Hezbollah role in the war: Distracting Israel from Gaza, even if it means eventual war

By: Yaakov Lappin and Sarit Zehavi

As Israel and Hamas fight a war that began with Hamas’s October 7 mass murder attack on southern Israel, the strategic calculus of Hezbollah’s role under Iran’s directive has come under intense scrutiny. 

The recent deployment of Esmail Qaani, the Quds Force Commander, to Beirut, where he appears to travel to and from frequently these days, signals Iran’s continued investment in the conflict dynamics, exerting influence over Hezbollah’s engagement along the Israeli-Lebanese border.

Hezbollah’s strategy appears to be one of distracting Israel from its focus on Gaza, whatever the costs, including a willingness to risk war. 

Since the summer of 2022, we at the Alma Center have been assessing that Hezbollah is moving toward conflict with Israel. During a speech by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah last summer, he gave clear ideological and religious authorization for such a confrontation. The prevailing theory within the Alma Center was that Hezbollah is interested in a limited conflict because it does not want widespread damage to the Lebanese state, and in any case, it estimates that at this time Israel will not respond to limited attacks against it (launched using a Palestinian proxy) by entering into a war. We issued this warning to the world of Israel’s perilous security situation as recently as August 10th, 2023.

The Shi’ite terror army, which enjoys an Iranian budget of a billion dollars per year, and has an arsenal of around 200,000 projectiles, has initiated what is currently being described as a controlled escalation, but is in fact the creation of an unsustainable reality that is more likely than not going to escalate further.

On a daily basis, Hezbollah has been firing UAVs, mortars, and anti-tank missiles at Israeli civilian and military targets, killing a civilian and six soldiers in Israel so far. In the process, Over 60 Hezbollah terror operatives have been killed by IDF fire so far, and Israel has both retaliated and preempted imminent threats like anti-tank missile squads on the move. 

The IDF’s actions have been responsive and limited so far, targeting terror squads and anti-tank missile teams identified along the northern border, while Hezbollah has kept most of its attacks close to the border, with some recent exceptions. The attacks have targeted mostly IDF military targets but also struck civilian targets as well. 

The consequences of these escalations on the civilian populace have been significant. Some 60,000 Israeli residents have been unable to return home in northern Israel, due to the ongoing threat of Hezbollah attacks, an intolerable situation for any sovereign nation.

Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General, has articulated a narrative that places Israel in a position of aggression, thereby shaping a pretext for continuous attacks. 

The November 6 rocket attack indicates a coordination and shared strategic outlook between Hamas and Hezbollah, aligning with Iran’s broader regional ambitions. Nasrallah’s accusations made on November 5, asserting Israeli culpability in Lebanese civilian deaths, serve to further fan the flames of conflict, setting the stage for broader justification of Hezbollah’s actions.

Iran’s approach in this multi-front war seems to be one of attrition, keeping Israel ‘bleeding’ around its borders through a slow and steady effort aimed at eroding Israel’s security and international standing. This approach is reflective of Iran’s broader phased regional strategy, which has been evident across the Middle East. 

Hezbollah’s Radwan elite terror commando unit pioneered the swarming death squad tactic that Hamas’s Nukhba elite unit ended up carrying out, and this plan was in fact first intended for use on northern Israeli communities, planned with the assistance of the Iranian Quds Force.

Under this logic, the question of when Hezbollah’s full-fledged participation in the conflict could occur seems of lesser importance to Iran compared to the imperative of sustained and escalating involvement.

Nasrallah’s lengthy televised speech on November 4 indicates a readiness to expand the Lebanese front, contingent upon Israel’s actions in Gaza. His message to Israel warning it not to think about a preemptive strike highlights the high stakes and the potential for a significant escalation. 

While Nasrallah emphasizes Hamas’s autonomy in the execution of the October 7 mass murder attack, skepticism about the level of independence from Iran’s influence is warranted.

His mention of support from Yemeni factions, including the Houthi movement in Yemen, which has fired missiles and UAVs at Israel’s South, underscores the network of Iran’s allies in the region and their participation in the conflict. While the Houthis have mostly targeted southern Israel, the Iraqi militias have focused their attacks on US military positions in the region. 

On November 5, The IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi stated during a visit to the Golan Heights, “We are ready to strike in the north at any moment.”

The IDF is prepared to strike at Hezbollah, and “we understand that it can happen,” he said.

The comments seem to reflect an Israeli reassessment of the likelihood of broader conflict engagement with Hezbollah. 

The comments are both an effort to deter Hezbollah, but also an acknowledgment that Israel may not be able to prioritize war with Hamas in Gaza for much longer. 

Hezbollah, under Iran’s guidance, is playing a pivotal role in the current Israel-Hamas war, operating within a strategy of attrition designed to challenge Israel’s military operations on the Gaza front. The situation remains fluid, with the potential for further escalation very much realistic, and at this stage, up to Nasrallah and his Iranian sponsors. 

Israel, for its part, likely under United States pressure, has refrained from launching a first large-scale strike at this stage, aligning with Washington’s desire to not be the one to ‘take the blame’ for broadening the war into a regional conflict, which would also see stepped-up attacks by Iranian proxies on American targets in Iraq, Syria, as well as at sea. 

Should further escalation come, Israel can be expected to target hundreds of Hezbollah military locations in southern Lebanon, established in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, as well as likely targets in Beirut and the Bekaa Valley (which are also in violation of UNSCR 1559). 

Hezbollah’s arsenal includes thousands of rockets and missiles that can reach greater Tel Aviv, hundreds of precision-guided munitions, 65,000 rockets with ranges of tens of kilometers, as well as some 140,000 mortars.

Hezbollah’s weapon arsenal

It has more than 20,000 active members and tens of thousands of reservists. Like Hamas, it is embedded in civilian population centers, and any war with it will prove devastating to Lebanon. 

The Israeli home front would also be hit hard, with Hezbollah able to cover all of Israel with various missiles, and it could fire some 10,000 projectiles at northern Israel a day and some 1,000 projectiles at central Israel per day, for some days at the start of the war. 

The question of Hezbollah’s further escalation in this war appears to be more a question of when, and to what extent, and less a question of if it will happen.

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Yaakov Lappin

Yaakov Lappin

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