While the war in Gaza is in full swing, Israel and Lebanon are also at odds with each other. Hezbollah has strong ties with Hamas and is in control of Lebanon. Will Hezbollah plunge the country into a war with their southern neighbor? Nora Stel, assistant professor at the Nijmegen Center for International Conflict Analysis and Management (CICAM), is closely following the developments.
On October 7, the day of the Hamas attacks in Israel, researcher Nora Stel was in Lebanon. ‘Everyone around me was in shock. No one saw this coming, not even those who deal with it professionally, such as journalists and analysts.’
Stel was in Beirut to conduct interviews at embassies and ministries for her research into the situation of Syrian refugees in the country. Everyone around her wanted to know: what the violence between Hamas and Israel means for Lebanon. What will Hezbollah do?
Lebanese people have been in tension about this for weeks now. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah will give a long-awaited speech on Friday afternoon at 3 p.m., and it is expected that he will provide more clarity about the planned course of action. Back in Nijmegen, Stel talks about the dilemma Hezbollah finds itself in and about the Lebanese fear of a new war in their own country.
To understand what is going on, Stel says you have to start with the question: what is Hezbollah? There is no easy answer to that. ‘Hezbollah has many faces. It emerged in the 1980s, in the middle of the Lebanese Civil War that lasted from 1975 to 1990, as a combination of armed resistance against Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon and an emancipation movement for the marginalized Shia part of the population in Lebanon. They greatly expanded that military branch after the civil war, but it is not the only branch. They also have their own schools, media and hospitals.’
Hezbollah’s military power must be seen within that larger social context, says Stel: for many residents it is the organization that arranges their facilities. Lebanon has all kinds of groups that have their own social universe, although Hezbollah is by far the most successful. So it is a highly compartmentalized country, but at the same time there is a national government. Hezbollah is well represented in this. ‘They have one foot in all formal public government institutions, such as parliament, the army and the police. That’s the political side of the story. And they also have a military, social and economic branch that is actually separate from that.’
The military branch achieved great success in 2000 by expelling Israel, which had occupied southern Lebanon at the time. ‘In doing so, they profile themselves as the only Arab military power in history that has managed to defeat Israel. The historical trend is the opposite: Israel is taking more and more territory from Palestinians, but also in a broader sense from neighboring Arab countries.’ I certainly don’t want to romanticize Hezbollah as a kind of liberation army. ‘There have always been many problems with the organization in Lebanon. But the fact that they liberated southern Lebanon from Israel is an important achievement for many.’
‘The current rocket attacks in southern Lebanon bring back traumatic memories’
Meanwhile, Hezbollah also has close ties with Iran. ‘As a result, there is constant debate in Lebanon as to whether it is still a Lebanese organization. Or is Iran now deciding what Hezbollah will and will not do? That is the complexity of Hezbollah. At different times, in different situations, they will emphasize one side or the other more.’
The bond with Iran is part of a broader ‘axis of resistance’, as the parties involved themselves call it. ‘These are all kinds of groups in the Middle East, controlled by Iran. They see themselves as a coalition against Israel’s occupation of Palestine.’ Hamas receives a lot of help from that coalition. For example, the attack of October 7 was probably partly planned by Hamas leaders in Beirut, says Stel.
The Lebanese are well aware that what is happening in Gaza is not separate from their own country, which creates tension. In 2006 there was a war between Israel and Lebanon that is still fresh in the national memory, Stel notes in conversations with friends and colleagues. ‘The current rocket attacks in southern Lebanon are bringing back traumatic memories for some. For example, they see themselves as a child again, hiding under the bed from an attack from Israel.’
Can Hezbollah drag the country into war again? Absolutely, according to Stel. ‘There is no significant military or political counterforce that could really do anything about it. In that respect, Lebanon now feels like it is being held hostage by Hezbollah.” But the question is whether Hezbollah wants it. ‘Lebanon is already in economic ruin, the country cannot afford war. At the same time, Hezbollah wants to remain credible as a regional leader in the resistance against Israel. Of course you can’t just give lip service to that.’
Until now, the strategy has mainly been to facilitate Palestinian groups, without themselves all-in to go. But according to Stel, Hezbollah and Iran have indicated a number of ‘red lines’, situations in which Israel really goes too far and they have to come to Hamas’s military aid. ‘One of those red lines is the expulsion of the Palestinian population from Gaza. And the second is the destruction of Hamas. In that context, Hezbollah has also said that they cannot allow a ground offensive to dismantle Hamas’ infrastructure in Gaza.’
Anyone who has followed the news will have noticed that the ground offensive is now in full swing. “The conflict has now really entered a new phase,” says Stel. You also see this on both sides of the Lebanese-Israeli border, where rockets are hitting their targets further and further inland. “But that is still reasonably under control, you cannot yet say that a second front has really opened.”
According to Stel, it is special that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah will only give a speech on Friday afternoon, normally he does so very quickly when something important happens. “The fact that this has still not happened since October 7 means for many analysts that the leaders of Hezbollah themselves do not yet know what they want.” So Friday is an exciting moment. ‘Many Lebanese friends say: then we know where we stand.’
‘In the West it is about terrorism and self-defense, in the Middle East about occupation and resistance’
The split in which Hezbollah finds itself, actually affects the entire country, Stel notes. ‘There is enormous solidarity with Gaza, the support for Palestinian resistance and struggle against Israel is almost unanimous. Even Hezbollah’s biggest critics argue that the fight is legitimate.’ But at the same time, no one wants to sacrifice Lebanon for that. So many people think it is important that something happens, but not at all costs. ‘In the West the perception is that it is about terrorism and self-defense, in the Middle East they see it as occupation and resistance.’
But apart from that, for Lebanese people it is mainly about their own lives, Stel emphasizes. ‘I have friends who immediately hoarded food and filled up the car’s tank after October 7. They are immediately in flight mode, which is difficult to imagine in the Netherlands.’ Or take a friend of Stel’s who begs her parents to come to Beirut from southern Lebanon. ‘She said that the last time they fled, their empty house was used to fire rockets from. When we returned, everything was in ruins. They would rather stay now than have to experience that again.’
Stel thinks it would be good if we heard more such personal stories in the West. ‘Because that is also an important side of the story, in addition to statistics and analyzes of the strategic considerations of groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.’
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