Caught out by its own propaganda

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah during a video speech on 3 November 2023
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addressed his supporters via video, describing the major attack by Hamas on 7 October as "one hundred percent Palestinian" (image: Mohamed Azakir/REUTERS)

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has a penchant for using strong words. His terrorist organisation has no interest, however, in the Israeli war escalating uncontrollably

By Bente Scheller

Just under four weeks after Hamas' barbaric attacks on Israel, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, issued his first public statement. In his eagerly awaited Friday address on 3 November, he didn't stint on the anticipated propaganda platitudes and cynical distortions of the truth; heaped praise on himself for the fact that Hezbollah are engaging Israeli forces on the northern border and described Hamas' atrocities as "acts of heroism". But, he added, the attacks were "100 percent Palestinian".

What he didn't say: that the "axis of resistance", as Nasrallah refers to the declared enemies of Israel and at the helm of which he likes to see himself, was now in motion and going on the attack. He only repeated the previous words of the Iranian leadership: although they support Hamas politically and financially, they had nothing to do with the 7 October attacks. Nasrallah said these were planned "in secret".

Assuming no responsibility whatsoever for what is happening may well be a calculated political move. In view of Israel's violent counteroffensive, afforded unqualified support by the U.S. and European governments, neither Tehran nor Hezbollah are likely to want to put their heads any further over the parapet at this particular moment in time.

Lebanon – Beirut: Speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on 3 November 2023
Thousands of supporters gathered in the south of the Lebanese capital Beirut on 3 November 2023 to watch the Hezbollah leader's video message (image: Mohamed Azakir/REUTERS)

The drastic retaliation was not anticipated

But there is mounting evidence that Hamas did indeed act on its own volition. And that Hamas was itself surprised at how ill-prepared Israeli forces were for the brutal massacres; which would in turn explain why Israel's drastic retaliation wasn't anticipated by Hezbollah. If the plan had been, coordinated by Iran, to confront Israel with full military force, then Hezbollah would have been expected to simultaneously open a second front.

Meanwhile the pressure on Hezbollah is huge: the group derives a significant portion of its domestic political self-justification from its fight against Israel. Hezbollah describes this as "resistance" and claims this is a crucial role played far beyond Lebanon. Since at the time of his address, Hamas was already talking about more than 9,000 deaths in the Gaza Strip, there were very real fears that Nasrallah would now declare the feared "conflagration" in the Middle East. That he desisted from doing so, shows that behind the frequently full-bodied statements, conduct within this conflict has far more shades to it.

The Hamas-Hezbollah relationship has been etched with discord and mistrust since Hamas positioned itself against the Syrian regime in 2021 – and thereby also against Hezbollah and Iran, intent at keeping their ally Bashar al-Assad in power at all costs. While Hezbollah defended the dictator Assad against his own rebellious populace, Assad had the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, Yarmouk, bombed to smithereens.

Too valuable to Tehran

In 2017, in financial dire straits and under new leadership, Hamas made a U-turn and smoothed over relations with Hezbollah and Iran. Both organisations are of differing importance to the regime in Tehran: as a militant Palestinian organisation directly on Israel's southern border, Hamas feeds Iranian propaganda and therefore receives financial support. 

But for the major wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, Hezbollah was the military playmaker that built up its gigantic network of militias and brought Sunni metropolises like Aleppo in Syria or Mosul in Iraq under the control of Shia rulers in Tehran. The direct geographical proximity to Israel, combined with a huge, technically sophisticated weapons arsenal makes it a dangerous opponent even for Israeli forces. Since its engagement in Syria, Hezbollah has more experience of ground combat than any other armed group in the region.

For the Iranian regime, Hezbollah plays a central role in relation to Israel: it represents enough of a deterrent to prevent Israel from attacking Iranian nuclear plants. This clearly makes it far too valuable for Tehran to jeopardise it now for the aftermath of an uncoordinated attack by Hamas.

It is now time for Hezbollah to be gauged on its ripe rhetoric. On 23 October, a date heavy with symbolism – it was the 40th anniversary of the Hezbollah attack on a U.S. base in Beirut killing 241 Americans – Nasrallah met with representatives of Hamas. Not to follow Hamas' ever-louder calls for a "unification of battlefields", but to discuss the "next steps" and emphasise the general gravity of the situation. The exchange of fire, mostly involving mortar shells, between Israeli forces and Hezbollah may also sound like war. It also looks like war, but it is still happening within the framework of controlled retaliation of the kind that has been going on for years.

Assad's military survival depends on Iran and Hezbollah

While both sides, Hezbollah and Israel, each express their desire to annihilate the other, they are demonstrably aware of the price of an attack that transgresses the invisible red lines. 

Israel would have to reckon with salvos of rockets overwhelming its missile defence system and hitting targets across the country with devastating consequences. Hezbollah claims its attacks on Israeli targets in the year 2000 forced Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon after 28 years. Almost 1,200 people in Lebanon died in Israeli air strikes following the abduction of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah in 2006. The indiscriminate destruction of infrastructure dealt a severe blow to the country's economy.

Since then, both sides have been anxious to avoid rampant escalation. Informal rules include endangering human life as little as possible. Hezbollah prefers to attack sparsely populated areas.  After recent skirmishes in the city of Kiryat Shmona in northern Israel, in which two people were injured, Israel ordered the evacuation of the area. It is also not unusual for the IDF to give Hezbollah command posts advance warning of any military action.

All this is no guarantee that a regional escalation will not occur. Especially if the situation in Jerusalem or the West Bank should worsen, both sides could step up their response. Then, an extreme escalation could happen within minutes: if both sides expect a frontal attack, if Israel hits Hezbollah's missile bases and Hezbollah intends to fire those missiles.

But before the two military heavyweights lock horns directly, another country could be used as the arena for heightened confrontation: Syria. Whereas the Syrian dictator used to have Lebanon fire on Israel or fight its troops there, the balance of power has now been reversed. Assad's military survival depends on Iran and Hezbollah. In Beirut today, there is already semi-open talk of conducting attacks on Israel from Syria. Conversely, Israel has for years been attacking Iranian-controlled militia and Hezbollah supply routes in Syria. Israel has bombed targets in Syria hundreds of times since 2011 – without consequence.

Bente Scheller

© 2023

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Bente Scheller has headed the Middle East and North Africa department of the Heinrich Boell Foundation (hbs) in Berlin since 2019. From 2012 to 2019, she was head of the hbs Middle East regional office in Beirut, Lebanon. Prior to that, she headed the office in Afghanistan and worked as a counter-terrorism officer at the German embassy in Damascus from 2002 to 2004. She completed her doctorate on Syrian foreign policy at the FU Berlin.