After its bloodiest weekend in its conflict with Israel, what is Hezbollah's strategy?

Powerful Lebanese armed group has engaged in 'skirmishes' with Israeli forces in the past two weeks

The National reports from funeral of Hezbollah member killed near Lebanon-Israel border

The National reports from funeral of Hezbollah member killed near Lebanon-Israel border
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With 26 Hezbollah fighters having been killed – about half of them over the weekend alone – the past two weeks have been the deadliest of the Iran-backed group’s long-running conflict with Israel since a war in 2006.

But Hezbollah is continuing relatively low-level clashes with Israel, even as the intensity gradually rises, with a second front on Lebanon's southern border yet to fully open.

Experts tell The National that what happens next could depend on the group's close co-ordination with Iran, especially if Tehran sees its Palestinian ally “seriously weakened", according to Karim Bitar, a professor of International Relations at Saint Joseph University in Beirut.

The Iran-backed Lebanese armed group, part of the Tehran-led Axis of Resistance, reportedly put its death toll during that month-long conflict in the summer of 2006 at about 250.

That was a full-scale, cross-country war that devastated villages and neighbourhoods in Lebanon, unlike the skirmishes of the last two weeks. Around 1,200 Lebanese civilians, 44 Israelis and 121 Israeli soldiers also died in the 34-day war.

For now, exchanges of fire have followed unwritten rules of engagement between the two sides, a managed tit-for-tat struggle. Thus far, neither has wanted to revisit the destruction of 2006.

As Israel pummels Gaza, the Lebanese armed group, for now, has remained relatively restrained. But if Israel pursues a ground invasion of Gaza – said to be imminent – that could change, leading to rapid escalation.

So, is Hezbollah's tactic of managed escalation working, and what are they trying to achieve?

“Thus far it has continued to be skirmishes around the border areas and part of Hezbollah's tactics to show solidarity with Hamas and also distract the Israeli military campaign from being relaxed in its approach to Gaza,” said Imad Salamey, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.

“It thus far has been played out within the rules of engagement,” he said while adding that how those rules will look when Israel escalates even further in Gaza remains to be seen. An increase in fighting on the southern border could be expected or missiles could be fired on major Israeli cities, which could provoke significant retaliatory air strikes.

“We really have to keep in mind that Hezbollah is an integral part of a regional axis that had been co-ordinating its strategy (with Iran) for the past years and that is still coordinating its response,” Prof Bitar said.

“The organic link between Iran and Hezbollah is much stronger than the links between Iran and Hamas.

“As the death count increases, if the operation in Gaza becomes a bloodbath, if Hamas is seriously weakened, there is a genuine risk that Iran could allow Hezbollah, maybe not to open a new front altogether, but at least to strike at Israel from the northern front, to alleviate the pressure on Hamas and Gaza."

Hezbollah, the Shiite armed group conceived by Iran which first emerged in the Lebanese civil war to oppose Israel's invasion of the country, retains strong and vocal backing within its main support base.

That is despite the deaths of at least 24 Hezbollah fighters, Prof Salamey said. “The support base now is fully mobilised, fully charged, fully behind the party”.

“But all that doesn't matter, this is a proxy group, operating on behalf of Iranian interests in the region. What matters is how Iran is looking at this and seeing this fight,” he added.

And within Lebanon, including among many in the Shiite community, much of the country is deeply opposed to the idea of a new war, even if Hezbollah can operate with virtual impunity.

Lebanon's economic crisis

“So far we have seen a certain restraint because Hezbollah realises that the circumstances have completely changed,” said Prof Bitar.

“We are no longer in 2006, Lebanon is in the midst of a complete state collapse. The communal tensions in Lebanon are still there. Other communities and most Lebanese citizens of all sects are extremely hostile to seeing their country engulfed in a new conflict that would be devastating.”

Embroiled since 2019 in one of the worst economic crises in modern times, Lebanon has been without a president for about a year, has a caretaker government and important positions – including the central bank governor – are being run by acting heads.

Amid all of this, while Hezbollah's well-oiled media machine and senior figures have been continually issuing their messages, the man at the top has remained conspicuously silent.

Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah has yet to speak publicly about the escalation, since the escalation of the Israel-Gaza war more than two weeks ago when Hamas fighters breached Gaza's fences and attacked Israeli settlements and army garrisons, killing 1,400 people, mostly civilians.

On Sunday, Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah said there need not be any concern and that Mr Nasrallah was closely monitoring developments and directing commanders in battle.

Updated: October 23, 2023, 4:36 PM