Lebanon may not want a war, but one could be on its way

A broken economy, a political vacuum and spreading regional violence have left the Lebanese people stuck between the Israeli military and Hezbollah

“Disastrous”, “decimated” and “impoverished” – these are just some of the words used by Nasser Saidi, a former economy minister and deputy governor of Lebanon’s central bank, to describe his country’s fragile state this week. In an interview with The National published on Wednesday, he outlined how Lebanon’s economic problems – which the World Bank has called one of the worst global financial crises since the middle of the 19th century – were being exacerbated by the spreading violence of the Israel-Gaza war.

On the same day that Mr Saidi’s comments were published, Israel’s military launched heavy air strikes on Lebanon, hours after a missile attack killed a woman and her son and wounded others in the northern Israeli city of Safed. The Israeli strikes, which hit deeper inside Lebanon than most previous attacks, killed at least nine people, including four children, according to a local rescue team.

These are just the latest casualties from a conflict in northern Israel and southern Lebanon that is becoming increasingly more dangerous and unpredictable. So far, more than 65,000 people have been displaced in Lebanon because of the war, with thousands of Israelis on the other side of the border fleeing these exchanges between Iran-backed Hezbollah militants and the Israeli military. According to Mr Saidi, the escalation of the conflict will drive “mass migration” from Lebanon. Rebuilding would “likely take decades rather than years”, he added.

Given its institutional, political and economic problems, it is difficult to imagine a country less ready for war than Lebanon. The nation’s economy is estimated to have suffered damages worth $1.5 billion due to the current conflict, and there is little current appetite among the public for a fight with its richer, more powerful neighbour to the south. Even Hezbollah, despite its leadership’s bombastic rhetoric of resistance, has so far refrained from launching a full-scale war against Israeli forces.

But the risks of escalation are many. There is a worrying political vacuum in Beirut, where a caretaker government, in the absence of a president, operates with limited powers. This lack of leadership has thrust Hezbollah’s military and political wings to the fore, and the result is an unaccountable, foreign-backed militia trading blows with an Israeli military that is already on a war footing. The risk for Hezbollah is that the Lebanese people will blame it for a war that further bankrupts the nation. There are risks for Israel too – a war that creates an impoverished, unstable and rudderless neighbour on its northern border presents a major security threat.

There are ways of mitigating some of these threats. Despite its many challenges, Lebanon has established links with important international actors that may help to stop the violence worsening. The UN has more than 10,000 peacekeeping troops along the Blue Line and in other locations, and this week French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne presented the Lebanese authorities with a proposal to end the hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah. In December Lebanon’s caretaker Minister of Energy and Water said a historic maritime border deal with Israel still stood despite the intensifying conflict between Hezbollah and Israel’s military. And Lebanon’s internal political problems are not beyond solving – the country’s political class can, and should, agree on a government in this time of national crisis.

Worryingly, however, deadly strikes such as Wednesday’s that take place deep inside Lebanese territory and kill civilians, risk creating a more bellicose mood across the country. There are also voices in Israel calling for a stronger military response in Lebanon; opposition figure Avigdor Lieberman who claims the government has already “surrendered to Hezbollah and lost the north”. Just because Lebanon doesn’t want a war right now, doesn’t mean it won’t get one.

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