Since Hamas’s attack on October 7, the Israeli retaliation has unleashed staggering levels of destruction – with the Palestinian death toll now exceeding 10,000. The US has hurried two airplane carriers and several destroyers to the region, along with special military personnel, to bolster its ally and ward off any possible intervention from Iran or Hezbollah. The latter has been engaged in tit-for-tat hostilities with Israel on its northern border, which runs for a hundred kilometers from the Naqoura in the west to the Shebaa farms in the east. This has forced the Israeli army to keep a high number of professional units stationed in the area, as well as maintaining air-force readiness and anti-missile defences. Whether this localized conflict will escalate is now one of the primary questions for the region and the wider world.
Far from being a puppet of Tehran, Hezbollah must be understood as a powerful political party with a strong militia and a significant influence in several countries beyond its native Lebanon – Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen. Its leadership and most of its rank-and-file consider themselves part of the transnational constellation that owes religious obedience to the Iranian Supreme Leader. But Hezbollah does not operate according to orders and fiats, and is itself a decision-maker in Iranian strategy in the Middle East. The final say on its policies comes from secretary general Hasan Nasrallah and his cadre. Their relation to Iran is that of partners, not auxiliaries.
Hamas, too, has a high degree of autonomy, and launched its attack based on its own political calculations rather those of Iran or Hezbollah. It decided that the policies pursued by the Israeli government and its settler population – indefinite occupation and gradual annexation – had reached a tipping point where inaction would prove fatal. This decision was rooted in a broader assessment of the geopolitical transformations taking place across the Middle East. Normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel was anticipated by the end of the year. A deal between Iran and the Americans was on the cards. The proposed India–Middle East–Europe Economic Corridor, which promises to reinforce the centrality of Gulf states to the global economy, was rapidly becoming a reality. In light of all of this, the ‘international community’ was poised to further marginalize the Palestinian cause and revive the PA as a pliable alternative to Hamas. Internal and external dynamics convinced the organization that it had to either act or accept a slow death.
It is almost certain that Hezbollah had no prior knowledge of the consequent attack. The Lebanese party agrees with Hamas on many issues, and has spent years assisting it with money, arms and tactical advice, yet their geopolitical positions are not always aligned (they were on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war, for example). It appears that Hamas’s act of desperation – to engineer a conflict with the aim of reactivating the Palestinian anticolonial struggle and maintaining their political relevance – will not have a straightforward domino effect on Hezbollah. At least not for the time being. By launching limited strikes across the border, Hezbollah is signalling its readiness to open a second front should the pulverization of Gaza reach a point that the party can no longer tolerate. Yet this restrained form of engagement also gives it the space to continually reassess the situation, consider its options and determine its next moves.
At present, the questions facing Nasrallah’s forces are these. Were they to enter a full-blown war with Israel (and possibly the US), would they be able to stop the Israeli invasion of Gaza and the massacre of tens of thousands of Palestinians? Would they risk decimating Lebanon and inflicting tremendous damage on Hezbollah’s support base? Would they lose thousands of fighters and most of their weapons? Would they jeopardize the accomplishments of the resistance axis in Syria, Iraq and Yemen? What would they stand to gain from this hazardous course of action? The answers are liable to change at any moment. The optimum strategy today might be defunct tomorrow. But as yet, it seems that this is Hamas’s war, not Hezbollah’s.
Hezbollah’s options – whether to maintain hostilities with Israel at their current level, escalate them or reduce them – are governed by three important variables. The first is the situation in Gaza. Israel wants to obliterate Hamas in toto, and has been given the green-light to commit genocide in pursuit of this goal, even though its chances of fulfilment are highly uncertain. If Hamas is able to drag out the fighting, inflict significant harm on the enemy and thwart an all-out Israeli victory, then Hezbollah will score major political points with minimal sacrifices, simply by keeping Israel distracted on its northern front. The party could thereby avoid the dangers of escalation and live to fight another war at a more propitious moment.
The second variable is Hezbollah’s power base in Lebanon, which, along with the majority of the Lebanese society, is supportive of the Palestinians but hesitant about a war with Israel. They know very well that, on top of having lost their savings in the 2019-20 Lebanese banking crisis, an Israeli assault would threaten their homes and what remains of their vital national infrastructure. Hezbollah is, understandably, reluctant to endanger and alienate this constituency. The final variable is Iran and its interests, including the diplomatic rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and the delicate negotiations with the Biden administration concerning its nuclear technology and the extent of US sanctions. The Iranian leadership knows that both of these would be upended by a major regional conflict – hence President Raisi’s cautious position and his continued lines of contact with the Saudi Crown Prince.
Yet as Israel’s killing machine mows down Palestinians by the thousands, each of these factors could change. If Hamas appears to be in existential danger, the calculus for Hezbollah may be different – since the loss of this ally could embolden Israel to target its Lebanese adversary next. As for the Lebanese people, it is unclear whether they will continue to prioritize their homes and assets amid the proliferating images of Palestinian body bags. Might they instead prove willing to suffer alongside the Palestinians? The Iranians, too, might have to look again at the balance between their immediate material interests and their nominal commitments to Palestinian liberation. Will they be able to sit face-to-face with US officials while the latter cheers on the immolation of Gaza? Wouldn’t this send the wrong signal to their other allies across the region – that Iranian support is fickle and unreliable?
If the situation in Gaza deteriorates to the point that Iran shelves its negotiations with the US, the Gulf states sour on Israel, and Hezbollah’s base becomes convinced that the party is not doing enough, then this could be a trigger for Hezbollah to escalate. Likewise, if Israel decides to target civilians in Lebanon and causes major casualties, Nasrallah cannot be expected to stand by. For Hezbollah, military intervention is always a political strategy rooted in the arithmetic of gains and losses and the complex field of allies and interests. Its next move will not be decided by Iranian influence or Islamist ideology, but by the demands of pragmatism.
Read on: Tariq Ali, ‘Midpoint in the Middle East?’, NLR 38.