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Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, delivered his first speech since cross-border clashes erupted weeks ago between Israel and armed militant groups following an unprecedented attack by Hamas on October 7, raising concerns of a regional spillover.
Hamas's battle “has extended to more than one front and more than one arena”, Mr Nasrallah said. He added that Hezbollah had “entered the battle on October 8" and warned that the chance of open conflict was “realistic”.
“This glorious operation has caused an earthquake within the Zionist entity,” he said in his speech, which was broadcasted live and shown on large screens across the country. In Beirut's southern suburb of Dahieh, thousands of people gathered in a large plaza to watch.
“These operations have created fear in the Israel enemy: military, security and psychological fear that will have strategic consequences on the entity, both in the present and in the future,” he said.
Washington's support for Israel was also condemned by the Hezbollah leader.
“You, the Americans, can stop the aggression against Gaza because it is your aggression,” he said.
The US “will not engage in a war of words” with Hezbollah’s leadership, a White House National Security Council official said on Friday, warning that the war could escalate into one “bloodier” than the 2006 Israel-Gaza war.
“The United States does not want to see this conflict expand into Lebanon. The likely devastation for Lebanon and its people would be unimaginable and is avoidable,” the official told The National.
Thousands cheered as the Hezbollah leader gave his long-awaited speech, which came after the most intense night of cross-border fighting. Israel pummelled southern Lebanon on Thursday night, killing four, after a volley of rockets were fired across the border.
The group claimed responsibility for a simultaneous attack on 19 Israeli military positions, while the military wing of Hamas, Al Qassam Brigades, said it fired 12 rockets from southern Lebanon into the Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona “in response to the massacre in Gaza”.
Mr Nasrallah has been silent since October 8, when Hezbollah opened the floodgates to a regional multi-front war of attrition in support of its ally Hamas.
In Lebanon, which has no president, no empowered government and no functioning parliament, the absence of any meaningful stances by the country's leadership, citizens – even opponents of the Iran-backed party Hezbollah – often look to Mr Nasrallah for insight on their country's foreign policy.
Twenty-one-year old Mohammad said he had travelled from south Lebanon's Tyre city and began tailgating at the plaza in the morning, “just to hear the Sayyed talk”. The plaza was already packed by 10am, he said.
His friend, who preferred to stay anonymous, told The National he had come to the plaza with a group of friends and his family, and that “my neighbours, and their neighbours and all of Dahieh is here”.
'All options are open' in tit-for-tat war of attrition
The clashes along the Lebanon-Israel border have been contained so far, but there is growing concern that any miscalculation or sudden violence could trigger a broader regional conflict, pitting Israel against Iranian proxies.
Mr Nasrallah reinforced the notion, although he stopped short of declaring full war on Israel.
“Every Israeli escalation will be met with a similar action from us. For every civilian, a civilian,” he said forcefully.
“All options are open on the Lebanese front. All options are on the table, and we are ready for all possibilities.”
The death toll in Lebanon since the Israel-Hamas conflict began now stands at 71, as reported by AFP. This count includes mostly Hezbollah fighters and other combatants, but it also includes at least seven civilians, one of whom was a Reuters journalist.
In his speech, the Hezbollah leader explained that the group's strategy for initiating a border war between Lebanon and Israel had succeeded in diverting a significant amount of the Israeli military's forces from Gaza.
Israel's armed forces had been diluted, he said, with a third of its army, half of its naval forces and a quarter of its air force diverted from Gaza to Lebanon.
The group had also succeeded in displacing “tens of thousands of residents from 58 settlements” from northern Israel.
The escalation between Israel and Hezbollah intensified after Israel announced the “second stage” of its operations in Gaza on Friday, marked by increased bombardment and the start of ground operations in the blockade strip.
“Since I was a kid, I heard about the West being champions of human rights,” said Hussein, who also came to watch the speech. “Where are they now? They are all supporting Israel and its crimes, they are all supporting oppression, even Arab countries.”
Hezbollah swiftly endorsed Hamas's deadly attack by commencing a border confrontation, with rockets launched into the occupied Chebaa territories on October 8. The group cited rising Israel incursions into Al Aqsa in Jerusalem, growing settlement expansion and violence in the West Bank, and the ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip.
But, the leader said, “Al Aqsa Flood operation was 100 per cent a Palestinian decision”, implying that Iran and Hezbollah did not have a hand in engineering the operation.
Axis of Resistance
“The Islamic Republic of Iran openly supports the resistance movements in Lebanon, Palestine and the region, but it does not exert control over their leadership,” Mr Nasrallah said. “The decisions of the resistance belong to the leadership of the resistance.”
On Thursday night, Iraqi militia groups claimed that a drone was fired towards Israeli positions on the Dead Sea, while Yemen's Houthi rebels said on Tuesday they had launched three drone and missile attacks towards Israel since the start of the war, vowing to continue such attacks “to help the Palestinians to victory”.
“Iran is pushing its proxies around us, the Houthis, Hezbollah and others, in order to distract us from focusing on Hamas and Gaza,” said Israeli military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari on Thursday.
“In the north, the IDF will respond with action, not with words. The IDF is on high alert.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said on Sunday that Iran does not want war to “spread out”.
People in the region were angry, he said, and “they are not receiving orders from us”.
“They act according to their own interest. Also, what happened, what was carried out by Hamas, it was totally Palestinian.”
The White House National Security Council official said: “We and our partners have been clear: Hezbollah and other actors – state or non-state – should not try to take advantage of the ongoing conflict.”
But Hezbollah's leader advised the US to be cautious in their approach to the conflict, saying during his speech: “The Americans would not only be striking Lebanon – they would also have to strike Iran.”