Lebanon’s Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah on Friday will break weeks of silence since Hamas’s deadly onslaught sparked war with Israel last month, in a speech by the head of the Iran-backed terror group that could impact the region.
After Hamas terrorists launched an unprecedented October 7 onslaught inside Israel by bursting through the Gaza border, killing over 1,400 people — most of them civilians, slaughtered amid brutal atrocities — and abducting over 240 to Gaza, Lebanon’s southern border has seen escalating exchanges of fire, mainly between Israel and Hezbollah, an ally of Hamas, stoking fears of a broader conflagration.
The cross-border attacks heated up Thursday, as Israel responded with a “broad assault” after Hezbollah claimed to have attacked 19 Israeli positions simultaneously.
Rockets also hit the northern town of Kiryat Shmona near the border in a barrage claimed by the Lebanese section of Hamas’s armed wing.
The town, as well as 42 border communities, were evacuated last month by the military and Defense Ministry amid the repeated attacks. Many residents in northern towns independently evacuated southward amid the attacks.
Additionally, an Iranian-sponsored militia originally deployed to Syria began bolstering Hezbollah.
The flare-up came after several days of relative quiet on the northern border, which has seen tensions heat up amid attempts by Hezbollah and allied groups to put pressure on Israel’s military as it advances a ground offensive in the Gaza Strip.
Iran-backed groups in Yemen have also attempted to attack Israel from the south in recent days, and other allied militias have taken aim at bases housing US troops in Iraq and Syria.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has warned that “the region is like a powder keg” and that “anything is possible” if Israel does not stop its offensive, which Israel says is aimed at destroying Hamas while seeking to minimize civilian casualties.
US President Joe Biden has sent two aircraft carrier groups to the eastern Mediterranean and warned Hezbollah and others to stay out of the conflict.
“We’ve got significant national security interests at play here,” US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
“I don’t believe we’ve seen any indication yet specifically that Hezbollah is ready to go in full force. So we’ll see what [Nasrallah] has to say.”
Nasrallah’s highly anticipated speech will be broadcast as part of an event in Beirut’s southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, at 3:00 pm (1300 GMT) on Friday, in memory of the terrorists killed in Israeli strikes.
On the Lebanese side of the border, some 70 people have been killed — including at least 56 Hezbollah members, eight Palestinian terrorists, a number of civilians, and one Reuters journalist.
On the Israeli side, six IDF soldiers and one civilian have been killed in attacks by Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorists.
‘Red line’ factors
Some analysts believe that Hezbollah has little interest in becoming fully embroiled in a conflict that some Israeli officials have said could destroy Lebanon.
Others say the decision lies with Iran, which leads the regional “axis of resistance” against Israel, which alongside Hezbollah includes armed groups from Syria, Iraq and Yemen, some of whom have attacked Israel and US interests in the region in recent weeks.
But Amal Saad, a Hezbollah expert at Cardiff University, said: “Hezbollah is not a proxy of Iran, it’s an ally of Iran… Hezbollah doesn’t need anyone’s permission to intervene.”
“Hezbollah has obviously much more experience fighting Israel than Iran does — Iran has not had a direct confrontation with Israel,” Saad added.
The attacks from Lebanon have so far remained limited in scope, amid threats from Israel that Lebanon will suffer if Hezbollah steps up its assault.
Analysts have noted growing frustration from Hamas leaders over Hezbollah’s limited involvement in the ongoing war, with the Lebanese terror group firing roughly 100 missiles at Israel since the October 7 onslaught, while refraining from firing more intense barrages or launching a ground invasion similar to Hamas.
Last month, Nasrallah met with top representatives of the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad groups in Beirut.
On Wednesday, Hezbollah published a letter from its fighters addressed to Palestinian groups in Gaza, saying they had their “finger with you on the trigger… to support Al-Aqsa mosque and our oppressed brothers in Palestine.”
The Shiite Muslim terror group has mainly restricted itself to targeting Israeli observation posts, military positions and vehicles near the border as well as drones, using what it says have been anti-tank missiles, guided missiles and even surface-to-air missiles.
Israel has responded by bombing sites along the border, while drones have targeted fighters near the frontier, but the border tensions have revived memories of Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel.
‘Death blow’ warning
Hezbollah receives financial support as well as weapons and equipment from Iran and has built up its powerful arsenal since 2006.
For years, Nasrallah has boasted that his group’s weapons could reach deep into Israeli territory.
“Each side is carefully measuring its actions and reactions to avoid a situation that may spin out of control and spread to the region,” said Michael Young from the Carnegie Middle East Center.
But if Hezbollah fully entered the war, “Lebanon’s devastation would turn most communities, perhaps even large segments of the Shiite community,” against it, he warned last week.
In Lebanon, those both for and against expanding the war are holding their breath for Nasrallah’s speech.
“We are waiting impatiently… We hope he will announce war on the Israeli enemy and the Western countries that support it,” said Ahed Madi, 43, from the border town of Shebaa.
Rabih Awad, 41, from the southern town of Rashaya al-Fokhar, said a new war between Hezbollah and Israel “would be a death blow for Lebanon”, which is already grappling with a crushing economic crisis.
“I am against the war of extermination on the Palestinians in Gaza,” he told AFP.
“But the decision to go to war must be taken by the Lebanese state, not a party or a militia.”
Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.