Walk the line: The strategic tightrope of Hizbollah’s campaign against Israel
Walk the line: The strategic tightrope of Hizbollah’s campaign against Israel
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 15 minutes

Walk the line: The strategic tightrope of Hizbollah’s campaign against Israel

Since October, Hizbollah has walked a fine line between attacking Israel and avoiding all-out war. While no Lebanese actor can force Hizbollah to stop fighting, the group does not want the blame for a conflict that could devastate crisis-hit Lebanon.

Since October, Lebanon has teetered on the brink of all-out war. One day after Hamas carried out its devastating attack against Israel on 7 October, the powerful Lebanese militia-cum-party Hizbollah launched its own strikes across the Lebanese-Israeli border “in solidarity with the Palestinian people.” From then onwards, Israel and Hizbollah have engaged in near-daily clashes, displacing tens of thousands from border communities in both northern Israel and southern Lebanon. While it was Hizbollah that fired the first shot, Israel has hit back hard ever since. Indeed, Israeli officials have publicly mused about doing even more to destroy Hizbollah’s military capabilities, with a view to sending displaced Israeli citizens home safely.

During these nervous months, two questions have loomed large. What could bring about the end of the current conflict, which has left swathes of southern Lebanon in ruins? Or, alternatively, are the border clashes bound not just to continue, but to spread to the rest of Lebanon – and possibly beyond?

Until now, while Israel’s fractured leadership vacillates between different options for restoring security to its northern border, Hizbollah’s position has remained relatively clear. The group says that it will continue fighting until Israel ends its aggression against Gaza; if Israel does so, then it will stand down. Hizbollah has settled on this approach due to various strategic considerations, and without the need to consult either the Lebanese government or public. Yet, even with this level of decision-making autonomy, Hizbollah must still consider how a continued or even expanded war will impact the embattled Lebanese, as their country endures an unprecedented economic crisis.

A delicate balancing

Since October, Hizbollah has pressed on with its cross-border operations against Israel for several strategic reasons. Publicly, the group has emphasised the importance of maintaining a “second front” along the northern Israeli border, which it claims diverts resources and attention away from Israel’s other front – its ongoing siege and assault of Gaza. For this reason, Hizbollah has stressed that it will not stand down from the border clashes until Israel “ends its aggression” against Gaza. Solidarity with the Palestinian cause is a central ideological pillar for the “axis of resistance,” the loose alliance of Iran-backed non-state actors that includes Hizbollah and Hamas. Accordingly, Hizbollah likely felt compelled to enter the military fray after 7 October, even though it apparently did not have prior knowledge of Hamas’ attacks.

Hizbollah has also continued fighting Israel out of its own existential concerns. Specifically, Hizbollah strives to maintain a state of mutual deterrence, whereby both parties judge that the likely costs of a full-scale war with the other would outweigh any potential benefits. This delicate balance has persisted between Hizbollah and Israel since summer 2006, when they last fought an open-ended, disastrous conflict. Until last October, both sides followed unwritten “rules of the game”, which set informal limits on the types of military operations that could take place and not trigger a serious escalation. But deterrence only works if each side convinces the other that, should a large-scale conflict erupt, it won’t back down. Hizbollah may well have initiated the current conflict for ideological reasons, but that does not mean that it wanted the escalatory tit-for-tat dynamic that it initiated. Now that the battle is underway, Hizbollah likely fears that – if it does not continue to retaliate to Israel’s ongoing cross-border strikes – this might suggest that it has grown weak, and no longer offers a serious deterrent threat to Israel. 

At the same time, Hizbollah has taken deliberate steps to prevent the border clashes from spiralling into all-out war. While Israel too has tried to contain the conflict at times, several Israeli operations inside Lebanon have sparked widespread fear that Hizbollah would respond severely, raising the risk of an expanded conflict. In January, Israel caused widespread alarm by killing Saleh al-Arouri, Hamas’ deputy political head, in Beirut. Even before the conflict started in October, Nasrallah had warned Israel not to target non-Lebanese (including Hamas members) on Lebanese territory. Moreover, the strike occurred around 100km from the border – the zone of conflict generally accepted by both sides – in a Beirut area where mainly Hizbollah supporters live. Nevertheless, Hizbollah chose a fairly measured response: it struck two military targets – located further inside Israeli territory than before, but still far away from major urban centres.

Reacting to civilian harm is another issue where Hizbollah’s retaliation has thus far been calibrated. Since the conflict began, it has been clear that killing civilians is a potential “red line” for both sides. Indeed, on 3 November, Hizbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah explicitly suggested that Hizbollah might target one Israeli civilian for every non-combatant killed on the Lebanese side. Yet, when Israeli strikes killed four civilians just days after Nasrallah’s speech, Hizbollah did not follow through on his threat. Israel tested the party’s resolve again on 14 February, when widespread air strikes on southern Lebanon killed ten civilians in one day, including five children. Speaking two days later, Nasrallah warned that Israel would pay “in blood” for the civilians’ deaths. Until now, however, the party has not enforced Nasrallah’s “civilian-for-civilian” threat which – if realised – would almost certainly trigger a furious Israeli response.

Ironically, Hizbollah has acted with a measure of restraint for largely the same reasons that it has continued to fight: it wants to maintain its current position vis-à-vis Israel. Hizbollah sees value in refusing to back down not just to continue supporting Gaza, but also to maintain its deterrent threat against Israel. At the same time, Hizbollah recognises that an expanded war with Israel would pose grave risks to Hizbollah’s military power. Israel has already targeted Hizbollah watch towers, command centres and personnel in southern Lebanon, and is increasingly attacking fighters and sites associated with the group in the Bekaa Valley. An expanded military campaign would see Israel strike other strategically important Hizbollah assets, while also forcing the group to exhaust much of its current weapon stockpile in retaliation. 

These negative consequences would matter not only to Hizbollah, but also to Iran, the group’s main patron and close ally. For decades, Iran has invested in Hizbollah’s weapons build-up as part of its “forward defence” strategy for national security. Under this approach, Iran has developed Hizbollah’s military capabilities to deter Israel by reminding it to expect a massive retaliation from inside Lebanon if it should attack Iran directly. Of course, Hizbollah would no longer be able to provide this valuable service to Iran if it were forced to use many of those weapons in an all-out war with Israel under current circumstances, when Iran has signalled that it is not prepared to go to war.

The domestic price

In weighing these strategic calculations, Hizbollah benefits from virtual autonomy within Lebanon, owing to its pervasive political and military influence there. As a powerful political party, Hizbollah (along with its allies) commands strong representation in Lebanon’s parliament, as well as the caretaker government. But conventional politics alone do not explain why Hizbollah can pursue military objectives from inside Lebanon without needing the government’s permission. The group maintains its own enormous weapon arsenal, which features an estimated 150,000 missiles, and commands the loyalty of fighters numbering in the tens of thousands. Hizbollah has responded violently to past government attempts to constrain its autonomy. In May 2008, for instance, Hizbollah fighters engaged in combat across Lebanon following a government attempt to ban the group’s independent fibre-optic cable network. If the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) dared to confront Hizbollah over its military activities now, the army would almost certainly disintegrate along sectarian lines.

In these circumstances, Hizbollah is not forced to heed domestic calls for restraint along the border. Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati, has repeatedly conceded that the government cannot control Hizbollah’s decision-making. “The decision is clearly not in the government’s hands”, said a senior advisor to Mikati, in late October. “(But Mikati) is trying to bring Lebanon’s (national) interests to the front of Hizbollah’s thinking.” In the face of a disempowered government and a fractured opposition movement, including the group’s long-term foes, Hizbollah has little to worry about in advancing its agenda. Leading opposition parties have loudly called for Hizbollah to halt the fighting, with Lebanese Forces head Samir Geagea even saying that Hizbollah – not the state – should pay for post-war reconstruction projects in the south. Hizbollah does not even bother to respond to these arguments.

Nevertheless, Hizbollah remains well aware of the grave suffering endured by residents of southern Lebanon, many of whom rank among the group’s most ardent supporters. Already, Israeli attacks on southern Lebanon have caused widespread destruction and forced most residents who live close to the border to flee from their homes. By February, approximately 86,000 people had been displaced, with 80 per cent relying indefinitely on the generosity of host families for shelter, according to UN figures. (As discussed below, tens of thousands have also been displaced on the Israeli side of the border.) Meanwhile, Israel continues to pummel the evacuated communities with missile and artillery fire, complicating and perhaps preventing the future return of the displaced. Current estimates indicate that, on average, 10 per cent of houses in Lebanese border villages have been damaged since October, not to mention residents’ workplaces and public infrastructure. Farmers have lost large swathes of land and agricultural assets such as olive trees, destroyed in fires sparked by heavy Israeli shelling. Trapped indefinitely in displacement, residents agonise over when they can return home – and how much of it they will find unharmed when they do.

The Lebanese government, with its scant financial resources, cannot step in and meaningfully ease the hardship of the displaced. In October, Lebanon’s caretaker cabinet announced a national emergency response plan, valued at around US$400 million, but soon after revealed that it was struggling to source funding for it. The Ministry of Social Affairs eventually launched a program to provide one-time payments of just US$20-25 for the displaced. The cash disbursements could only target 18,647 displaced people – just over 20 per cent of those forced from their homes. “Admittedly, our response is inadequate”, Social Affairs Minister Hector Hajjar told local media. “But with zero budget, that’s something.” 

Government-run shelters have been no more successful in tackling the problem. In Israel, many of the estimated 100,000 residents displaced from the north are staying indefinitely at state-funded hotels. By contrast, UN statistics indicate that just 1 per cent of displaced people in Lebanon are using public shelter facilities, with 15 per cent instead paying out of their own pockets to rent alternative accommodation. Local communities have rallied to support the displaced, arranging donation drives to secure cash, clothing and medication for those escaping from the war. Yet such ad hoc solutions come at a heavy price for these Good Samaritans, many of whom are struggling themselves to make ends meet amid Lebanon’s economic crisis. 

Hizbollah’s public messaging indicates that the group is well aware of the sensitivities surrounding its military campaign, and wants to avoid the perception that it has confronted Israel for its own strategic purposes. In his public addresses, Nasrallah has praised the sacrifices made by residents of southern Lebanon, arguing that “the Lebanese people must feel solidarity (with them).” Hizbollah has tried to tap into a country-wide support base by framing itself as a national resistance actor. “Lebanon is not far from the Gaza Strip”, explained one senior Hizbollah official. “The same thing that is happening there could happen here.” 

Hizbollah has also invited broader public endorsement by linking the border clashes with supporting the Palestinian cause. In his first speech during the conflict, Nasrallah stressed that Hamas planned the 7 October attacks without Hizbollah or Iran’s involvement. “Hizbollah has been very careful to put a Sunni face on this war”, said political scientist Khalil Jebara, alluding to the fact that Hamas is a Sunni Muslim organisation, while Hizbollah represents the Lebanese Shia community. These sectarian considerations matter in Lebanon, where Hizbollah’s critics frequently allege that the group prioritises Shia interests over national ones. The party also characterises the border clashes as pivotal to defending Palestinians, describing each fallen Hizbollah fighter as having died “on the road to Jerusalem”. This approach recognises the popularity of the Palestinian cause among Lebanese, a viewpoint that cuts across most sectarian divides. The Washington Institute, a pro-Israel U.S. think tank, reported in late 2023 that 79 per cent of surveyed Lebanese held a positive opinion of Hamas

Yet, even if most Lebanese decry Israel’s assault on Gaza, many appear to oppose Lebanon’s direct involvement in conflict with Israel. To date, Hizbollah has received whole-hearted support only from certain groups. Its main Shia political ally, the Amal Movement, has sent fighters to participate in the battle alongside Hizbollah and its Palestinian allies. Multiple Lebanese Sunni groups, such as the Fajr Forces, have also announced their willingness to join the border clashes. Nevertheless, many Lebanese remain unconvinced. The same Washington Institute study reported that 74 per cent of Christian survey respondents and 66 per cent of Sunnis said that Lebanon should stay out of foreign wars, due to its ongoing domestic crises (27 per cent of Shia participants concurred). In an October poll, a Hizbollah-aligned newspaper reported that 47.8 per cent of Lebanese opposed continued military engagement of Israel at the border, and almost 70 per cent stood against an expanded war. “You would need to be very advanced ideologically (in support of the Palestinian cause) to accept war in Lebanon in defence of Hamas”, argued Jebara. Occasional public dissent has emanated even from inside the Lebanese Shia community, with several small groups taking an anti-war stance

While Hizbollah can continue its military campaign against Israel – even amid murmurings of public dissent – it knows that this course could exact a considerable political price. Hizbollah does not only appeal to its supporters through claims of resistance against Israel and defence of Lebanon’s borders. Amid long-standing Lebanese state dysfunction, the group also portrays itself as capable of providing basic needs such as healthcare and education for the Lebanese Shia community, from which it draws its political legitimacy. The ongoing border clashes continue to force residents of southern Lebanon, many of whom are Lebanese Shia, to live in precarious circumstances. Hizbollah’s leadership will not face an internal challenge, even if the south remains a war zone. Yet maintaining the status quo would compel the displaced to continue relying on their commitment to Hizbollah’s ideological cause, even as the party proves unable to prevent devastating Israeli attacks on their communities.

The disaster of expanded war

Hizbollah’s concerns for its popular appeal would likely grow if the current border clashes expand into an all-out war. In 2006, when the parties last fought a large-scale conflict, Lebanon as a whole paid a hefty price. Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon claimed the lives of over 1,000 people in just 33 days. For comparison, 171 died in the current conflict’s first four months, according to Lebanese government figures. The Israeli military campaign destroyed homes, businesses and key public infrastructure across the nation, while also imposing a blanket aerial and naval blockade. The latter tactic triggered food and fuel shortages, which created enormous price hikes for these commodities as a black war economy emerged.

While the government did start planning for a potential, massive escalation back in October, it faces challenges endemic to a country in the throes of crisis. In October, Economy Minister Amin Salam bemoaned the state’s historical lack of planning for resource scarcities, noting that Lebanon has only one major site for grain storage – the Beirut port silos, which were largely destroyed in a catastrophic explosion in August 2020. Against this backdrop, it is unlikely that fuel and grain reserves could last much longer than a couple of months.

To make matters worse for Hizbollah, the Shia community would be first in line to suffer from a large-scale conflict – and not just those in southern Lebanon. In 2006, Israel focused its bombing campaigns on Shia-majority areas of southern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley and Beirut. Israel justified selecting these targets with reference to the suspected locations of Hizbollah’s weapons arsenal, much of which it allegedly keeps hidden inside its own civilian communities. In an expanded war, Israel would almost certainly return to attacking these sites, probably with even more intensity than it did almost eighteen years ago. Israel would also probably target Beirut’s densely populated southern suburbs which, aside from the precise operation to assassinate Hamas leader Arouri in January, it has avoided doing until now. Of course, Hizbollah’s most dedicated supporters would be more willing than others to bear the dire consequences of an expanded war. They would need every bit of steadfastness they can muster should it come to pass.

While Hizbollah would undoubtedly blame Israel (and its backer, the United States) for such a calamity, many devastated Lebanese might be in no mood to accept these arguments. As matters stand, Lebanon would have very limited options for reconstruction after a damaging, all-encompassing war. When Hizbollah and Israel ceased hostilities in 2006, money poured into the country from the Gulf Arab states and Iran, which financed humanitarian and development projects in war-ravaged areas. The support helped to mitigate public frustration at the conflict’s toll. But times have changed, casting serious doubt on both key sources of relief. Once generous benefactors, Saudi Arabia and its neighbours have increasingly retreated from providing funds to Lebanon. Their main reasons relate to Hizbollah’s growing influence over Lebanese affairs, as well as the ineffectiveness of past financing projects in producing positive outcomes, either for Lebanon or the Gulf. 

As matters stand, it appears highly unlikely that the Gulf Arab states would contribute to Lebanon’s reconstruction as generously as before. While Iran has no such qualms about Hizbollah’s clout within Lebanon, its sanctions-hit economy lacks the financial muscle to deliver a post-war recovery. These circumstances would compel many Lebanese to find their own funds for rebuilding their properties – an even less appetising prospect than it was in 2006, a time of relative economic prosperity.


Of course, Hizbollah alone will not decide the fate of the ongoing border clashes. At any moment, Israel could force Hizbollah’s hand by expanding its military operations massively, pushing the conflict into all-out war. “If Israel does want to start a total war, then fine: we are ready”, said Naim Qassem, Hizbollah’s deputy secretary-general. “The costs of surrender are greater than the costs of confrontation.” 

If such a moment arises then, just like now, Hizbollah need not consult public opinion about what to do next. Yet the group knows full well that most Lebanese households are in no position to withstand a brutal war. Despite its various self-justifications, Hizbollah would prefer to avoid shouldering any blame for catapulting Lebanon – already racked by cascading economic and political crises – into a whole new level of profound misery.

This article was originally published in Spanish in Afkar/ideas 71 with the collaboration of IEmed.

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