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Amid fighting on Israel's northern border, Hezbollah and Iran seek to avoid war


Will the Israel-Hamas war lead to another war between Israel and Hezbollah, who have fought in the past? Ever since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and Israel's offensive in Gaza, there has been fighting on Israel's northern border, too - daily rocket, mortar and drone attacks. We're joined now by NPR's Jane Arraf in Beirut about what the signs are that this war could possibly expand. Hi, Jane.


SUMMERS: So, Jane, you have spent time in the border area during the temporary cease-fire, and you've also been monitoring the fighting. Tell us. What exactly is happening there?

ARRAF: Well, apart from that brief, temporary cease-fire, Israel and Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militia based in Lebanon, have been trading daily attacks. And as for Hezbollah, they've been using increasingly precise weapons, including more sophisticated rockets and using drones. And there's been a toll to this. At least 120 people have been killed in Lebanon, including at least 85 fighters and three journalists. About a dozen people have been killed in Israel, including soldiers and civilians, and tens of thousands of civilians have been evacuated or fled on both sides. In a speech in November, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah made clear that the main goal of the attacks was to tie up Israeli military resources that otherwise would be used in Gaza, and he said victory would be incremental.


HASSAN NASRALLAH: (Through interpreter) Our battle has not reached the stage of victory by knockout. We still need time to be realistic, but we win by points.

ARRAF: Nasrallah said that may seem modest to those who expected a full attack on Israel.

SUMMERS: And, Jane, there's been concern that if Lebanon and Israel went to war again, as they have in the past - that this would become not just a Gaza war but a regional one and other Arab countries. And even possibly the United States would feel compelled to step in. What are the chances of this war widening?

ARRAF: Well, so far, both Hezbollah and Israel seem to be trying to keep it contained. Israel, in spite of calls from some military leaders to invade Lebanon, very much wants to focus on fighting in Gaza. I spoke to Andrea Tenenti, spokesperson of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in south Lebanon known as UNIFIL. He says so far, both Israel and Hezbollah have largely stuck to attacking within a three- or four-mile zone from the border.

ANDREA TENENTI: I would say very sporadic incidents outside these four or five kilometers - overall very, very localized. It also shows somehow that there is not a real appetite for a wider conflict.

ARRAF: He warns, though, that there's always the possibility of a miscalculation, an attack that would be seen to necessitate such a severe response that it could spark all-out fighting.

SUMMERS: Hezbollah is supported by Iran with both money and weapons, and both oppose Israel. So why might they be, as you pointed out, trying to contain this right now?

ARRAF: Well, Hezbollah needs to be seen to be supporting the Palestinian cause, but it doesn't want to be blamed for dragging Lebanon into war. You know, not everyone here supports Hezbollah. And the party, which is both a political party and a militia, has a lot at stake here. It is a major political player in the country. As for Iran, one of the main reasons would be the possibility that it would bring U.S. forces actively back into the region. And that's kind of the last thing they want. They do want Hezbollah to be a deterrent to Israel. But Iranian leaders have insisted they didn't know in advance about the Hamas attack into Israel on October 7 and they had nothing to do with it.

SUMMERS: Lebanon is suffering yet another political crisis. It has gone a year without a president. There is a serious financial and economic crisis. What do the Lebanese people think about an escalation in fighting along its own border?

ARRAF: Well, there's intense sympathy with Palestinians in Gaza. And we saw that today because the Lebanese government ordered government offices and banks closed in solidarity with calls for a global strike in support of Palestinians there and in support of Lebanon's own border villages. But there's also a real fear here of what would happen if this battered country were pulled into another war. Not everyone is a supporter of Hezbollah, obviously, and there are a lot of people who fear that Lebanon just can't take another war.

SUMMERS: NPR's Jane Arraf. Thank you.

ARRAF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAMANTHA BARRON SONG, "SIN MI") 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.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.