Hezbollah Plays the Waiting Game

Supporters of Hezbollah gather at al-Ashoura square in southern suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon, to listen to the speech of the Secretary-General of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah on November 3, 2023. (Photo by Marwan Tahtah/Getty Images)

In his first speech since Hamas’ surprise attack last month, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanese Hezbollah, threatened to join the fight against Israel but stopped short of declaring all-out war. “All options are on the table,” he warned from southern Beirut on Friday. 

Since then, Hezbollah has upped both the frequency and intensity of its cross-border attacks on Israel, raising concerns among Israeli officials of a second front in the North as their troops become more enmeshed in Gaza. But such a war, even against a distracted Israeli Defense Forces, would likely result in major military and political fallout for the Iranian-backed terrorist group. While the danger of greater Hezbollah involvement remains high, what it might look like—and how much destruction it could unleash on an embattled Israel—is still unknown.

Last month Hezbollah threatened to enter if Israel launched a ground offensive in Gaza, but has thus far stuck to restrained, cross-border attacks—even as IDF units push further into the Gaza Strip in the advance toward Hamas’ headquarters. At the same time, Nasrallah has distanced Hezbollah and Iran from Hamas’ initial October 7 onslaught, claiming that it was “100 percent Palestinian in terms of both decision and execution” in his speech last week. 

This reluctance points to the high price of full involvement for Hezbollah and its Iranian backers. The Lebanese militants are Iran’s most loyal, established proxy in the region, and a declaration of war runs the risk of delivering Israel a key military victory against its longtime adversary in Tehran. And it’s a war Hezbollah, also a political party in Lebanon, may not survive amid brewing discontent at home.

The Shiite Muslim group currently enjoys fairly robust support, winning—along with allied parties—62 of the Lebanese Parliament’s 128 seats in elections last year. Its base is composed of both core voters who adhere to its ideological vision for the country, as well as people who back it for more practical reasons, including its social services programs and the ostensible security it provides. Hezbollah stands to lose many of the latter in the event of a costly, self-inflicted conflict with Israel. 

“Lebanese currency is useless, infrastructure is bad. The economy is going to take decades to revive, there’s no foreign aid coming in. Imagine compounding that with a war where economic recovery is not going to be forthcoming,” said David Daoud, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who focuses on Hezbollah. “I can imagine a lot of people coming out into the streets the day after, against a Hezbollah that’s already been battered militarily by Israel.”

Still, repeated and escalating attacks from southern Lebanon create the opportunity for inadvertent escalation with Israel. Hezbollah took credit for a missile launch on Sunday that reportedly killed an Israeli civilian near the northern community of Kibbutz Yiftah. Palestinian terrorist groups operating in southern Lebanon have claimed responsibility for other attacks, including a rocket barrage Monday that Hamas said reached all the way to the city of Haifa, some 85 miles from the Lebanese border and the farthest location to be targeted from the North since the war’s start. Israel places blame for such cross-border attacks, which have killed Israeli soldiers, on Hezbollah given its control of southern Lebanon. 

Each Hezbollah and Palestinian launch sparks IDF artillery and air strikes, exposing both sides to the possibility of escalation. The Second Lebanon War began after a Hezbollah ambush killed five Israeli soldiers in 2006, unintentionally pulling Israel’s attention from a military operation in Gaza. Nasrallah likely hopes to avoid a repeat. 

“There is always the possibility that they may push Israeli patience too far,” Daoud said. “They are playing with fire. But I think what they’re trying to do is basically walk this fine line between harassing Israel and not incurring the brunt of a full Israeli retaliation.” 

Dividing IDF forces between two fronts without provoking an all-out war would enable Hezbollah to slow Israel’s advance into Gaza to Jerusalem’s potential detriment. The longer the war drags on, the more likely it is the international community will be able to impose a ceasefire on Israel that allows for Hamas’ survival. Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general, articulated this goal outright in an interview with NBC News this week. “Hezbollah participates for the sake of lowering the pressure on Gaza,” he said. 

And if granted a reprieve from the fighting, Hamas has been open about what it plans to do: “a second, a third, a fourth” October 7, Ghazi Hamad, a member of Hamas’ political bureau, recently said. Gazan terrorists killed 1,400 people—mostly civilians—and kidnapped, raped, and tortured many others in an October 7 raid into Israel. Asked whether the group’s goal was the total annihilation of the state of Israel, Hamad responded: “Yes, of course.”

Hezbollah and Iran have articulated similar objectives, leaving Israeli officials concerned about the possibility of a large surprise attack coming out of Lebanon. Such an onslaught could involve an attempt by Hezbollah fighters to invade northern Israel, massive aerial attacks on targets across the country, or both. Hezbollah currently boasts a force of some 20,000 full-time fighters and an arsenal of more than 150,000 mortars, rockets, and missiles capable of overrunning Israel’s air defense systems. Its growing stockpile of precision-guided munitions poses a particular threat to the country’s critical infrastructure. 

But such an overwhelming offensive would also rob the group’s ability to argue, however unconvincingly, that it acted in self-defense, risking both full Israeli retaliation and the loss of Hezbollah’s support base at home. It’s a chance Iran may be unwilling to take, even to save its other proxy in Hamas. Hezbollah, in addition to furthering the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary goals in Lebanon, serves as an important military buffer between Israel and Iran. Its fighters are well-armed, combat-capable, and under the near-direct control of Tehran.

“Ultimately, they don’t want to waste their Hezbollah card,” Daoud said. “That’s Iran’s star proxy, its most loyal extension.”

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