Why Hezbollah Is Holding Back on Entering the Israel-Palestine War

In sitting out the conflict, for now, Iran’s ally in Lebanon recognizes the risks of escalation but also a path to a broader victory

Why Hezbollah Is Holding Back on Entering the Israel-Palestine War
In Tehran, Iran, supporters of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah watch his televised speech from Beirut. (Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Like many Lebanese, I spent the morning glued to my screen waiting for Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah’s first speech since the beginning of the latest Israel-Palestine war. While I haven’t lived in Lebanon for more than a decade, Nasrallah’s speeches remain important events in my life, as both a foreign policy professional and a Lebanese. So I found myself parked on the side of a Washington road in rush hour traffic, watching. After all, he was expected to announce Hezbollah’s intentions toward Israel — and Lebanon’s fate — amid its escalating war with Hamas.

The key question was whether Nasrallah’s Hezbollah (and its Iranian patrons) intended to launch a wider war against Israel as their contribution to the “resistance” agenda, despite the inevitable harm this would bring to Lebanese, including its supporters, and potentially to the wider region. This was important to many of those watching; if you are Lebanese you have an obvious stake in the matter. Some people — Lebanese or others — want Hezbollah to enter the war despite the certain destruction it will bring to Lebanon. Others sympathize with the Palestinian cause but have enough problems living in a failed state. And there are those (including Lebanese) who are enjoying watching Hezbollah squirm in the face of Israeli military deterrence thus far, sporadic operations aside.

A key takeaway from the speech, especially among people who dislike Hezbollah, is that it was empty bluster, doublespeak, an awkward attempt to disguise Hezbollah’s cowardice or weakness in the face of Israel, shown by its failure to escalate the war against the latter from Lebanon. There is some truth to this, of course. Nasrallah is a talented public speaker, but he is also a deceptive and manipulative one. And he did fail to announce any escalation against Israel despite the increasingly horrific war in Gaza. Yet the speech was arguably more than simple posturing to hide weakness and went some way in revealing Nasrallah’s worldview and that of his patrons.

What did Nasrallah actually say? It is true that early into the speech he started building a case for Hezbollah’s restraint. For example, he made it clear that the October attack was a Hamas operation — indeed that it was a complete secret, a surprise to other groups in the “resistance” and a purely Palestinian matter. This could be read as praise for Hamas’ initiative and autonomy, but it seems more like a means of limiting Hezbollah’s responsibilities toward the Hamas campaign, buying Hezbollah and Iran freedom to set their own policies.

Nasrallah’s answer to the question of when Hezbollah will join the fight was simple: Hezbollah was already in the fight, having opened a front with Israel in south Lebanon early, where it has already lost dozens of fighters. Nasrallah boasted that this had deterred any preemptive war plans against Lebanon by Israel and forced it to divert assets from the Gaza front, which might be true. His larger aim was obviously to defend Hezbollah against accusations of cowardice and calls for escalation: The party was already doing its “resistance” duty after all.

If you are Lebanese — or don’t wish for there to be a war in Lebanon — this might be enough to put you at ease. But alongside such relief was a good deal of schadenfreude and contempt toward Hezbollah, observers contrasting its usual bombastic propaganda with its meekness in the face of Israel and its ostensible selling-out of its “resistance” partner Hamas. Conversely, Hamas will be disappointed with Nasrallah’s restraint. But this is not all that Nasrallah had to say on the matter.

Nasrallah spent much of the speech contextualizing the war in the broader strategic worldview of the “resistance axis” and its specific historical chapters. Nasrallah made clear that Hezbollah continues to see Israel as a fundamentally dangerous but weak actor plagued by internal contradictions and limited means — the “spider web” of this and previous speeches. Indeed, he pointed to the American rush to fund and arm Israel after the Hamas attacks as proof of the latter’s weakness rather than of its good standing with a superpower. He even spent a substantial amount of time singling out Israel’s current cabinet as particularly dysfunctional and shortsighted, another supposed indication of Israel’s decline.

Nasrallah is clearly satisfied at the shock and disorientation Hamas’ killings provoked and raised a crucial point: Israel’s perceived habit of responding to provocations with maximalist positions that they are then forced to climb down from. The example he used was the 2006 Lebanon war, when the Israelis tried to force Hezbollah to return kidnapped soldiers through large-scale military action, only to have to agree to a humbling prisoner swap after a strong performance by Hezbollah. Unlike Hamas, Hezbollah (and Iran) do have some history of inflicting strategic setbacks on Israel, especially in Lebanon, at least at some critical junctures. In his speech Nasrallah urged Hamas to see the “resistance” as unfolding in discrete stages and to focus on immediate achievements. This is consistent with the broader “resistance” view to which Nasrallah, who remains a true believer despite his Lebanese political cynicism, subscribes.

All of which tells us that while Nasrallah and his patrons do not want a war in Lebanon, this does not necessarily mean they believe Israel is going to win in Gaza (according to either Israeli or Hezbollah definitions of victory). They may simply not know what is going to happen there or perhaps expect Hamas to emerge bloodied but alive (a victory in “resistance” terms). If that is the calculation, then it would make no sense for Hezbollah to escalate against Israel — or it would at the very least be cause for patience and restraint.

Nasrallah did, however, make a crucial point of saying decisions about escalation are tied to events in Gaza, raising the possibility that a war in Lebanon is possible after all, under certain circumstances. We can only speculate as to what those might be, though an approaching elimination of Hamas — a true Israeli victory, as Nasrallah or Iran might see it — could provide an answer.

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