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Fighting is intensifying along the Israel-Lebanon border. It's not the first time

LAUREN FRAYER, HOST:

Fighting escalated this past week between Israeli forces and Lebanon's Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia. In recent days, Hezbollah has fired hundreds of rockets over the border into Israel, signaling another cycle of fighting - fighting that's intensified since October 7 with the start of the Israel-Hamas War but even more so in recent weeks. Hostilities on this border, though, predate the current war.

Firas Maksad is a senior fellow and senior director for strategic outreach at the Middle East Institute, and he joins us now. Welcome to the show.

FIRAS MAKSAD: Thank you for having me.

FRAYER: So this border - this is to Israel's north and Lebanon's south - has seen a lot of fighting and not just in the present conflict but for decades, really. Can you give us a brief overview of why it's such a nexus for conflict?

MAKSAD: Absolutely. I mean, this is, in many ways, a proxy fight between Israel and Iran. Hezbollah is Iran's most powerful proxy in the region. Really, it's its first line of defense if Israel decides to attack its nuclear program. So this border has - I mean, there was an Israeli occupation of Lebanon for many years. Israel withdrew in 2000. But Hezbollah has always remained a thorn in Israel's side.

FRAYER: And the border is disputed? - the actual frontier where it is?

MAKSAD: Yeah, there are 13 points along that line. When Israel withdrew in 2000, the U.N. demarcated the border called - something called the Blue Line. There are 13 contested points on that, the most prominent of which are the Shebaa farms, which used to be part of Syria but are claimed by Lebanon and are held by Israel, and that's really been the flash point.

FRAYER: Where do things stand right now?

MAKSAD: Well, things are very tense. They became that much more tense after October 7. Hezbollah and Iran essentially decided to join the fight in what they call as a front to assist the primary front in Gaza. Now, that certainly hasn't worked, yet it seems that the Iranians and Hezbollah are adamant in wanting to extract a price from Israel.

FRAYER: The last major war on that border was in 2006. How have Israeli-Lebanese relations changed since then?

MAKSAD: It's been mostly actually quiet with the exception of skirmishes here and there. The conflict has been very much contained, and that's largely because of the sheer devastation that was visited on Lebanon in 2006. And let's face it, Hezbollah is also a very formidable adversary to Israel.

FRAYER: And I asked you about Israeli-Lebanese relations, but should we actually be asking about Israeli-Iranian relations when we talk about that border?

MAKSAD: Very much so - the Iranians have messaged very clearly in recent weeks that, in fact, if Israel does launch an all-out war on Hezbollah to destroy it, the Iranian threat is that they will very much be part of that war. That's something that the Biden administration is at great pains to try and avoid, particularly in an election year.

But my concern watching the developments over the last few days is that the politics in Israel is very much veering to the right and that the political dynamics there might compel it to do something like attempt a reoccupation of southern Lebanon to create a buffer zone there.

FRAYER: How likely is an all-out second front in this war?

MAKSAD: There are various scenarios of how this might play out. Both sides have had an interest in keeping this conflict just below the threshold of an all-out war. On the Hezbollah side of this, there is this sense that, well, it would be sheer folly for Israel to try and attempt this when they are knee-deep in Gaza still, unable to finish off Hamas. Hezbollah is a much more capable adversary than Hamas is.

The risk in that analysis is those that are criticizing the Israeli government, even those that are traditionally on the left of Benjamin Netanyahu, are trying to outflank him on this issue to his right and - of not doing enough to take on Hezbollah. We're just going to have to see.

FRAYER: Hezbollah claims to have shot down Israeli drones with surface-to-air missiles, as well as targeting Israeli warplanes. Israel has done targeted air strikes within Lebanese territory. Do these things signify new military capabilities, particularly for Hezbollah?

MAKSAD: Oh, absolutely. This is not the force that it was in 2006, and even then, it fought Israel to a standstill after a monthlong war. And this is a force now that has had over a decade of experience fighting in Syria next-door. I should add fighting next-door to the Russian army and coordinating hand in hand with the Russians and the Iranians. So this is an organization that has absolutely transformed itself since 2006.

FRAYER: And finally, you know, we're all following news of a possible cease-fire deal and negotiations between Hamas and Israel. Could that lower the temperature on the northern border?

MAKSAD: Yeah, it would very much help, no doubt. Given the current dynamics, Hezbollah might be more inclined to go for a cease-fire. The Israelis - I'm not too sure. I think the Israelis have correctly identified that neither Hezbollah nor Iran are looking for an all-out conflict. And so Israel's really been sort of pushing the envelope here, bombing deeper into Lebanon, targeting and assassinating more senior Hezbollah officials. So I think it can only help if we have a cease-fire in Gaza, but it's not necessarily an automatic switch to calling off the conflict.

FRAYER: That's Firas Maksad, senior fellow and senior director for strategic outreach at the Middle East Institute. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

MAKSAD: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF TORTOISE'S "TEN-DAY INTERVAL") 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.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.