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Tug of War

CNN reporters take us on-the-ground in Israel to document the escalating conflict and what it means for the rest of the world.

A frayed rope is about to split in two

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How Hezbollah Could Shift the War
Tug of War
Oct 17, 2023

As fighting intensifies between Israel and Gaza, Hezbollah’s the third player on the sidelines that could shift how things turn out for Israel. What happens if they get involved? What would the cost be for Israel if another front opens on its border with Lebanon? CNN’s Ben Wedeman explains what a double-sided war could mean for Israel.

Episode Transcript
David Rind
00:00:01
I want you to listen to part of this interview. My colleague, CNN's chief global affairs correspondent Matthew Chance, did the other day. He's talking to a senior commander with the Israel Defense Forces.
Matthew Chance
00:00:12
Do you believe there will be a second front open here or are you hopeful still that Hezbollah will stay out of this war?
IDF Commander
00:00:21
I hope there will be another front. We need to destroy Hezbollah.
Matthew Chance
00:00:25
You hope there will be another front. You want the war?
IDF Commander
00:00:27
Yes.
Matthew Chance
00:00:28
Why?
IDF Commander
00:00:30
What Hamas did in Gaza, it didn't come from nowhere. It came from Hezbollah. It came from Iran. And in order for us to stop what happened from Hamas, we need to stop them also.
David Rind
00:00:46
Did you catch that? Commander said he hopes another front will open up in this war, even as Israel prepares for what many believe will be a brutal ground invasion into northern Gaza. Remember, Hamas says it is holding hundreds of people hostage and continues to fire rockets into Israel. It is very much a pressing issue for the Israeli military. But the commander mentioned some other names there, Iran, Hezbollah. What happens if they get involved?
Ben Wedeman
00:01:16
In terms of sort of the totality of military capabilities, definitely Hezbollah is in a league of its own.
David Rind
00:01:24
Today, we head to the northern front from CNN. This is Tug of War. I'm David Rind.
David Rind
00:01:40
I'd been wanting to speak to CNN's senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman, ever since this conflict began because he has been reporting on the Middle East for decades. He's covered stories in Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and, of course, Israel and Lebanon. He knows the region and the major players better than just about anybody here at CNN. I caught up with him on Tuesday afternoon.
David Rind
00:02:04
Ben, where are you right now?
Ben Wedeman
00:02:06
Yeah, we're in south Lebanon, just about ten kilometers north of the border, sort of in a position overlooking the south. It's quiet at the moment, but that's just the moment.
David Rind
00:02:21
So what does the border look like now and how does that compare to what it looked like before this conflict?
Ben Wedeman
00:02:28
Well, you know, I spent a fair amount of time in this border area going back to the nineties. But what, Before this war, it was a tense area because there's a fairly significant presence of Hezbollah in the area. But a tense calm was largely maintained since the war in Gaza began. The situation is dramatically changed and we've seen almost every day incidents of fire from Lebanon into Israel and Israeli fire back now today seems to be particularly active with multiple Hezbollah attacks on Israeli positions and Israeli counterattacks, according to the Lebanese Red Cross. Four people have been killed. Now, we don't know the identities of these four people, whether they're civilians or fighters. Now, in addition to Hezbollah, it's important to remember there are other groups operating in southern Lebanon. Several times we've seen rockets fired from Lebanese territory into Israel. But the latest volley was actually by the military wing of Hamas, which has people here in Lebanon, many of them operating out of the variety of Palestinian refugee camps that are in south Lebanon.
Ben Wedeman
00:03:48
So this is really a mix of groups. You're saying it's not just Hezbollah that is is ratcheting things up here.
Ben Wedeman
00:03:55
It's a mix of groups. But certainly in terms of power, manpower, weaponry, overall ability, Hezbollah dwarfs all of them. And therefore. They prefer to be the ones who take the action as opposed to let others do it. And in fact, sometimes we've spoken with Hezbollah members or shall we say, people associated with the group who are sort of hanging around. And they've told us one of the things they're doing is stopping others from firing into Israel.
David Rind
00:04:30
Oh.
Ben Wedeman
00:04:31
Not necessarily because they're opposed to the idea of firing into Israel, but they want to be the ones who decide when and where they fire.
David Rind
00:04:39
Oh, so they're like controlling things. That's really interesting. I wanted to ask about that because our colleague Hadas Gold told me last week that when we're talking about Hamas and Hezbollah, Hamas is more like J.V. and Hezbollah is really the varsity. And that that comparison has really kind of stuck with me. But what does that actually look like on the ground? Why is there this fear around further Hezbollah involvement here?
Ben Wedeman
00:05:05
You know, Hezbollah is an organization that's been around since the early 1980s, and it has lots of experience. Keep in mind that Israel had a presence in southern Lebanon going in until 2000 and throughout the nineties. I spent a lot of time in southern Lebanon covering Hezbollah's fight to drive the Israelis out. And it was a brutal guerrilla war where Hezbollah really excelled at using their superior knowledge of the terrain to make life unbearable for the Israeli military.
Ben Wedeman (archive)
00:05:44
Two massive explosions shook the downtown of Tyre here in southern Lebanon. Normally, Israeli aircraft target the outskirts of the city, but this time it was a ten story building in the center of town.
Ben Wedeman
00:05:57
I was here in 2006 for the three day war between Hezbollah and Israel.
Ben Wedeman (archive)
00:06:02
The hospital wards are full of the wounded. Hospital staff claim they've yet to treat a combatant.
Ben Wedeman
00:06:11
The Israelis had great ambitions of crushing Hezbollah, destroying it, and Hezbollah once again took advantage of its knowledge of the terrain and the fact that many of its fighters are from the areas that Israel previously occupied that Israel wanted to enter during the 2006 war, and Israel was essentially fought to a standstill.
Ben Wedeman (archive)
00:06:34
Nats. We're with the resistance, shouts this refugee, referring to Hezbollah's militia, who are nowhere to be seen in this mess.
Ben Wedeman
00:06:43
And Hezbollah proved beyond any doubt that it was a very capable military organization. Now, they've had a lot of help from Iran in terms of training, in terms of equipment, but in terms of sort of the totality of military capabilities, definitely Hezbollah is in a league of its own. It's, in fact, if you look at the variety of wars fought between Arab states and Israel, in many respects, Hezbollah far exceeded them in its ability to really fight the Israelis to a standstill.
David Rind
00:07:20
Ben and I will be back after this break.
David Rind
00:07:34
Back to Tug of War in my conversation with CNN's Ben Wedeman.
David Rind
00:07:39
'I guess I'm wondering what would a multi-front war look like for Israel? Like, does it have the resources to combat Hezbollah in the north? Based on what you're describing, their capabilities are what?
Ben Wedeman
00:07:54
Well, Israel has a massive advantage in the idea that since that it has air power, it has been provided with and has its own abilities and and weaponry that is by far in excess of anything that Hezbollah possesses. But keep in mind, they've got 300,000 more reserves prepared to go into Gaza. They have deployed, according to the Israeli military, tens of thousands of troops along the Lebanese border. But they will be hard pressed to fight a two front war. Let's keep in mind that in 1973, Israel also fought a two front war with Egypt in the Sinai and with Syria in the Golan Heights. And it was hard pressed. The Americans had to rush airlift weaponry into Israel to essentially bolster their abilities because they were pushed to the wall. I don't think in this case it's going to be the same given that Hezbollah doesn't have any air power.
David Rind
00:08:59
Yeah, I was going to ask, is the U.S. pressed into more of a presence if Hezbollah really acts out here?
Ben Wedeman
00:09:07
Well, I think the United States may be walking into a bit of a. Disaster if it's going to become militarily involved side by side with Israel in fighting Hezbollah, Hamas, perhaps Iran. Logistically, the United States is at a bit of a disadvantage here. And, you know, as I'm pointing out, Hezbollah is backed by Iran. And Iran itself is has proved that they're technically quite sophisticated. And not only technically, they're sort of tactically very sophisticated as well. They have managed after decades of, you know, U.S. and international sanctions to develop all sorts of industries. They make their own cars, for instance, and they've made a lot of their own weaponry. So the United States, you know, it's easy to fight ISIS. It's easy to fight Saddam Hussein's crippled war after years of sanctions. It's not easy to fight the Iranians.
David Rind
00:10:14
Hmm. I wanted to ask before we go, because a journalist from Reuters was killed on the border with Lebanon and Israel. Do you have a sense of just how dangerous it is to report from the region right now?
Ben Wedeman
00:10:28
Well, right now it's very dangerous. You've had, of course, my friend and colleague, Issam Abdallah, cameraman from Reuters, who was killed last Friday in an Israeli strike. You have at least ten Palestinian journalists in Gaza who have been killed in addition to an Israeli. I've been covering this story for decades, and I can tell you it's a dangerous story to cover. I've been shot in the back with a live round. I've been shot in the head with a rubber bullet. I've had my thumb broken by a soldier. I've been beat up multiple times. It's a dangerous place. And stories like this are a magnet for journalists. If a big story like this, you want to be a part of it. But it's risky there. And the risks are very high in this conflict. And I'm afraid that it's only going to get more dangerous.
David Rind
00:11:23
Well, stay safe out there, Ben. Really appreciate it. Thank you.
Ben Wedeman
00:11:27
My pleasure.
David Rind
00:11:37
Tug of war is a production of CNN Audio. This episode was produced by Paola Ortiz, Krista Bo and me David Rind. Our senior producer is Hayley Thomas. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of CNN Audio. Special thanks to Charbel Mallo, Tamara Qiblawi and Sarah Sirgany. Thank you for listening. We'll be back tomorrow. Talk to you then.