In July 2006, Hezbollah kidnapped two Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers and took them to Lebanon while the group simultaneously conducted rocket strikes against Israeli military targets. Subsequently, five more IDF soldiers were killed in a failed rescue attempt. Israel’s response was to launch a multipronged ground offensive on South Lebanon, combined with a blockade of Lebanese ports, along with a massive bombardment campaign.
The 2006 Lebanon War, as it became known, lasted just over a month. It resulted in over 1,000 Lebanese and 100 Israeli casualties and left Hezbollah teetering. But still intact. In August, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah secretary general (1992 to present), publicly said he regretted the kidnapping of IDF soldiers since the scale of the Israeli response was unanticipated.
Today, Hezbollah and Israel are engaged in exchange of fire at the Lebanon-Israel border, parallel to the ongoing ground and air offensive in the Gaza Strip. This followed the October 7 attack against Israeli civilians by Hamas. In Nasrallah’s first speech reacting to the conflict, on November 3, he threatened Israel with escalation using his trademark fiery rhetoric but stopped short of declaring a full-scale war.
Why is it hesitating?
The provenance of Hezbollah, which translates as the “Party of God”, was in Lebanon’s deadly civil war (1975-90), Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to evict the Palestine Liberation Organization, and post-1979 Iran’s desire to export its Islamic Revolution. While the former two provided the rationale for a new organised paramilitary to protect Shia interests (especially in South Lebanon) and resist Israel, the latter served as its instrument. Iran despatched over a thousand personnel of its new Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to raise, train, and sustain a more militant Shia group in Lebanon that could undercut the existing (more moderate) Shia party, Amal, founded in 1975.
The new group announced its arrival with a spate of suicide bombings against the US military barracks in Beirut in 1983; launched a guerrilla campaign against Israeli forces; and formally became “Hizb-Allah” in 1985 through a public pamphlet that, among other things, reflected anti-Zionism as the group’s organising principle. Like the IRGC (which does not have Iran in its name or symbol), Hezbollah’s Islamist ideology initially mirrored communist internationalism—focussing on the creation of a united Muslim Ummah without geographical borders, spurred by the Iranian revolution1. While Hezbollah would later shed this character partially, it ensured an enduring connect between the group’s objectives and Iran’s revolutionary ideals. Moreover, the fierce anti-Israel stance that Tehran nourished in the new group served the Lebanese conflict landscape well, as Israel’s occupation of Lebanon was arousing nationwide resentment.
Rallying primarily under the anti-Israeli banner and fat with Iranian arms and financing, Hezbollah succeeded in an ancillary objective: it displaced all other sectarian armed groups in Lebanon and gained political and military dominance. This was facilitated principally by the 1989 Saudi-brokered Taif Agreement to end the Lebanese civil war, which disarmed all sectarian groups and empowered only the Lebanese state with the legitimate use of force. All except Hezbollah, which justified its armaments through the need to resist the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon2. It kept up sustained military operations against IDF troops whose mounting casualties made it hard for successive Israeli governments to justify the continued occupation, resulting in Israel’s historic withdrawal of all troops from South Lebanon3.
First Arab military to force Israel retreat
In a way, Hezbollah became the first Arab military to force an Israeli strategic retreat. The generous rise in prestige that this yielded to the Party of God was supplemented by Hezbollah’s successful track record in providing social and civic services within Lebanon, especially to Shias. In fact, Hezbollah had already made its first electoral foray in 1992, securing eight seats in the Lebanese parliament, and was steadily building its profile as a strong Shia political front amidst Lebanon’s other major ethnic groups, namely Maronite Christians, Druze, and Sunni Muslims. Eventually, Hezbollah entered the Cabinet and secured a veto for major decisions from 2008 on.
While Hezbollah’s post-2000 prestige increased across the Arab world, its “resist-the-Israeli-occupation” raison d’etre had vanished. This inevitably invited questions over its continued need to stay armed and over its outsized role in Lebanese politics. These questions increased multifold during the 2005 Cedar Revolution in the wake of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s assassination. While Hariri was a stalwart in Lebanese politics and credited with several economic successes, his pro-Saudi inclinations ensured constant unease with Hezbollah and a troubled relationship with Bashar al-Assad-led and Iran-allied Syria (the other major external influence in Lebanon). The watershed events that resulted from the Revolution included Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, leaving Hezbollah uncomfortable.
Arguably, this partially contributed to Nasrallah’s rationale for sparking a fresh conflict with Israel, manifesting in the July 2006 kidnapping and the ensuing war. Even as Hezbollah forced Israel to withdraw again, Nasrallah’s public expressions of regret reflected the backlash the group faced within Lebanon. This was Hezbollah’s last major confrontation with Israel.
In the decade and a half since, Hezbollah’s anti-Israel focus has been (relatively) muted. It maintained an active front with Israel through rocket attacks and intermittent border skirmishes and equipped itself with long-range rockets from Iran, while Israel routinely conducted air strikes against Hezbollah and IRGC targets in Syria. However, Hezbollah’s new priority was to prevent the Arab Spring from threatening the Assad regime. It poured men and resources into protecting Assad from Syrian rebel groups and the scourge of the Islamic State (or ISIS); Nasrallah publicly confirmed Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria in 2013. In this, it was eminently successful, even winning acclaim for its military efficacy against ISIS. Most importantly, across these years, Hezbollah garnered crucial battlefield experience and steadily armed itself to the hilt.
Compared with Hamas (formed in 1987), Hezbollah is the senior anti-Israel force. The antipathy of both groups to Israel and commitment to armed resistance have lent them an enduring unity of purpose that (largely) trumps theological differences along sectarian lines. This essentially means that even without joint planning, any attack by either (with or without Iranian involvement) is inevitably supported by the other to varying degrees. Hence, when the current conflict sparked, Hezbollah expressed rhetorical support for Hamas, even meeting the group’s leaders and stepping up its own skirmishes with Israeli troops at the Lebanese border. Thus far, however, it has refrained from full-scale hostilities despite Israel’s relentless bombing of Gaza. The reason is two-pronged: external and internal.
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Iran’s objectives already met?
Following the Abraham Accords, as multiple Gulf/Arab states attempted to reconcile with Israel and “normalise” ties, Iran remained a vocal outlier (a cursory glance at Sayyid Ali Khamenei’s X account supplies any necessary evidence). With the brutal, disproportionate (and still escalating) Israeli response against civilians in Gaza, Iran’s objectives have arguably already been met. Tehran made it a point to ensure that its first phone call with Riyadh after their Beijing-facilitated rapprochement primarily featured solidarity against Israel. Saudi Arabia, pausing its peace negotiations with Israel, helped in no small part.
The US mounting a show of support for Israel through strategically parked aircraft carriers arguably makes no difference to Iran’s calculations. In recent years, Iran’s instrument of choice against US troops in the region (Iraq primarily) has been the Hashd-al-Shaabi, an umbrella term for multiple (majorly Shia) militias that were raised in Iraq to fight ISIS. Following the latter’s defeat, the Iran-backed groups among the Hashd became Tehran’s principal tool to maintain its hegemony in Iraqi politics. Their constant attacks against US bases provide Iran a low-cost, high-investment option of keeping US forces constantly engaged.
Tehran therefore does not need to open a new front through Hezbollah. In its eyes, the more Israel expands its war on Gaza, the faster global sympathy for Israel’s suffering decreases and the memory of October 7 dies down. This, in turn, steadily but progressively makes it harder for Arab states to ignore public opinion in their own streets and maintain warmer ties with Israel. In fact, nudging Hezbollah towards a more active role carries its own internal risks.
- In August, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah Secretary General, expressed regret for the kidnapping of IDF soldiers before the 2006 Lebanon War, citing the unexpected scale of the Israeli response.
- The origins of Hezbollah can be traced back to Lebanon’s deadly civil war, Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon to remove the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Iran’s post-1979 aspiration to export its Islamic revolution.
- Hezbollah refrains from engaging in full-blown hostilities without Iran’s approval, and there is little evidence indicating strained ties between Hezbollah and Tehran.
“Hezbollah does not take orders from Iran”
To be sure, Hezbollah will not embark on full-blown hostilities without Iran’s blessing, and there is scant evidence to show that Hezbollah-Tehran ties are strained. The group continues to turn to Khamenei for guidance. In fact, when it first entered the Lebanese Cabinet, it did so only after sounding Khamenei out, as it took the group away from internationalism and into Lebanese national institutions. However, safeguarding its position within Lebanon is a priority for the group. Hence, when Lebanon was rocked by popular anti-government demonstrations in 2019 during the country’s debilitating economic crisis, Hezbollah was caught off guard. It pressed its Shia support base to withdraw from the protests and engineered a counter-mobilisation, but Lebanon was at a boiling point and Nasrallah had his hands full. Moreover, in 2020, memories of the Hariri assassination were revived when the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon delivered its verdict and indicted Hezbollah. The judgment was delivered right after a devastating explosion at Beirut port, which further nourished anti-Hezbollah sentiments within Lebanon, prompting the group to engage in damage control. In a 2022 interview with Iran’s Press TV, amidst traditional anti-Israel rhetoric, Nasrallah tellingly asserted that Hezbollah did not take orders from Iran and acted with Lebanese interests in mind.
Thus, even as Hezbollah is the world’s largest (technically) non-state militia with a growing arsenal of sophisticated rockets, including precision-guided munitions, it cannot engage in a 2006-esque war without severely jeopardising its internal position. Hezbollah’s current modus operandi is one of deterrence rather than active war-fighting. Writing for Al Jazeera, Zoran Kusovac argued that Hezbollah’s presence alone at Israel’s northern border acts as an “army-in-waiting”, with the imminence of attack acting as the attack itself and ensuring that Israel commits at least 1,00,000 troops of its Golani Brigade at the Lebanese border. Holding infantry and advanced arsenal in reserve and maintaining a controlled but steady stream of rocket fire against Israeli targets (in disputed territory) shows that Hezbollah’s priority is to ensure that its presence is felt.
As Israel’s campaign in Gaza intensifies, the room for inadvertent or deliberate escalation at the Lebanese border increases, especially as Hezbollah nurses a desire to punish its old bete noire at a time when there is no other potent organised military resistance to Israel. However, there is no concretely identifiable threshold that Israel has to cross to draw Hezbollah in. By default, Hezbollah’s state of war with Israel is semi-permanent and constantly simmering.
Look at Nasrallah’s framing of the conflict in his November 3 address. First, he warned Israel against attacking Lebanon (reifying Hezbollah’s Lebanon focus). Second, he said Hezbollah’s response had already been defined since October 8 (implying the present character of response is sufficient). And third, he said the October 7 attacks were planned by Hamas alone (resisting the impulse to claim involvement while condoning the act).
Nasrallah waited for around a month before publicly reacting to the conflict, even as civilian deaths in Gaza skyrocketed. Hezbollah’s inclination to carefully calibrate its response is evident, contrary to its less-guarded approach against Israel in the early 2000s. The only concrete red line for Hezbollah then is if Israel mounts a pre-emptive attack on Lebanon. This will rejuvenate the organising principle Hezbollah is founded on and enable it to recapture the public narrative in Lebanon. Without such a direct external trigger, Hezbollah is unlikely to go to war.
Bashir Ali Abbas is a Research Associate at the Council for Strategic and Defence Research, New Delhi.
- Joshua L. Gleis and Benedetta Berti (2012), Hezbollah and Hamas, A Comparative Study, Pg 40, The John Hopkins University Press.
- Dominique Avon and Anaïs-Trissa Khatchadourian (2012), Hezbollah: A History of the “Party of God”, Pg 38, Harvard University Press.
- Augustus Richard Norton (2007), Hezbollah: A Short History, Pg 115, Princeton University Press.