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3 November 2023

Could Hezbollah’s leader ignite a regional war?

Hassan Nasrallah's forces are poised on Israel's border. Is he about to open a new front in the conflict?

By Katie Stallard

As the last Israeli troops withdrew from Lebanon at the end of their month-long war in 2006, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, rallied hundreds of thousands of supporters at a “festival of victory” in a devastated Beirut suburb. They had won a “divine, historic and strategic victory” not just over Israel, but also the US, Nasrallah told the cheering crowd, some of whom had walked for days to be there. “No army in the world is strong enough to disarm us.”

In fact, the conflict ended in a stalemate, with a ceasefire brokered by the UN, after 34 days of intense fighting that killed an estimated 1,200 Lebanese and 159 Israelis and destroyed vast swathes of civilian infrastructure in southern Lebanon and parts of the capital. (Although the war was triggered by Hezbollah’s abduction of two Israeli soldiers in July 2006, Israeli officials held that the state of Lebanon was also responsible, imposing a naval blockade and bombing the international airport in Beirut.) Yet Nasrallah emerged from the conflict as a popular hero. He was celebrated across large parts of Lebanon and the Middle East simply for having survived the onslaught, and thereby supposedly humbling the region’s most powerful military. According to a poll two years later, he was the most admired leader in the Arab world.

Now Nasrallah, 63, is weighing the most consequential decision of his three-decade rule: whether to enter the Israel-Hamas war by launching a major assault on Israel from the north, which could transform the conflict into a regional conflagration. While Iran, which funds and arms both Hezbollah and Hamas as part of its “axis of resistance”, has repeatedly threatened Israel in the past three weeks with the prospect of escalation, Nasrallah has been uncharacteristically silent. That is about to change. The Hezbollah leader is expected to deliver a televised address on 3 November, ahead of which a video clip has begun circulating on social media appearing to show Nasrallah walking past a Hezbollah flag as sinister music plays. Presumably, it is intended as an ominous hint of what is to come. 

Nasrallah was born in 1960 in a suburb of eastern Beirut. The son of a poor grocer, he saw himself as a future religious leader from a young age. “When I was ten or 11, my grandmother had a scarf,” he recalled in an interview with the US journalist Robin Wright in 2006. “I used to wrap it around my head and say to [other people] that I’m a cleric, you need to pray behind me.”

After the start of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, he moved with his family to their ancestral village near Tyre in southern Lebanon, where he attracted the attention of a local cleric who urged him to study at a seminary in Iraq. There, he met the man who would become Hezbollah’s founding leader, Abbas al-Musawi.

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Nasrallah returned to Lebanon in 1978 after Iraq expelled hundreds of religious students; he resumed his studies at a religious school al-Musawi had founded. He later joined the Shia militants fighting against the Israeli invasion in 1982. Backed by funding and training from the theocratic regime in Iran that had seized power in the 1979 revolution, the most prominent Lebanese militia group adopted the name Hezbollah – “the party of God” – and expanded its attacks to include devastating suicide bombings. Nasrallah became the group’s secretary-general after al-Musawi was assassinated, along with his wife and son, by Israeli helicopter gunships in 1992.

The young new leader – Nasrallah was 31 when al-Musawi was killed – drove the group’s political emergence, cultivating grass-roots support among disenchanted Shia citizens in Lebanon. At a time when the Lebanese state was struggling to perform the basic functions of government, Hezbollah offered its followers social services such as access to schools, medical care and housing. Hezbollah’s political wing contested the 1992 elections, winning eight seats in parliament. The group’s campaign tactics included posters of suicide bombers alongside the slogan: “They resist with their blood. Resist with your vote.”

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When Israel pulled its troops out of southern Lebanon in 2000 after a 15-year occupation, Hezbollah took control of many of the evacuated villages. During the years that followed, Hezbollah secured its first cabinet positions in the Lebanese government and Nasrallah became a well-known figure: his face was ubiquitous on posters, key chains and even screensavers among his supporters, with excerpts from his speeches turned into popular ringtones.

[See also: The great unravelling]

From a military perspective, Hezbollah is significantly stronger now than it was in 2006. It is thought to be the world’s most heavily armed non-state actor, with an estimated arsenal of around 150,000 rockets and missiles, including precision-guided Iranian weapons that can reach much of Israel. Its forces also have recent experience of conflict in Syria, where they have been fighting alongside Bashar al-Assad’s regime since 2013.

But the political and economic situation in Lebanon is precarious. Hezbollah has been criticised for its alleged role in the devastating 2020 Beirut port explosion, which killed at least 218 people after hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate ignited. (Nasrallah has denied any responsibility.) Lebanon is also suffering an economic crisis that has plunged more than 80 per cent of its citizens into poverty and left the country on the brink of becoming a failed state.

For all Nasrallah’s bombast after his last war with Israel 17 years ago, he admitted in an interview at the time that he would not have approved the raid that triggered the conflict if he had known what would follow. “If I had known on July 11… that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it?” he said on Lebanon’s New TV in August 2006. “I say no, absolutely not.” The following month, however, he insisted that the group’s actions had simply “hastened a war that was going to happen anyway”.

The question now is whether Nasrallah, and his backers in Tehran, think that a wider conflict with Israel is similarly inevitable. The two US aircraft carrier strike groups sitting off the coast in the Mediterranean, combined with the prospect of a massive Israeli counter-strike and the regional instability that would surely follow, could be sufficient to dissuade them from launching an attack. Iran values Hezbollah – far more so than it does Hamas – as a deterrent against direct Israeli military action and may prefer to preserve its powerful forces as a sword of Damocles hanging over Israel’s northern border, rather than risk committing and weakening its treasured proxy.

Ego and domestic politics will also play a role. Nasrallah has been described as a vainglorious figure who relishes his self-appointed role as a defender of Muslims in the struggle against Israel. “He sees himself as a unique, visionary figure, a revolutionary hero like Che Guevara,” explained the academic Hussein Ibish, then director of the Foundation for Arab-American Leadership, after the 2006 conflict. After 31 years at the helm of Hezbollah, an organisation dedicated to the destruction of Israel, and with scenes of carnage emerging from Gaza, Nasrallah may decide he cannot remain on the sidelines of the region’s most significant conflict in decades. We will find out soon enough.

This article was originally published on 1 November.

[See also: What the West got wrong about Iran]

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This article appears in the 01 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour Revolts