When the Israel-Hamas conflict broke out in October, one of the questions asked was whether Lebanese Hezbollah would open a second front against Israel. Like Hamas, Hezbollah is a member of the Iran-led “Axis of Resistance,” which includes several non-state militant actors and governments, including Iraqi Shia militias and the Yemeni Houthi movement. The Lebanese Shia group has a significantly larger arsenal than Hamas, controls the entire Lebanese half of the Israel-Lebanon border, and has a long history of conflict with Israel. A series of mutual exchanges of bombs and rocket fire between Israel and Hezbollah broke out hours after the Israel-Hamas war began. This continued for the following weeks, but did not lead to a large-scale war (Asharq Al-Awsat, October 9).
Therefore, many anti-Israeli voices in the Middle East were disappointed by Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah’s long-awaited speech on November 3, his first public statement since the beginning of the war (janoubia.com, November 4). Nasrallah praised Hamas and called upon Iraqi and Yemeni militant groups to attack Israeli and US targets, but he was clear that Hezbollah was not about to escalate beyond the ongoing border skirmishes. Elsewhere in the Arab world, Nasrallah was also criticized for the seemingly hypocritical position of not going to war to help the Palestinians, while also relying on anti-Israel rhetoric and ideology as a source of legitimacy and public appeal (24ae.com, November 4).
Nasrallah has in fact made serious threats and has left the door open for war with Israel in the future. His calculations are complex and require thorough examination.
Hezbollah’s Strategic position
Iran is Hamas’s main supporter and has for years provided Hamas with money, weapons, and training. Yet, Iran denied that it had any prior knowledge of the October 7 attack. Nevertheless, Iran still hailed Hamas’s attack as an “act of resistance” and pledged to support Hamas in dealing with the aftermath. Even though the US administration claims that it has no evidence of Iranian involvement in Hamas’s attack, questions remain as to the degree to which Iran was involved (asharq.com, October 11).
Nasrallah made the notion of the October 7 attack being an exclusively Palestinian operation a central theme of his speech (raialyoum.com, November 3).
Hezbollah and Iran have been careful in making this strategic point: They do not want the attack to be considered their own, lest they give the United States a reason to support an Israeli counterattack against them. Unlike the small, isolated, and densely populated Gaza Strip, where it is very difficult to hit military targets without causing civilian casualties, Iran and Lebanon are two countries with plenty of military and infrastructural targets that Israel might be less reluctant to attack.
Hezbollah’s largest war with Israel in summer 2006 ended with Israeli disappointment because it failed to break Hezbollah’s defenses in southern Lebanon, halting any further advance on land. However, the Israeli air force destroyed several targets across Lebanon, such as bridges, roads, and communication centers, which placed Hezbollah square at the center of blame by the Lebanese public, especially outside Hezbollah’s core Shia base of support. Hezbollah was accused of dragging the poor and small country—having already suffered a series of wars in its recent history—into another painful and costly conflict.
Hezbollah’s main priority is to preserve its power in Lebanon, not necessarily to fight Israel (Sky News Arabia, November 3). Hezbollah’s degree of domination over Lebanon’s politics and government is currently greater than in 2006. This domination, however, is more than offset by the extreme public resentment faced by the group, fueled by several severe economic crises ravaging the country. For both Iran and Hezbollah, controlling Lebanon is a major strategic and geopolitical asset that would be jeopardized by a renewed war with Israel. This was precisely the reason behind the calculated position Nasrallah took in his speech. Hezbollah is not ready to attack Israel now, but if Israel or the United States attacked Lebanon, then Hezbollah would strike back and probably enter into an all-out war.
Rare Access in Southern Lebanon
Nasrallah may have exaggerated the size of the contingent of Israeli military forces that he claims to have tied down along a potential front with Lebanon. Nevertheless, the bombing and skirmishes on the Lebanese-Israeli border since the October 7 attack indicate that Hezbollah is in fact at war with Israel, albeit still on a relatively minor scale. In this context, it should be understood that Nasrallah’s threats to expand the war are real (alalam.ir, November 4).
On the tactical and strategic levels, Hezbollah’s new approach of granting non-Hezbollah fighters access to the front with Israel is noteworthy. Hezbollah has historically been very strict and ruthless since its rise to prominence in the 1980s in imposing total and exclusive control over southern Lebanon and the border with Israel. This has been extremely important for Hezbollah’s claim to still be a resistance movement, which offers the group power and a special status in Lebanon and in the wider Middle East.
Since the war started, Hezbollah has been granting two types of access. First, in a rare initiative, it has relaxed its strict border policy and allowed allied Palestinian groups, including Hamas, to attack Israel from Lebanese territory (al-Arabiya.net, October 10). Hezbollah has also claimed to have given non-Shia Lebanese armed groups under its command access to southern Lebanon. Second, some Iranian-backed Iraqi and Yemeni militias seem to have wanted access to southern Lebanon. Hezbollah has given more than just a tour to some of those militia figures, but not enabled them to establish a clear military presence. Israel, however, claims that Iranian militias have been deployed to southern Lebanon (raialyoum.com, November 2).
The first type of access is part of Hezbollah’s tactical maneuvering. This was done under Hezbollah’s control and as part of its deployment initiatives. The second type of access, on the other hand, does not seem to be necessary for Hezbollah, which has sufficient resources to cover southern Lebanon on its own. Furthermore, denying access to non-Lebanese groups had sent a message about Hezbollah’s and Iran’s strategic thinking. This was namely their claim to be on the defensive and on the receiving end of Israeli military actions. However, both actors seem determined not to lose the initiative by keeping Israel and the United States uncertain about possible changes on the Israel-Lebanon border.
Hezbollah has walked a fine line in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. It is actually at war with Israel, but it has not opened a new front. Hezbollah’s priority is to preserve its paramount position in Lebanon, but the movement is still an essential part of the Iran-led axis. As such, it will be committed to the strategic initiatives and policy shifts chosen by Tehran.