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The looming war between Israel and Hezbollah

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's growing risk of a new war in Israel on its northern border with the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. The two sides have been trading fire since the conflict in Gaza started nine months ago, and the threat of a full-scale war is increasing. To explain, NPR's Daniel Estrin joins us from Tel Aviv, and our Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, is here in the studio. Hi, guys.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Daniel, let's start with you. What is the situation right now on the Israel-Lebanon border?

ESTRIN: Hezbollah started firing at Israel a day after the Hamas attack, October 7, and there have been cross-border attacks ever since from both sides. About 100,000 Lebanese civilians have been displaced from South Lebanon, and tens of thousands of Israeli civilians have been displaced from Northern Israel. There was a fear that Hezbollah fighters would storm across the border and attack Israelis just like Hamas did.

And so this has created a situation that Israel says is untenable, having an enormous part of its country evacuated. Israel says it has pushed many Hezbollah fighters away from the border in these past months, but Israel's military spokesman told me Israel is losing patience. It wants a diplomatic deal to be able to bring Israeli civilians back to their homes. And if that doesn't happen, then they're threatening military action.

I should note that no one actually wants a war here. The U.S. has talked to the players. They're saying that they don't want a war, but the problem is Hezbollah's condition for stopping its firing is that the Gaza war is not ending anytime soon. And so really, one miscalculation here on the Israel-Lebanon border could trigger a larger war.

SHAPIRO: Well, Tom, you've been talking to people here in the U.S., and Israel's defense minister, Yoav Gallant, was recently here, talking to government leaders. So what are you hearing?

BOWMAN: Well, there's a great deal of worry that the war could expand into Lebanon. I'm told Gallant didn't give a lot of operational detail for any possible military action when he was in D.C. The sense is Israel wants a buffer zone in Southern Lebanon, pushing Hezbollah back to about 18 miles north of the Israeli border. Now, the hope is that that can be achieved by some sort of diplomatic action. That's why you've seen U.S. officials talking with both Israel and sending messages to Hezbollah to ease up its attacks into Israel. And it's telling Hezbollah, listen. The U.S. might not be able to hold off a strong Israeli response.

But Secretary of State Antony Blinken said just yesterday there's momentum toward war because Israel doesn't have control over its northern border. And, Ari, I was talking with one U.S. official who said an indicator of a possible Israeli attack will be shifting its troops from Gaza to the border with Lebanon. Keep an eye on that.

SHAPIRO: Daniel, I'm trying to imagine what it would look like for Israel to push Hezbollah out of an 18-mile Lebanese buffer zone. I mean, what does that even involve?

ESTRIN: Well, it would be devastating for both sides. I mean, first of all, Israel will be contending with Hezbollah, a militia that is much better-armed than Hamas is. We're talking Hezbollah's 100,000 fighters compared to Hamas' about 30,000 fighters. Hezbollah also has about 200,000 rockets, according to Israeli estimates. That's an enormous arsenal, Ari, and these are guided. Many of these missiles are guided missiles. They are provided to Hezbollah by Iran. They are missiles that could reach most of Israel's population centers. And Israel - the estimates are that Israel wouldn't be able to intercept all these missiles.

Keep in mind Israel's troops are also very tired after months of the Gaza war. So picture in Israel, you know, the electricity being knocked out in many areas, civilians spending days and weeks in and out of bomb shelters. In Lebanon, it would be even worse. The infrastructure there is shoddy. Hezbollah - because it's entrenched in the Lebanese government, Israel is expected to hit civilian infrastructure.

BOWMAN: Now, the U.S., of course, Ari, will back Israel as much as it can. The problem is that Hezbollah is operating a short distance from the Israeli border and has tens of thousands of missiles and rockets, as Daniel said. Now, the top U.S. officer at the Pentagon, General C.Q. Brown, recently told reporters that short range makes it difficult for the U.S. to shoot down any of those missiles and rockets. There's just not enough time.

SHAPIRO: How concerned is the U.S. that this full-scale war could break out? And is there anything more that American officials can do to avoid that?

BOWMAN: Well, again, they're going the diplomatic track, but ever since the Hamas attack on Israel back in October, the U.S. has been extremely concerned about the Israeli-Hamas war expanding. The U.S. has also worried that any Israeli invasion of Lebanon could trigger a sharp response from Iran against Israel. Of course, we saw that in April with a missile and drone barrage. Another worry, Ari - any Israeli attack on Lebanon could spur Iranian-backed militias to go after U.S. forces in the region, especially in Iraq and Syria, which has happened a number of times.

Now, a number of countries have told their citizens to leave Lebanon. Some airlines are canceling flights. And another reflection of U.S. concern - the Pentagon has dispatched more warships to the Eastern Mediterranean to prepare for any possible evacuation of the American embassy. At this point, though, no indication the State Department is even reducing the size of the embassy.

SHAPIRO: Daniel, will you leave us on a hopeful note? What are some scenarios that do not involve a full-scale war?

ESTRIN: Well, there are some of those scenarios. I mean, Israel has said that it's soon going to be ending the high-intensity phase of the Gaza war. And so the U.S. could try to use that to try to convince Hezbollah to deescalate as well, you know, short of a full cease-fire in Gaza.

There's another scenario that is being described in Israel, which is Israel launching a major escalation that would be a couple days long only, just something to inflict a lot of damage and convince everyone to back off and try to basically force a diplomatic deal. But I think we should bear in mind that Israeli analysts believe that if any kind of diplomatic deal is reached, that would be only a temporary solution. Many in Israel believe that after the war in Gaza, the army can regroup and then actually hit back militarily at Hezbollah maybe a couple years down the line.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv and Tom Bowman here in Washington. Thank you both.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

ESTRIN: Thanks, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARTYAT4 SONG, "FWM" ) 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.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
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