On October 7th 2023, the Israel-Palestine conflict was launched back into global headlines when Hamas launched an attack on Israel, killing more than 1,200 Israelis and taking 200 more as hostages. In response, Israel engaged in a carpet bombing campaign in the Gaza Strip with, according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “The clear goal of destroying Hamas's military and governing capabilities.” (8)
The measures taken by Israel have gone beyond trying to merely destroy Hamas. As of the beginning of January 2024, over 22,000 Palestinians have been killed (25), hospitals, schools, homes and refugee camps have been bombed, and Gaza has been completely blocked from receiving humanitarian aid. Children and women account for 70% of the victims (25), and the vast amount of victims have been civilians. Throughout this, a few other regional actors - including the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon have launched attacks on Israel in “solidarity” with the people of Gaza.
The current situation unfolding in Gaza is at the forefront of the current news cycle and the disdain the Israeli government has for Hamas is well documented. However, there is another major player in this conflict that is possibly a bigger threat to the stability of the region as a whole and who concerns the Israeli state more than Hamas – Hezbollah.
Hezbollah is the most powerful armed non-state actor in the world, with an army of 15,000 to 20,000 active personnel, a statistic which may reach 100,000 fighters given their leader Hassan Nasrallah's claim that the group possess a reserve army. Hezbollah is battle hardened, having fought in Syria, Iraq and against Israel before. It has thousands of high-quality missiles, drones, guns and rockets that are far more powerful and accurate than Hamas's current arsenal.
The possibility of Hezbollah engaging in an all out conflict with Israel threatens to pull in other nations such as Iran and the USA, as well as posing a serious threat to the state of Israel far more than that of Hamas.
The Hezbollah Factor
Hezbollah (Party of God) is an organisation founded in Lebanon in 1982, following Israel's invasion of Lebanon. It has a political wing which holds seats in the Lebanese parliament, as well as a paramilitary wing whose strength is stronger than that of the Lebanese state army. It is a Shia Muslim organisation that works in Lebanese society to implement social programs such as providing medical aid and food for people, as well as having an overarching goal of freeing Lebanon from western influence, taking back Lebanese land from Israel and is firmly against the existence of an Israeli state. (6)
Hezbollah is recognised as a terrorist organisation by several countries including Israel, the USA and the UK, while some other countries such as France simply designate the paramilitary wing as a terrorist organisation. Hezbollah's initial focus was on ending the Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon, whereby they engaged in an insurgency campaign against Israel and used a range of tactics from suicide bombings, hostage taking, hijacking and missile attacks. (22)
In the 1990s, they became involved in politics and began running for elections in Lebanon and performed relatively well, running 12 candidates and winning 12 seats in their first attempt. A core belief of Hezbollah is the complete destruction of the state of Israel and they do not recognise its legitimacy as a state. There is debate and even disagreement amongst Hezbollah about whether the organisation is anti-semitic or simply anti-Israel. The party’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has claimed that the organisation is not anti-semetic; “our problem with the Israelis is not that they are Jews, but that they are occupiers who are raping our land and holy places.” However, he has also been accused of Holocaust denial given that, while he has not completely denied the holocaust happened outright, he has nonetheless cast doubt over the numbers and even claims they are possibly being exaggerated. (20)
Since its inception, Hezbollah has been backed by the Shi-ite regime of Iran. The Iranian government has given full funding and backing to Hezbollah and this financial support is what sets it apart from groups like Hamas. In 2000, Hezbollah's campaign forced Israel out of southern Lebanon and ended its occupation there. (19)
The 2006 War
On the 12th of July 2006, Hezbollah conducted a cross-border raid into Israel, where they launched rockets killing 3 Israeli soldiers and then kidnapped two more and brought them into Lebanon. Hezbollah had not anticipated that the response from Israel was going to equate to a full scale invasion into Lebanon. The whole nation of Lebanon was dragged into a war with Israel because of the actions of a paramilitary organisation. The brutal conflict saw Lebanon's capital city, Beirut, bombed and serious clashes in southern Lebanon. Israel caused severe damage to Lebanese civil infrastructure and around one million Lebanese people had to flee their homes (16). Israel engaged in what it called the “Dahya doctrine”, which is essentially the idea of destroying their enemies by total aerial bombardment and destruction. The same approach can be seen in Israel's policy towards Gaza following the October 7th attacks. (11)
After 34 days, a UN-brokered ceasefire was called. Israel went into Lebanon with the goal of destroying and dismantling Hezbollah but had seemingly underestimated the group's capabilities. Hezbollah managed to hold the nation of Israel to a stalemate. The short-lived conflict crippled Lebanon's economically and displaced millions of Lebanese people, as well as around 200,000 Israelis. Around 1,200 Lebanese and 165 Israelis are believed to have been killed. (11)
To many in Lebanon, the outcome of the 2006 War is seen as something that can be looked back on with pride. Certainly for followers of Hezbollah, it is portrayed as a small Lebanese resistance being able to hold their own against a big and powerful US-backed Israeli army. It hence becomes possible to deduce that this level of confidence and hope in Hezbollah would resurge if they were ever to come into all-out conflict with Israel again. Nonetheless, the full extent of this prediction remains heavily uncertain as Hezbollah has lost popularity within Lebanon in recent years, notably following its involvement in Syria (amongst other factors) and its support of the Assad regime -- a regime which the group views as the only stakeholder able to prevent an extremist Sunni militia from gaining power in Syria.
Current Situation at the Border
The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) is the UN peacekeeping mission established in 1978 to monitor the situation and keep the peace between Lebanon and Israel. Around 10,500 UN peacekeepers from 48 different countries are currently based in Lebanon to monitor 'the blue line' between Israel and Lebanon. This blue line is commonly seen as the border between Israel and Lebanon but technically speaking the countries have no recognised border; instead, they have a “line of withdrawal” from which the other military is not allowed to cross. This creates a relatively ambiguous situation around the border where there are some towns on the Israeli side of the blue line in which all the inhabitants are actually Lebanese citizens as it is not an actual national border.(21) Clashes on this border are common, with UNIFIL reporting around 70 incidents a week before October 7th – that number is now up to 250. (21)
The types of incidents at the border reign from relatively minor incidents, such as Hezbollah or the IDF erecting flags or military infrastructure on the other side of the demarcation line, to more serious incidents such as in 2015, when Hezbollah fired a missile at an Israeli army convoy which killed two and injured seven. Regular minor clashes are common at this very hostile border but none of them have ever gone so far as to cross the line into major conflict. (14) There is a widespread theory that Hezbollah and the IDF see the area around the blue line as a sort of 'amnesty zone' where they can fight and kill each other with no major repercussions or escalations from the other side, although neither side can officially admit to this. In concordance with this theory, it is theorised that Israel's decision to invade Lebanon in 2006 could have followed an instance where Hezbollah had gone too far into Israel (or essentially past the 'accepted' conflict zone around the blue line) to carry out the kidnappings. (12)
Start of 2024
Since October 7th, the border between Lebanon and Israel has seen its worst escalation of fighting since the 2006 war (12). On October 8th, the same day that Israel began its carpet bombing campaign in Gaza, Hezbollah began firing large amounts of rockets and missiles from Lebanon into Israel in order to express what they claim to be an act of solidarity with the people of Gaza. Indeed, Hezbollah released a statement claiming the rockets were fired “in support of our steadfast Palestinian people.” Rocket and gunfire has been exchanged from both sides and, at the time of writing, over 100 people have been killed including 3 journalists. The vast majority of people killed in this respect have been Hezbollah fighters, which highlights a different approach from the indiscriminate bombings in Gaza. (3) Since this escalation, Hezbollah's attacks have gone beyond the blue line. They have used Iranian missiles with a range of up to 430 miles, which are far more accurate and powerful than anything Hamas currently has in its arsenal. (10)
These incidents, though severe, have not so far led to a new full-scale conflict between Israel and Hezbollah (or Israel and Lebanon), although very serious threats have been made by Israel. Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, threatened that all of Lebanon would pay the price for Hezbollah's actions and that the group will be making “the mistake of its life” should they escalate their attacks; “we will strike it with a force it cannot even imagine, and the significance for it and for the state of Lebanon will be devastating”. In another speech, he stated: “This is playing with fire. Fire will be answered with much stronger fire. They should not try us, because we have only shown a little of our strength". (6) Given Hezbollah's falling popularity in Lebanon in recent years, this potential escalation would likely manifest a further lack of support for the group's actions within Lebanon. In fact, a 2017 poll suggests that, while Hezbollah was looked upon favourably by 83% of sampled Shia Muslims that year, only 4% of the sampled Shia muslims looked upon them favourably in 2020. This distrust for the group has continuously worsened following the financial crisis in Lebanon. (26)
Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bouhabib confirmed that Hezbollah has pledged to the Lebanese parliament that it will not antagonise Israel into going to war with Lebanon unless they are provoked by Israel. However, Hezbollah has become so powerful within the country that the Lebanese government has essentially been constrained into merely trusting the group's commitment to preventing a full conflict, as the government is essentially powerless from taking any proactive action to prevent Hezbollah from escalating the situation even further. (24)
When weighing up the dynamics of a potential full-scale conflict, Hezbollah seems capable of doing serious damage to Israel. As aforementioned, Hezbollah are believed to have up to 100,000 fighters they can call upon, including their regular standing army of 15,000-20,000 trained personnel. Evidently, the credibility of these numbers cannot be entirely verified and it is very possible that Hezbollah has exaggerated its strength. Even if the 100,000 mark is only a ballpark figure, it would still be significantly less manpower than the IDF given that the latter -- including its reserve army -- has around 500,000 personnel they can call upon in times of conflict. (22)
This clear danger for both stakeholders becomes even more complicated when taking into account that Iran has supplied Hezbollah with dozens of rockets and missiles that are relatively precise and can fire deep into Israeli territory. They also have thousands of drones that may overwhelm the Israeli air force and high-quality Russian air defence systems, which are a strong advantage particularly in a conflict against Israel, which is heavily relying on its air force. (23) Nonetheless, the IDF would presumably have the upper hand in regards to military ability. In 2022, the Israeli government invested $23.4 billion into their defence budget, as well as receiving huge sums of military aid from the United States.
These statistics hint that, while it is unlikely that Hezbollah would ever achieve an all out victory against the IDF, a full-scale conflict would likely be disastrous for both sides, as very serious damage would be inflicted on Israel and Lebanon, their people and their infrastructure; in a way that Hamas just simply are not capable of.
From an analytic perspective, Hezbollah is a more capable threat to Israel in comparison to Hamas (from a military standpoint). A full-scale conflict between Israel and Hezbollah would not be seamless for either side, but in the end, the decisive factor might not be in Hezbollah's hands. Given that Hezbollah and Israel have been enemies since the group's inception, the current conflict in Gaza could potentially give Israel an opportunity to eliminate its Lebanese enemy.
Israel's bombing campaign in the Gaza Strip shows no signs of stopping any time soon, notably since the United States vetoed a ceasefire in the region, and if Israel succeeds in entirely dismantling Hamas, this may free up a lot of their resources to go after Hezbollah. However, it is also important to remember that the Israeli invasion in 2006 was seen as a military failure - a factor which might deter them from wanting to escalate any further conflict with Hezbollah, especially after a prolonged period of conflict with Hamas.
Moreover, the idea of an Israel-Hezbollah war is not solely speculation, but rather something that has actively been discussed in recent weeks by Israeli politicians. As covered in this analysis, Benjamin Netanyahu has made direct threats towards Hezbollah. Meanwhile, other politicians, such as defence minister Yoav Gallant, have already called for Israel to more aggressively punish Hezbollah for the offensives it has done thus far.
All in all, it seems that the continuous escalation between Hezbollah and Israel is reaching a melting point. Although it is still an already active conflict, it has the potential to become far more devastating for both sides. This is a situation that will be monitored closely over the next few weeks and which, in the eventual case of an escalation into a full-scale conflict, may entirely change the dynamics of the current confrontation between Hamas and Israel.
Works Cited (Chicago-style)
(1) 2022. “Analysis / Israel-Hezbollah War Could Change Middle East” Israel Radar. https://israelradar.com/israels-next-war-could-change-the-middle-east/
(2) 2023. Assi, Abbas. “Hezbollah and the Israel-Hamas War: Repercussions for Lebanon” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/91032
(3) 2023. “At least three killed in south Lebanon as Israel, Hezbollah resume fighting” Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/12/1/at-least-three-killed-in-south-lebanon-as-israel-hezbollah-resume-fighting
(4) 2023. Harb, K Imad. “Hezbollah Reluctantly Awaits Israel’s Decision on War” Arab Center Washington DC. https://arabcenterdc.org/resource/hezbollah-reluctantly-awaits-israels-decision-on-war/
(5) 2023. Saab, Y Bilal. “The closer Israel gets to destroying Hamas, the more likely war with Hezbollah becomes” Chatham House. https://www.chathamhouse.org/2023/11/closer-israel-gets-destroying-hamas-more-likely-war-hezbollah-becomes.
(6) 2023. Bland, Archie. “How Hezbollah is fuelling fears of a new front in the Israel-Hamas war” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/nov/06/first-edition-israel-hamas-hezbollah-war
(7) 2023. Tutkal, Ferhat “OPINION- The looming storm: Israel, Hezbollah, and the risk of regional war” AA https://www.aa.com.tr/en/analysis/opinion-the-looming-storm-israel-hezbollah-and-the-risk-of-regional-war/3040114#
(8) 2023. “Lebanon front with Israel heats up, stoking fears of wider war” Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/lebanon-front-with-israel-heats-up-stoking-fears-wider-war-2023-11-13/
(9) 2023. “Analysis: It’s a win-win for Hezbollah against Israel so far” Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2023/10/31/analysis-its-a-win-win-for-hezbollah-against-israel-so-far
(10) 2023. Haynes, Deborah “A war between Israel and Hezbollah would be far more dangerous than current conflict” Sky News. https://news.sky.com/story/war-between-israel-and-hezbollah-has-potential-to-be-more-dangerous-than-current-conflict-12999206
(11) “Israel/Lebanon/Hezbollah Conflict in 2006.” Casebook. https://casebook.icrc.org/case-study/israellebanonhezbollah-conflict-2006
(12) 2023. “Israel-Hezbollah Fire Flaring Up At Lebanon Border” Iran International. https://www.iranintl.com/en/202311076909
(13) 2023. Rizk, Ali. “Why Hezbollah doesn't want a full-scale war. Yet.” Responsible Statecraft. https://responsiblestatecraft.org/beirut-attack-israel/
(14) 2009. Heinze, A. Eric. “Nonstate Actors in the International Legal Order: The Israeli-Hezbollah Conflict and the Law of Self-Defense” BRILL.
(15) 2006. Kaufman, Asher. “The Israel-Hezbollah conflict and the Sheeba farms” The Joan B Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies”
(16) “The Conflict between the State of Israel and Hezbollah” Boston College. https://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/cjl/texts/cjrelations/topics/Israel_Hezbollah.htm
(17) 2023. Chulov, Martin “Hezbollah and Israel pull back from the brink – but spectre of conflict looms” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/apr/08/hezbollah-and-israel-pull-back-from-the-brink-but-spectre-of-conflict-looms
(18) 2023. Schenker, David. “Is a New Israel-Hezbollah War Looming?” Washington Institute. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/new-israel-hezbollah-war-looming
(19) 2000. Goldenberg, Suzanne. “Chaos and humiliation as Israel pulls out of Lebanon” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2000/may/24/israelandthepalestinians.lebanon
(20) 2010. “Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah Doubts the Holocaust” Memri. https://www.memri.org/tv/hizbullah-secretary-general-hassan-nasrallah-doubts-holocaust
(21) UNIFIL https://unifil.unmissions.org/about
(22) 2023. Gbeily, Maya. Azhari, Timour. Perry, Tom. “Lebanon's Hezbollah: What weapons does it have?” Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/lebanons-hezbollah-what-weapons-does-it-have-2023-10-30/
(23) 2023. Ghaedi, Monir. “How do Hamas and Hezbollah compare with Israel militarily?” DW News. https://www.dw.com/en/how-do-hamas-and-hezbollah-compare-with-israel-militarily/a-67166698
(24) 2023. “Lebanon Says Hezbollah Pledges Not To Join War With Israel” Iran International. https://www.iranintl.com/en/202310097264
(25) 2023. “Gaza death toll surpasses 22,400 from Israeli onslaught” APA. https://en.apa.az/asia/gaza-death-toll-surpasses-22400-from-israeli-onslaught-421985
(26) 2020. Pollock, David. “Lebanon Poll Shows Drop in Hezbollah Support, Even Among Shia; Plurality Back Israel Boundary Talks” Washington Institute. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/lebanon-poll-shows-drop-hezbollah-support-even-among-shia-plurality-back-israel