Lebanon holds its breath as Hezbollah leader prepares to make long-awaited speech

Analysts say declaration of war against Israel by Lebanon-based group is highly unlikely

Supporters of Hezbollah carry a portrait of leader Hassan Nasrallah during a rally in Beirut to express solidarity with Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. EPA
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In a style reminiscent of a film trailer, a 10-second video released on Thursday showed Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, strolling past a poster featuring his party's emblem – a yellow flag with an assault rifle – accompanied by suspenseful background music.

The video, which was widely shared on social media in Lebanon, coincided with the announcement that Mr Nasrallah would make a speech on Friday at 3pm, as the total number of Hezbollah fighters killed since fighting with Israel erupted at the border last month has risen to 50.

The announcement, which follows three weeks of conspicuous silence, has left many Lebanese holding their breath amid a widespread perception that the leader of Hezbollah, a powerful militia and influential political party backed by Iran, holds the country's future in his hands.

Officially, his speech will be a tribute to the party’s fighters that were killed in recent clashes between Hezbollah and Israel after Hamas's October 7 attack.

However, for many Lebanese, it has the potential to become a turning point that will determine whether their country will be drawn into a devastating war or remain on the sidelines.

“Rarely has a speech been anticipated with such a combination of stress and anxiety among the Lebanese population,” political analyst Karim Bitar told The National.

“Mr Nasrallah is known for addressing the public daily during times of conflict, he has not said a word in three weeks.”

Mr Bitar said his silence was a type of “psychological warfare”.

The silence is part of Mr Nasrallah's management of this battle, Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah said late last month, and “it is also what confuses the enemy”.

Drawing red lines

The Lebanese government, while stressing it does not want Lebanon to become involved in the conflict, has repeatedly said that the decision was ultimately not in its hands.

Hezbollah, which swiftly voiced support for Hamas's attack and offered to provide assistance, and its ally Iran are the primary decision-makers in this situation.

“We can see how non-state armed groups have appropriated the decisions of war and peace that traditionally belong to the state, which is emblematic of the state's powerlessness,” said Karim Mufti, a professor of international relations at Sciences Po Paris.

But analysts suggest that a formal declaration of war is highly unlikely.

“It's not his usual approach,” said Mr Mufti.

He said the speech is more likely to be an opportunity for Mr Nasrallah, known for his eloquence, to delineate red lines in the conflict, while stressing the principles of deterrence.

For now, both enemies appear to understand that they cannot afford a new front. Israel is already facing difficulties in Gaza, while Lebanon is grappling with one of the worst economic crises in modern history, leading to widespread opposition to the war.

The clashes have so far been limited to a few border villages, loosely adhering to the informal “rules of engagement” that govern retaliation between the two enemies, Mr Mufti said.

He added that the red lines might include any forced evacuation of the population from Gaza reminiscent of the Nakba in 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were permanently displaced from their homes, or the threat of the complete destruction of Hamas.

The speech will also provide an opportunity for Mr Nasrallah to express support for the Palestinian cause and stress that resistance to Israel remains at the core of Hezbollah's actions.

But “this has not been the case for years”, Mr Mufti explained.

“The speech will stay within the theme of escalation and the threat,” he said.

“In any case, as an armed group in a state of war, it is an opportunity for them to exist without themselves crossing the red lines.

“But you never really know – with Hezbollah, everything is possible.”

Updated: November 02, 2023, 4:28 PM