Tensions on Israel’s northern border, where units of the Lebanese militant movement Hezbollah are present, have been rising for almost a month. After the terrorist attacks by Hamas against Israel at the beginning of October, the number of incidents increased even more in the traditionally explosive area. But most of the strikes have been confined to the border area, suggesting both sides want to avoid a dangerous escalation.
Since the beginning of October, however, there has been concern, or hope, throughout the Middle East that Hezbollah will open a second front of war against Israel on its northern border and trigger a wider conflict. Hezbollah, like Hamas, the Syrian government or the Yemeni rebels, falls into the Iranian sphere of influence and belongs to the traditional enemies of the Jewish state.
The leader of Lebanon’s Shiite movement, Hassan Nasrallah, who often addresses his followers in live speeches, has not spoken publicly since early October. According to the media, it was the long silence that led to expectations that the head of Hezbollah would make an important statement on Friday.
In a pre-recorded statement, Nasrallah raised his voice and accused Israel of committing crimes in the Gaza Strip. According to him, full responsibility for the war lies with the United States, which only uses Israel as a mediator. On the other hand, he highlighted the courage of the Palestinians living in the area.
Although he expressed support for the October 7 attacks by Hamas, he denied that Hezbollah was involved in any way. According to Nasrallah, only the Palestinians were behind them.
“If we want to find a war that is completely legitimate, then there is none better than fighting the Zionists. That is the only war that deserves to be fought,” the Hezbollah leader said. He described the current events in Gaza as a decisive battle.
Comparison of forces
The Israeli army has many times more resources, equipment and numbers of soldiers against the forces of Hamas and Hezbollah. Both movements are still able to compete with it, aided by supplies from Iran, as well as rich experience with asymmetric warfare.
According to Al Jazeera, Nasrallah also outlined two main goals of Hezbollah – stopping the war in Gaza and defeating Hamas.
However, he said little about Hezbollah’s involvement in the conflict. At the end of the speech, he repeated many times that all development scenarios remain open. According to him, spillover of the conflict to Lebanon is far from impossible.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned of an “unimaginable” response if Hezbollah opens a second front in the conflict. The United States is also trying to dissuade the group from intervention.
Last month, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the United States would not hesitate to intervene if any organization or country wanted to escalate the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement.
A full-scale war would have disastrous consequences for Lebanon. Moreover, the escalation has little public support, excluding Hezbollah supporters. The country has been in an economic and political crisis for many years, and the country does not even have a properly functioning government, the BBC noted.
Hezbollah has been preparing for action against Israel for a long time
After years of preparing to fight Israel, Hezbollah now remains torn between maintaining its credibility as a defender of the Palestinians and hesitating to drag the country into a full-scale war, according to Lebanon’s L’orient Today.
The Lebanon-based Shiite political movement was formed in response to Israeli attacks in 1982. The group has a strong military wing and is considered one of the most heavily armed non-state actors in the world. However, since its foundation, Hezbollah has also established itself as an integral part of Lebanese politics and, in addition to military activities, also covers social areas and religious education in the country.
Western countries label the group a terrorist organization. Hezbollah has long openly expressed support for Hamas activities, although the two groups differ greatly ideologically.
According to Břetislav Tureček, head of the Middle East Studies Center at the Metropolitan University of Prague, both movements justify their fight against Israel in the same way – as an effort to suppress the Israeli occupation of Arab territories.
“For example, Hezbollah points out that Israel still occupies some parts of Lebanese territory. These are the so-called Shiba farms, which are located on the border between Lebanon and Syria, and the Israelis are there as part of the occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights,” the expert previously explained to Seznam Zpravy.
Talk about the Israeli ground offensive
It may happen that Israel will prolong the occupation of the Gaza Strip indefinitely, notes security expert Rob Geist Pinfold in an interview for Seznam Zprava. Israel does not know who will rule the region after the overthrow of Hamas.
For Israel, the entry of Hezbollah, and by extension Lebanon, into the war would present a greater challenge than it has faced so far. While Hamas’ weapons arsenal relies largely on improvised technology, Hezbollah has a vast arsenal of weapons that includes precision-guided missiles that can reach deep into Israeli territory and tens of thousands of well-trained and seasoned fighters.
So far, the last major war conflict between the Lebanese movement and Israel took place in July 2006, when the so-called Second Lebanon War broke out. It was there that the current leader of the group consolidated his position.
The charismatic leader reached out to the Arab world
Nasrallah assumed leadership of Hezbollah in 1992 after Israel assassinated the group’s co-founder and previous leader, Abbas al-Mousavi. Under Nasrallah’s leadership, the group was transformed into a political entity and gained representation in the Lebanese parliament.
“The personality of Hezbollah’s third Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, and the militant path he has chosen are a major element of the party’s appeal to fighters and supporters alike. Nasrallah has undoubtedly earned a place among the top representatives of the Arab world in recent years,” wrote Aurelie Daher, an expert on the militant group from Sciences Po in Paris.
Although Hezbollah suffered significantly more casualties than Israel in 2006, Nasrallah later claimed that the clashes were a success for the group. Thanks to his ability as the commander of the armed forces to contain the Israeli enemy, Nasrallah could build a legend around his name, described the Lebanese independent server L’orient Today. He also built his name with a distinctive style of speech, which he used to incite military actions.
His charisma is also underlined by the expectations associated with Thursday’s speech. “Millions of Arabs around the world will be watching his speech. They will listen to the only leader in the region who is able to address their anger and despair,” Mohamad Hage Ali of Beirut’s Carnegie Middle East Center told Al Jazeera.
In 2011, Nasrallah made it to the prestigious list of the 100 most influential people in the world compiled by Time magazine.
In a series of interviews, Nasrallah has repeatedly refused to recognize the State of Israel, stating that he considers its existence illegal and unjust.
Nasrallah is also a leading figure in the regional military alliance that Iran created as a counterweight to the United States and Israel, Reuters recalled. The so-called “Axis of Resistance” refers to Palestinian, Lebanese, Syrian and other groups close to Tehran and opposed to Israel.
The groups’ connection to Iran remains a matter of debate. “Pro-Iranian proxy groups also have their own agenda and are not completely controlled by Iran, an example is Hamas. But Hezbollah is something else, it is directly controlled from Tehran,” noted Kurdish analyst Ziryan Rojhilati for Seznam Zpravy.