Hezbollah and Hamas: A Strategic Assessment

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Sunday 22 October 2023

By Nasrin Akhter

As the drums of war beat ever louder with Israel amassing hundreds of thousands of troops and tanks along the border with Gaza and ordering the evacuation of Israeli settlements along a 2km border zone with Lebanon,[1] in preparation for an imminent ground invasion of Gaza in response to Hamas’ unprecedented air, land and sea incursion of Israel on the 7 October under Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, the question now on many people’s mind is whether Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite militia, will intervene on the side of its resistance ally, risking a wider regional conflagration. 

Despite perhaps Hezbollah’s initial reluctance to be dragged into a wider war not at a time of its own choosing,[2] the movement was quick to express its moral outrage at Israel’s disproportionate use of force in response to Hamas’ October raid, declaring that Hezbollah would ‘not abandon the Palestinian people’ and would not hesitate to ‘accelerate the opening of a [second] front in Lebanon’ if Israel ‘continues its scorched earth policy’ in Gaza.[3] Going beyond the moral condemnations expressed by Arab leaders elsewhere,[4] Hezbollah also upped the ante, firing missiles into northern Israel in a series of tit-for-tat escalatory clashes,[5] and unleashed Palestinian militant factions from across the border in Lebanon in a show of solidarity with the Hamas resistance.

But these strikes have so far been limited and contained, and well within the established ‘rules of engagement,’ with Hezbollah yet to heed the call by the head of Hamas’ political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, to fully engage in fighting in order to liberate the Holy Land; end Israeli occupation; free Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails; and defend the Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, in what he called a ‘rendezvous with a great victory and a dazzling triumph.’[6]

Perhaps weighing heavily on Hezbollah’s mind is the recent memory of the 34-day war with Israel in July 2006, during which Israel first put in place its strategy of the wholesale destruction of civilian infrastructure, laying waste to schools, hospitals and roads, in a devastating bombing campaign under the so-called ‘Dahiya Doctrine’ in Beirut’s southern suburbs, the scale and intensity of which took even the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, by surprise.

 While the movement has since improved its weapons capability, developing long range missiles capable of striking almost anywhere in Israel, and battle-hardened after having gained valuable combat experience in urban warfare in the conflict in neighbouring Syria, Hezbollah is all too aware that with Israel armed to the teeth with all the latest weapons and military technology supplied by its US ally, any subsequent round of fighting between the two sides would only inflict far greater damage on Lebanon, and risk undoing the substantial gains that Hezbollah has made for its Shi’ite constituency on the domestic front.[7]

 With the country still reeling from an economic crisis and the near collapse of its economy, there may also be little appetite from many within Lebanon for a wider war. As the US scrambled to send a second aircraft carrier to the region on Saturday (14 October), and doubles down on its military assistance to Israel,[8] with the US President, Joe Biden, pushing through Congress a $106 billion aid package for its allies (18 October)[9]  – coming on top of the $3.8 billion in annual aid that Israel already receives from the US – this could also act as a deterrent to the movement.  

 But with anger mounting on the Arab street at the extent of Israeli atrocities, which only seem to be encouraged by the West, with politicians on both sides of the political divide in the UK turning a blind eye to Israel’s consistent violations of international humanitarian law,[10] and the US vetoing a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ‘pause’ in the conflict for the delivery of humanitarian aid,[11] Hezbollah can ill-afford to sit on the sidelines without substantial costs to its own resistance credentials.

Amidst scenes of utter devastation and cruelty with Israel’s punishing blockade of Gaza, starving the 2.2 million Palestinian population – 50 percent of whom are under the age of 15 – of fuel, food and water in one of the most densely populated places in the world, Hezbollah is under enormous pressure to respond.

This pressure is only increasing with every passing atrocity, including the bombing of the Al-Ahli Al-Arabi Baptist hospital on Monday (16 October), that killed almost 500 – the single deadliest attack on Gaza since the conflict began; an Israeli airstrike on a convoy of civilians seeking safe passage on the Salah-al-Din road (13 October);[12] the forcible displacement of 1.1 million Palestinians from their homes in northern Gaza following Israel’s illegal eviction order in an attempt to ethnically cleanse the territory of its entire Palestinian population (13 October);[13] and the confirmed use of white phosphorous bombs,[14] with Israel dropping more bombs on Gaza in a single week than the total number of bombs that ‘the US was dropping in Afghanistan in a year’[15] – raising the Palestinian death toll to  well over 4,000 at the latest count.[16]

But although any intervention by Hezbollah on the side of its Palestinian ally would no doubt improve the movement’s image in the wider Arab and Islamic world, seriously damaged by Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict on the side of the minority-led Alawite regime,[17] in the coming days and weeks, much will depend on how Iran, Hezbollah’s principal patron and sponsor, perceives the strategic situation.[18]

 Having already scuppered Saudi Arabia’s plans for normalisation with Israel, with pro-Palestinian demonstrations across the Arab world putting the brakes on Israel’s integration in the region, Iran may well feel that many of its strategic objectives have already been achieved. Indeed, Iran may have little interest in embroiling Hezbollah – the only successful export of the Islamic revolution – in a long and protracted war, the outcome of which would be uncertain,[19] and would no doubt be a considerable drain on Iran’s resources, at a time when the Islamic regime is battling with the rise of popular unrest on the domestic front.

With Israel, however, bent on exacting retribution for the 7 October attack, and seeking to eliminate Hamas completely, described pejoratively by the far-right Israeli Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant, as ‘human animals’[20] – in possibly the first step towards ridding the region of the entire Axis of Resistance[21] – Iran may have little choice but to activate its Hezbollah ally, in what could be an existential struggle for the movement’s very survival.

Much remains uncertain. What is clear, however, is that as long as the West continues to allow Israel to act with impunity, it is the Palestinian population, caught in the crossfire, that will inevitably continue to suffer.          

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2023/10/16/world/middleeast/israel-lebanon-border-tensions.html

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2023/10/13/world/middleeast/hamas-iran-israel-attack.html

[3] https://www.lemonde.fr/en/international/article/2023/10/11/after-hamas-attack-hezbollah-threatens-escalation-in-northern-israel_6165388_4.html

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/oct/11/arab-ministers-urge-israel-to-resume-talks-on-two-state-solution

[5] https://edition.cnn.com/middleeast/live-news/israel-news-hamas-war-10-14-23/h_4d4c691152582b7b1e887671827d8cbc

[6] https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20231009-haniyeh-outlines-context-and-objectives-of-hamas-operation-al-aqsa-flood/

[7] https://arabcenterdc.org/resource/the-unlikelihood-of-a-hezbollah-israel-war/

[8] https://edition.cnn.com/2023/10/14/middleeast/us-aircraft-carrier-eisenhower-israel-gaza-intl-hnk-ml/index.html

[9] https://edition.cnn.com/2023/10/19/politics/biden-oval-office-speech-israel-ukraine/index.html

[10] https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20231011-uks-starmer-says-israel-has-right-to-impose-siege-on-gaza/

[11] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/oct/18/us-vetoes-un-call-for-humanitarian-pause-and-corridors-into-gaza

[12] https://twitter.com/amnesty/status/1713631257005830164

[13] https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/10/16/why-israels-gaza-evacuation-order-so-alarming

[14] https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/10/12/israel-white-phosphorus-used-gaza-lebanon

[15] https://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/2/8/510177/World/Region/Israel-drops-,-bombs-on-Gaza-in-less-than-a-week.aspx#:~:text=%E2%80%9CIsrael%20is%20dropping%20in%20less,war%20crimes%20investigator%20in%20Libya.

[16] https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-briefing-notes/2023/10/latest-occupied-palestinian-territoryisrael

[17] https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2016/0108/Starvation-in-Madaya-How-Hezbollah-role-in-siege-could-hurt-it-in-Lebanon

[18] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/oct/16/israel-invades-iran-intervenes-war-global

[19] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/oct/20/iranian-official-in-uk-warns-of-danger-of-israel-hamas-escalation#:~:text=The%20war%20in%20the%20Middle,UK%20interests%20would%20be%20affected

[20] https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/israel-defence-minister-human-animals-gaza-palestine_uk_65245ebae4b0a32c15bfe6b6   

[21] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/hezbollah-attack-israel-lebanon-threat-war-2023-rkgvbv622

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