As Israeli troops move deeper south into Gaza with the goal of destroying Hamas, the world is closely watching what happens on Israel’s northern border, where its forces have engaged for weeks in intense clashes with another, more powerful foe, Hezbollah.
Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, has found itself in an awkward position since its ally Hamas launched a deadly, surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7. Now, after years of spoiling for a fight with Israel, Hezbollah is torn between maintaining its credibility as a defender of the Palestinians, and its hesitation to get involved in a full-scale war.
Throughout its 40-year history, Hezbollah has defined itself as a resistance movement dedicated to protecting Lebanon, battling Israel and backing the Palestinians’ quest for statehood. Yet after three days of Israeli ground incursions into Gaza and as the Palestinian death toll climbs over 8,000, Hezbollah’s response has so far been worrying but restrained.
Hezbollah’s balancing act speaks to its outsize role in Lebanon, a small, dysfunctional country on Israel’s northern border. It is Lebanon’s most powerful political and military force, meaning that not even the Lebanese government can control its decisions, even when they affect the whole country. Hezbollah is also the most powerful node in a network of Iran-backed militias across the Middle East, which includes Hamas, meaning that its calculations often transcend Lebanon’s borders.
But as Israel’s air force levels whole swaths of Gaza, can Hezbollah maintain its reputation as a vanguard of the so-called axis of resistance movement if sits on the sidelines of the conflict?
Hezbollah’s last major war with Israel was in 2006, and the group now has more sophisticated weapons and cadres of battle-hardened militants than it had then. But so far, it has engaged only in limited skirmishes with Israeli troops. It could squeeze Israel by expanding its attacks on the country’s north while a large part of the Israeli military is tied up in Gaza, Western and Arab officials say, but for now the group is holding back because of domestic and regional calculations.
In Lebanon, there is little appetite for war, as the country suffers through a crippling economic crisis. Regionally, if Hezbollah opened a second front, it could prompt the United States to come to Israel’s aid.
“All of Lebanon, including Hezbollah — we don’t want a war,” said Lebanon’s foreign minister, Abdallah Bou Habib, who is in regular contact with Hezbollah. “There is Western pressure on the Lebanese government to apply pressure on Hezbollah not to go to war. We have dialogued with Hezbollah and my impression is that they won’t start a war. But will Israel start a war? We need equal pressure on them, too.”
American officials have privately urged Israeli leaders not to launch a major strike on Hezbollah that could plunge the region into all-out bloodshed.
“We don’t seek an escalation in the north,” Ron Dermer, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, said at a news conference on Monday. “Hezbollah may decide they’re going to escalate, and we’re going to have to respond and we’re prepared for that.”
“We hope they don’t make that mistake,” Mr. Dermer added. “They made a mistake, I think, in 2006. I think the leader of Hezbollah said if he knew what the response was going to be, he never would have started it. Believe me, the response now will make what happened in 2006 look like child’s play.”
But, Mr. Bou Habib said, if the carnage in Gaza worsens, or Israel escalates its attacks in Lebanon, Hezbollah may feel more pressure to respond.
“If the situation gets really bad in Gaza, it will be really bad for the whole region — not just Lebanon and Israel,” Mr. Bou Habib said.
Hezbollah, like Hamas, has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and other countries.
Some Hamas leaders have suggested that they expect more help from Hezbollah.
Khaled Meshaal, the political leader of Hamas until 2017, said that the group’s regional allies could contribute more to the war effort.
“When such a heinous crime is perpetrated against Gaza, greater things are certainly needed,” Mr. Meshaal said in a recent interview with Al Arabiya, a news channel. “But we should not single out Lebanon and Hezbollah.”
While Hezbollah’s precise capabilities remain unclear, it can clearly cause damage inside of Israel. The group is believed to have an arsenal of up to 150,000 rockets, as well as precision guided missiles capable of striking sensitive targets.
“Hezbollah today is in a position to inflict pain on Israel if they choose to enter this war,” said Maha Yahya, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
“The range of response Hezbollah can have is pretty versatile,” Ms. Yahya said. “They don’t need to do a ground incursion into Israel. With Iran, they could start using the Syrian front and there could be attacks outside of Israel, not necessarily inside Israel against Israeli interests. That has happened before.”
The Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has been unusually quiet since the Oct. 7 attacks that Hamas launched into Israel, killing some 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and taking more than 230 civilians and soldiers hostage. Israel has responded with a vast bombing campaign on Gaza, a blockade on fuel and a ground invasion. Mr. Nasrallah is scheduled to address his followers on Friday, leaving the region on edge.
A Lebanese official who speaks with Hezbollah said that the militants have said their red line for intervention is the destruction of Hamas, and that they will enter the war if the group is on its last legs. But Israel’s stated goal is the destruction of Hamas.
Over the last three weeks, Hezbollah and Israel have rocketed and shelled each other across the Israel-Lebanon border. The clashes are the most intense since 2006, and have forced tens of thousands of people on both sides to flee.
A regional diplomat in Beirut said that Hezbollah appeared to be restraining its attacks, which peaked in intensity last week, to avoid sparking a broader war. The group has been quietly telling its partners that it believes Hamas is in a good position and does not yet need Hezbollah’s help, the diplomat said.
Iran has spent years building up a network of loyal and interconnected militias across the Middle East, including in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, to help it project power, influence the domestic politics of Arab countries and deter Israel from strikes on Iran and its nuclear program. Many of these groups have received training from Hezbollah and have already joined the regional fight in limited ways.
But as the Middle East’s most skilled militant group, Hezbollah is Iran’s most valuable chip to play against Israel and one it intends to save, Ms. Yahya said. The stakes for getting involved are high for Hezbollah, she said, given the two U.S. aircraft carriers stationed in the Mediterranean, which could strike the group.
Despite Israel’s air force and superior munitions, its army could struggle on the ground against Hezbollah’s well-trained guerrillas, experts said.
“Israel is still a military that is organized to defeat poorly trained conscript forces in Egypt or Syria, like they did in the 1970s. It is not a military that is organized to fight well-trained and motivated militias like Hezbollah and Hamas,” said Andrew Exum, the former deputy assistant defense secretary for Middle East policy from 2015 to 2016.
At home, Hezbollah is increasingly unpopular outside of its religious Shiite Muslim base. Many Lebanese see Hezbollah as part of the corrupt political class that has led the country into economic ruin. And they have stopped believing the group’s rhetoric that its arms serve to defend Lebanon, instead seeing the group as pursuing its own agenda and endangering the nation.
None of those considerations, however, could stop the group if it decided to launch a war with Israel.
Hezbollah may be hoping that Israel’s actions in Gaza and the large civilian death toll there will stir anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment across the Middle East, reinvigorating support for armed action against Israel.
“What Israel is doing today in Gaza is actually benefiting Iran in a significant way,” said Ms. Yahya, the Carnegie director. “It will benefit from the global backlash against Israel and the growing anti-U.S. sentiment because of Washington’s blanket support for Israel.”
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.