined Lebanon’s vulnerability to regional power struggles.
“Lebanon is suffering from Hezbollah executing its interests and the interests of Iran and turning Lebanon into a space for its conflicts,” he said on Twitter.
While Iran has always strongly backed Hezbollah, it too is preoccupied with its own issues and unlikely to want to focus on a new war between Israel and Hezbollah.
Iran’s rhetoric was unusually low-key in response to the border fighting, saying only that Hezbollah’s policy is aimed at safeguarding the interests of Lebanon.
The United States, which pulled out of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, is squeezing the Islamic Republic’s economy with sanctions.
Those tensions are also being played out on the high seas, with international attention focused on an Iranian oil tanker at the centre of a dispute between Washington and Tehran.
“A full-scale war is the last thing this region needs,” said a senior Iranian official.
(Reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Lisa Barrington and Suleiman al-Khalidi in Beirut,; Parisa Hafezi in Dubai; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)