What is the role expected of Hezbollah in the Gaza war?

By Elijah J. Magnier:

Hezbollah has historically been a significant player in the broader Middle East conflict, particularly in its confrontations with Israel. Its stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is well known, as it has always expressed solidarity with the Palestinian cause. However, predicting specific actions or decisions by Hezbollah is speculative. While Hezbollah can open a northern front against Israel from Lebanon, this would be a significant escalation. Such a decision depends on broader regional dynamics, including Hezbollah’s relationship with Iran and Syria and domestic considerations within Lebanon. Lebanon has its own set of complex political and economic challenges, and any decision by Hezbollah to escalate its involvement in an external conflict would have to consider the potential domestic repercussions, mainly on the society that embraced it.

Hezbollah’s engagement in the Gaza war

Since 8 October, the Lebanese-Israeli border has become a hotspot for military confrontations between Hezbollah and the Israeli occupation army. The area stretches 100-120 km from Naqoura on the Mediterranean coast to the disputed Shebaa Farms and the occupied Golan Heights, has been the scene of intense skirmishes.

Hezbollah’s operations have targeted 42 Israeli military installations, including barracks, radar stations and electronic spying posts. The group claims to have hit these positions less than 150 times with laser-guided missiles. On the other hand, Israel has reported casualties, with 120 soldiers either killed or wounded in the confrontations.

The intensity of the conflict has prompted Israel to deploy three of its military divisions and its elite special forces to the border. These forces are tasked explicitly with countering Hezbollah’s elite al-Ridwan unit, known for its prowess in guerrilla warfare. The presence of al-Ridwan has been a significant concern for Israel, leading to the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from settlements along the border. This evacuation effectively means that large swathes of once-populated areas are now under military occupation.

Hezbollah’s stance and war manoeuvre have forced Israel to split its military focus. With the northern front now active, Israel must remain vigilant against possible breakthroughs by Hezbollah special forces. The group has admitted losing 50 of its fighters in these confrontations. This escalation marks a significant shift in the region’s dynamics, with both sides demonstrating their military capabilities and resolve. 

Ongoing tensions along the Lebanese-Israeli border have escalated to unprecedented levels. More than 60,000 Israeli settlers have been evacuated from areas adjacent to the wall, a move that underlines the seriousness of the perceived threat. The evacuation is not unilateral. Hezbollah on the Lebanese side has also moved thousands of its residents to safer locations. This mutual evacuation indicates the anticipation of a large-scale conflict, and both appear to take every precaution to minimise civilian casualties.

Interestingly, despite the hostilities, there seems to be an unspoken rule of engagement. So far, both sides have primarily targeted military installations, avoiding large-scale civilian casualties. This restraint, especially on the part of a non-state actor like Hezbollah, is remarkable. It suggests maturity and strategic thinking that seeks to avoid the international repercussions of civilian casualties.

Hezbollah’s use of precision-guided missiles, even against seemingly insignificant targets such as communications equipment, sends a clear message. It’s not just about destroying the mark; it’s about demonstrating its capabilities. Using such advanced weaponry against smaller targets implies good training and a significant stockpile of these missiles, suggesting a willingness to engage in a protracted conflict. This ‘show of force’ acts as a deterrent, signalling to Israel the potential cost of a full-scale invasion or attack.

The situation is a classic example of the delicate balance of power in modern warfare. Even non-state actors, with the right resources and strategy, can impose a state of deterrence on established military forces. The coming days will determine how this balance plays out and whether the current tensions escalate into a wider conflict.

Hezbollah’s involvement in the current conflict has been strategic and measured. The group has set clear limits to its involvement, which Israel seems to recognise, probably to avoid opening a second front in the north while it is already engaged in Gaza. The dynamics of the conflict in Gaza, especially with Hamas and Islamic Jihad maintaining their firepower and readiness, don’t require Hezbollah’s intervention from the north at this time.

The ambiguity of Israel’s objectives in its ground invasion further complicates the situation. While Israel’s initial goals may not have been explicitly stated, they may evolve based on the realities on the ground, especially if the Israeli occupation forces suffer significant casualties.

Israel’s decision to withhold its ultimate objectives in the ground invasion of Gaza is a strategic move that allows for flexibility in its military operations and keeps its adversaries uncertain. By not revealing whether it intends to occupy the entire Gaza Strip, Israel maintains an element of unpredictability, which can be a tactical advantage in warfare.

Speculation about the administration of Gaza post-occupation suggests that Israel is considering long-term implications and scenarios. However, a complete occupation of Gaza would be a significant escalation with profound political, humanitarian and security implications. Such a move would not only intensify the conflict within Gaza but could also broaden the scope of the war by drawing in other regional actors.

Indeed, by keeping its objectives ambiguous, Israel is pursuing a strategy of unpredictability. This approach can serve several purposes:

Tactical advantage: By not telegraphing its intentions, Israel can keep Hamas and other groups off balance, making it harder for them to prepare and respond effectively.

Strategic flexibility: By not committing to a specific endgame, Israel can adjust its operations based on the evolving situation on the ground, whether due to international pressure, military developments or other factors.

Psychological impact: Uncertainty can have a psychological effect on both the leadership and the general population of Gaza, creating confusion and potentially sowing division between the people and the Palestinian resistance.

Deterrence: Unpredictability can act as a deterrent to other regional actors, such as Hezbollah, making them wary of opening a new front without explicit knowledge of Israel’s intentions in Gaza.

But there are risks to this strategy. The lack of a clear objective can lead to mission creep, where the military operation expands beyond its original scope. It can also lead to international criticism if the process is perceived as aimless or overly aggressive without clear justification.

Hezbollah, in particular, would be watching the situation closely. A complete occupation of Gaza could be perceived as a direct threat, prompting Hezbollah to open a second front from the north. This would stretch Israel’s military capabilities and could lead to a much larger and more complex regional conflict.

Sayyed Nasrallah’s Speech and Hezbollah’s Position

The call by Hezbollah’s secretary general for Friday’s large gathering in several regions of Lebanon is telling. Organising such a massive event, especially in the current volatile environment, suggests a degree of confidence on the part of Hezbollah. They believe that Israel has been sufficiently deterred and would not risk targeting such a gathering to ensure the safety of the participants. The call for public group indicates that Hezbollah is not yet at all-out war with Israel but limited to an exchange of clashes on the borders thus far.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of Hezbollah, has a history of making speeches that are both strategic and symbolic, often addressing regional developments, especially those concerning Israel and the Palestinian cause. Here’s a possible outline of what Nasrallah might address in an upcoming speech:

The Achievements of the Palestinian Resistance: Nasrallah would likely praise the resilience and achievements of the Palestinian resistance against Israel, highlighting the surprising results despite the vast disparity in military capabilities.

Highlighting Israel’s fragility: By referring to the quick successes of the Palestinian resistance against the “Gaza Division”, Nasrallah may aim to portray the Israeli army as far from being invincible as it appears, even with its advanced war machinery and how the “Gaza Division” was defeated in just a few hours on 7 October. Moreover, the Palestinian resistance twice attacked the Erez crossing behind the enemy lines in special operation attacks, while Israel manoeuvred its mechanical units and bombed the civilian population.

The settlers’ insecurity: Sayyed Nasrallah could be referring to the insecurity of the immigrants in the absence of trust in their army and the failure of the government to provide security to stay in Israel due to the heroic act of the Palestinian resistance.

US and EU support for Israel: Nasrallah was able to criticise the unwavering support Israel receives from US and EU leaders, presenting it as a stark contrast to the plight of the Palestinians.

The plight of Palestinian civilians: Nasrallah is likely to emphasise the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, highlighting the high number of civilian casualties, particularly among children and women. He may argue that Israel’s strategy is to avoid confrontation with Hamas and instead resort to carpet bombing residential areas.

Statement by Israeli Defence Minister: Reference to Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant’s statement that “Israel has no appetite for war” would be used to underline Israel’s reluctance to engage in the broader conflict.

Fear of a second front: The deployment of US aircraft carriers to the Middle East and the influx of US Special Forces troops into Israel could be presented as evidence of Israel’s fear of opening a second front, especially against a formidable force like Hezbollah. Hezbollah has attracted 3 Israeli divisions on its borders, forcing Israel to divide its army for fear of having to deal with two fronts (Gaza and Lebanon).

Diplomatic messages: Nasrallah could mention the diplomatic channels used by the US to communicate with Iran and Lebanon through intermediaries, such as the French Foreign Minister’s meeting with the Lebanese Prime Minister, to highlight international efforts to prevent Hezbollah from opening a new front. The US has sent several messages to Iran stressing its lack of appetite for war and urging Iran not to intervene against Israel.

Border clashes: By listing Hezbollah attacks on Israeli targets along Lebanon’s borders, Nasrallah would aim to demonstrate Hezbollah’s capabilities and the deterrence it has established against Israel.

Fighting in enemy territory: Highlighting Hezbollah’s strategic shift to take the fight into Israeli territory, in contrast to Israel’s historical approach of fighting on foreign soil.

The negotiating table: Pointing out the inevitability of negotiations, emphasising that Israel will eventually have to negotiate the release of prisoners in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

Arab states’ position on the conflict: Sayyed Nasrallah could express his disappointment and criticism of Arab states for their perceived inaction and inability to exert sufficient pressure on Israel to stop its military operations in Gaza. He could contrast the bold steps taken by countries like Bolivia, which severed diplomatic ties and expelled the Israeli ambassador, with the more passive or even collaborative stance of countries like the UAE and Morocco. Nasrallah could stress that these Arab nations, with their historical and cultural ties to Palestine, have a moral and regional responsibility to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Their failure to do so, or their open normalisation of relations with Israel, could be portrayed as a betrayal of the Palestinian people and the broader Arab identity. This point could serve to underline the changing geopolitics of the region and the perceived abandonment of the Palestinian cause by some traditional allies.

Raise the war ceiling: Warning Israel of the potential consequences of further incursions into Gaza, suggesting that such actions could draw Hezbollah into the conflict. It also points out that regional allies from Syria, Iraq and Yemen could also play a role in defending Palestine if the conflict escalates.

Hezbollah, Israel and the global implications

In the intricate web of Middle Eastern geopolitics, the potential for confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah is a scenario fraught with danger, not only for the immediate actors but also for the global superpowers.

Israel, with its technologically advanced military, would undoubtedly need a significant stockpile of ammunition and the total commitment of its armed forces to confront Hezbollah, a group known for its strategic acumen and formidable arsenal. Such a confrontation would likely result in high casualties on both sides, given Hezbollah’s ability to launch precision rocket attacks deep into Israeli territory. The Israeli home front, often seen as the nation’s Achilles’ heel, could suffer unprecedented destruction, testing the resilience of its civilian population and infrastructure.

But the consequences of such a conflict would reverberate far beyond the borders of Israel and Lebanon. US military installations and assets in the region would likely become targets, underscoring the vulnerability of American forces stationed in what is arguably the world’s most volatile region. Such attacks would not only challenge the perception of the US as the dominant global power but could also draw it deeper into a conflict it may be reluctant to escalate.

This scenario would inevitably attract the attention of other global players, notably Russia. Given its interests in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Russia would view any large-scale destabilisation with concern. At the United Nations, Moscow would likely use its platform to warn Washington that it would not stand by and watch the Middle East descend into chaos. Such a warning would underscore the broader geopolitical stakes at play and suggest the potential for the conflict to spiral into a more significant international confrontation. Already, Russia and China have sent necessary military reinforcements to West Asia following the US’s excess military presence in the Mediterranean.

For Hezbollah, widely engaging in such a battle may seem advantageous, especially if it believes it can inflict significant damage on Israel and draw international attention to the Palestinian cause when Israel is fragile. 

However, the group’s leadership, particularly Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, appears to be proceeding cautiously. The latest Israeli incursion into Gaza, which began only a week ago, has added another layer of complexity to the regional dynamic. Nasrallah, known for his strategic foresight, may be weighing the immediate benefits of joining the fray against the longer-term implications for Hezbollah and the wider resistance axis.

In this high-stakes game of geopolitical chess, every move has consequences, and the decisions made by key players in the coming days and weeks could shape the trajectory of the Middle East for years to come.

Hezbollah’s Strategic Calculus: The Tale of Two Bulls and the Implications for the Middle East

In the intricate dance of Middle Eastern geopolitics, allegories often provide a clearer understanding of the motivations and strategies of key players. One fable that resonates deeply with Hezbollah’s leadership is the story of the white and black bulls and the lion.

In this fable, a hungry lion on the prowl targets two white and black bulls. Recognising the strength in their unity, the bulls initially unite and successfully repel the lion’s advances. However, the cunning and strategic lion approaches the white bull with a proposal: allow him to devour the black bull, and in return, he will spare the white one. The white bull, seeing an opportunity to save himself, agrees. But as soon as the black bull is gone, the lion, still driven by hunger, breaks his promise and turns on the white bull, sealing his fate. The moment the black bull was devoured, the white bull’s fate was sealed.

For Hezbollah, this allegory is a stark reminder of the dangers and the potential consequences of sacrificing a partner. The fall of Gaza, in their view, would be akin to the devouring of the black bull. Suppose Gaza’s resistance is weakened or neutralised. In that case, it is only a matter of time before the forces that seek its subjugation turn their attention to Hezbollah, the white bull in this scenario.

Hezbollah’s leadership believes that the loss of Gaza’s resistance capabilities would embolden Israel and possibly lead to a broader coalition, backed by the US both financially and militarily, aimed at neutralising Hezbollah’s power in the region. Such a coalition would seek to dismantle the group’s formidable arsenal and diminish its influence in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East.

In this context, the fate of Gaza is not just a matter of solidarity for Hezbollah but a strategic imperative. The group recognises that the strength of the resistance axis lies in its unity. Any weakening of one component, whether in Gaza, Lebanon or elsewhere, has repercussions for the whole.

As the situation in Gaza evolves, Hezbollah’s decisions will be influenced by immediate tactical considerations and the broader strategic landscape. The tale of the two bulls serves as a cautionary reminder: in the high-stakes game of regional geopolitics, short-term gains can lead to long-term vulnerabilities.

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With over 35 years’ experience in war zones across the Middle East and Africa, I write exclusive news and analysis on the world’s most complex conflicts.