How will Hezbollah retaliate against Israel after killing of Saleh Al Arouri?

Hassan Nasrallah has promised group 'cannot be silent' but it is likely to avoid risking escalation to all-out war

Hezbollah leader: 'War with us would be very costly'

Hezbollah leader: 'War with us would be very costly'
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Few but Hezbollah’s top leaders have a clear idea of what the group could do next after Israel's assassination of Hamas deputy Saleh Al Arouri in Beirut on Tuesday.

Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah, in his first comments since the killing, had warned that the Iran-backed group “cannot be silent.”

But Mr Nasrallah, who is set to give another speech on Friday, did not elaborate further, and it is unclear how exactly the group plans to retaliate.

A source close to Hezbollah told The National on Thursday: “The retaliation has to be clear. It won’t be the kind that leads to a full-scale war, but an act that clearly says: this is our retaliation.

“There is no way the Hezbollah sees a strike on Dahieh and do nothing,” they said, referring to the Beirut neighbourhood where Mr Arouri was killed that is a stronghold for Hezbollah.

“Until yesterday, there was still no general mobilisation. The fighters at the borders are from nearby villages, not other regions, which means things haven’t escalated yet,” the source added.

“But that was until last night. Things could change at any moment.”

Measured retaliation?

For Bashir Saade, lecturer in politics and religion at the University of Stirling, Hezbollah's interest lies in a measured retaliation, in line with its strategy since October 7.

“Hezbollah looks at things on a longer trend; they do not react on the spot,” he said.

The group has so far maintained a low-level conflict with Israel across the border aimed at pressuring and deterring the country's war in Gaza.

But both Hezbollah and its Iranian backers have avoided initiating full-scale war and have exercised restraint despite repeated escalations from Israel.

“Hezbollah’s strategy so far has been to establish a pressure front at the border, to destroy strategic military material and dismantle intelligence frameworks,” said Mr Saade.

Historically, political assassinations of Hezbollah officials such as Imad Mughnieh, a senior member of Hezbollah killed by a joint US-Israeli operation, have not sparked a strong retaliation.

In the wake of the assassination of Mr Al Arouri, Hezbollah has a similar interest in keeping the war from escalating, say experts.

Analysts see Israel's recent escalation as a way to forcefully impose its objective of pushing Hezbollah out of Lebanon's deep south, which would limit the group's ability to threaten northern Israel and allow the return of the thousands of residents displaced from Israel’s border areas.

“The assassination of Saleh Al Arouri is an attempt to trigger an angry impulse, a miscalculation which would grant Benjamin Netanyahu the same legitimacy he claims to have in Gaza to trigger an all-out war in Lebanon,” said Mr Saade.

“But Hezbollah has no interest in providing this opportunity for Israel; it would be weakened by an all-out war, while it prospers in guerrilla warfare,” said Mr Saade.

Hezbollah just needs to “maintain a front of pressure to create a situation of instability in the north, pushing for an evacuation of northern settlements”, while Israel is pushing for a more violent escalation, which is its “only way” to achieve its military objectives, he added.

A repeat of 2006?

Hezbollah and Israel last engaged in an all-out war in 2006, when the circumstances were different.

Although analysts say Hezbollah does not want another all-out war, there are more risks of escalation in today's conflict.

Lebanon is also acutely aware of the economic and physical damage that it would sustain in the event of a full-on war. Since 2019, the country has been entrenched in one of the worst economic crisis in modern history.

The 2006 war served to distract from Hezbollah's domestic issues – the group was coming under pressure to disarm, and accused of assassinating former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Hezbollah started the war by launching a cross-border raid into Israel during which it kidnapped two Israeli soldiers.

Israel responded by bombing both Hezbollah and civilian targets, including Beirut's airport, and launching a ground invasion of southern Lebanon.

More than a 1,000 people were killed in Lebanon during the month-long war, which ended with a ceasefire on August 14.

The estimated damaged to Lebanon's civilian infrastructure was around $2.5 billion.

Today's conflict is a “totally different ballgame,” said Imad Salamey, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.

Hezbollah is just one cog in a much wider conflict, centred on the Israel-Gaza war but featuring conflict between Iran-backed groups and the US and its allies across Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

“Hezbollah’s ability to gain backing and co-ordination among various armed groups in the region is much more available than it was in 2006,” Prof Salamey said.

Since 2006, Hezbollah has itself been active in other conflicts across the region, most notably fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and other Iranian-backed groups in the Syrian Civil War.

The so-called Axis of Resistance is a loose coalition of Iran-backed groups opposed to Israel. Though Iranian-led, they also have the capacity to act independently.

Hezbollah's military threat

Hezbollah has also expanded its military arsenal since 2006 and now has a greater ability to damage Israel.

“Since 2006, Hezbollah's arsenal has significantly expanded; it has drones, long range missiles, and they can challenge the Iron Dome,” said Mr Saade, referring to the Israeli defence system built to intercept rockets.

Mr Nasrallah has said in previous speeches that his group has 100,000 trained fighters and can target every city in Israel.

“He is usually very cautious, so its estimates can be trusted,” Mr Saade said.

Whereas in 2006, Hezbollah may have had about 15,000 missiles in its arsenal, now it is rumoured to possess around 150,000.

“Armed technology has developed so much, Hezbollah today is totally in command of the Lebanese state, it has emerged victorious in Syria, it has logistical support coming in, modern arms, more capacity, training, they’ve learnt more from previous fights,” said Mr Salamey, who pointed to the experience the group would have gained from 2006, and its involvements in conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

“What we saw from Hamas on October 7 … flying people over the border, blowing up border fences. That’s something very minor to what capacities Hezbollah has,” he said.

“Hezbollah commands a much wider ground,” he added.

All eyes on Nasrallah

Many are waiting for Nasrallah's follow-up speech on Friday to see how Hezbollah might retaliate.

In the group's south Beirut heartland, many may expect a firmer response.

Zainoun Nabousli, a resident of the neighbourhood, said that many people close to Hezbollah are calling for stronger attacks against Israel.

“I realised that a full war is serving Israel's interests, so why would we give them what they want?” he said. He also stressed that Lebanese people remain very divided on the question, with many deeply critical of the Shiite armed group. “Hezbollah is not in the most secure position.”

Expectations are mounting before Mr Nasrallah’s second speech. “Everything depends on the coming days; you can't predict anything any more. But I hope there will be a bit of surprise because we are all waiting for a strong speech,” said Mr Nabousli.

Updated: January 04, 2024, 5:13 PM