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Israel is turning its attention to its northern border with Lebanon

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We're going to turn to the Middle East now, where the Hamas-Israel war could threatens to cause a wider conflict. On Saturday, Israeli air strikes in the Syrian capital of Damascus killed five members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. In western Iraq, Iranian-backed militias struck an air base, injuring one Iraqi soldier. And unknown number of U.S. troops are being evaluated for traumatic brain injuries. And on the border between Israel and Lebanon, an increasing volley of attacks could escalate into an all-out war. NPR's Jane Arraf has more.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Israel has warned for weeks that if Hezbollah does not pull back fighters further from its border with Lebanon, war is coming, and more Israeli soldiers will be deployed. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's response to that?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HASSAN NASRALLAH: (Through interpreter) What a threat. Welcome and hello. Welcome and hello. Who are you threatening us with? If you add a few brigades, will you scare us?

ARRAF: Despite the bluster, concerns are growing that whether anyone wants it, escalating attacks could lead to a heightened conflict that would be difficult to stop. Israel says it needs to ensure that its northern border is not as vulnerable as its southern one was when Hamas attacked in October. Israel's former national security adviser Yaakov Amidror said Israeli forces rotating out of Gaza would be retrained to be sent north.

YAAKOV AMIDROR: One of the reasons that we are taking out forces out of the Gaza Strip back into Israel for preparations for the next stage in the north, which might be a full war.

ARRAF: A full war between Israel and Hezbollah, one of the most heavily armed nonstate militias in the world, would be a nightmare scenario, one that would devastate impoverished Lebanon, already a fragile state where Hezbollah is the most powerful political and security player. Iran supports Hamas and more directly funds and supplies Hezbollah. But 17 years of isolation in the Gaza Strip have left Hamas badly resourced. Israel acknowledges that fighting Hezbollah would be very different.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISSILE FIRING)

ARRAF: Israel and Hezbollah have fired missiles and launched explosive drones across the border since the Gaza war began. Nasrallah has said the aim is to divert Israeli military resources from Gaza. Until three weeks ago, U.N. peacekeepers at the border said the attacks seemed deliberately contained - confined mostly to military targets within the border zone. But on January 2, Israel assassinated a senior Hamas official, Saleh al-Arouri, in a drone strike in a crowded neighborhood in Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARRAF: Speaking in a video address to an audience in northeast Lebanon, Nasrallah made clear that changed the equation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NASRALLLAH: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: Attacks on the border on military targets are the normal state of affairs, he said.

NASRALLLAH: (Through interpreter) But when the targeting is in Lebanon, in the southern suburbs, we cannot accept this equation. This is a significant and serious breach.

ARRAF: While Hezbollah retaliated by attacking strategic Israeli military posts, Nasrallah has left the retaliation open-ended. The U.S. is taking the threat of wider war in the region seriously. Security of State Antony Blinken warning in Qatar during a tour of Arab capitals...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: This is a moment of profound tension in the region. This is a conflict that could easily metastasize.

ARRAF: U.S. officials don't talk to Hezbollah, which is classified in the U.S. as a terrorist organization. And Blinken didn't come to Beirut, but special envoy Amos Hochstein did, carrying proposals for negotiations on the border issue. Lebanon's Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib told us they were rejected.

ABDALLAH BOU HABIB: And that's what we told the Americans. We want peace, but it has to be fair. Otherwise we will not accept. It could go forever like this. The Palestinians have been refugees for 75 years, have been struggling for 75 year, but they continue to do it.

ARRAF: The conflict at the Lebanese-Israeli border isn't just about Gaza. Israel's 1982 invasion and its occupation of Lebanon helped spark the creation of Hezbollah, which has entrenched itself as the guardian of Lebanese security. A 2006 U.N. resolution calls for Hezbollah to pull further back from the Israeli border, but Hezbollah refuses. Lebanon is also trying to reclaim land near the border occupied by Israel. The Hamas representative in Lebanon, Ahmed Abdulhadi, tells us that all parties in Lebanon insist there has to be a full cease-fire in Gaza before any talks on the border.

AHMED ABDULHADI: (Through interpreter) Nobody wants a war in the region. But if the aggression on the Gaza Strip continues, things might expand and lead to a war in the region. There are tens of intermediaries sent by the United States to Hezbollah and under the table to the Iranians, saying that we do not want an expansion of the war in the region.

ARRAF: Another senior Hamas official, Osama Hamdan, tells us that when it comes to Lebanon, Hamas and Hezbollah interests are intertwined.

OSAMA HAMDAN: If you support the Palestinians to get rid of the occupation, that means you are protecting your land strategically. So whenever they support the Palestinians, they are protecting Lebanon from the threat of the occupation.

ARRAF: Lebanon is already struggling with a deep financial crisis and a long-running political stalemate. War on top of that would be devastating. Lebanese and militia leaders here fear the longer the war in Gaza rages, the more likely the prospect of war at their border will become.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: January 20, 2024 at 10:00 PM MST
An earlier broadcast version of this story incorrectly referred to Secretary of State Antony Blinken as the National Security Advisor.
Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.

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