Relief after Hassan Nasrallah's speech fails to fan the flames of a wider war

But Lebanese remain anxious after Hezbollah leader said 'all options are on the table'

Hezbollah supporters watch a televised speech by the group's leader Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut's southern suburbs on Friday. AFP
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“This speech could've been an email”: this joke, which went viral on social media, reflects the mixed feelings surrounding Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's highly anticipated address on Friday, after weeks of conspicuous silence following the start of the Israel-Gaza war.

The speech, framed as one of the most crucial of his career, had the entire nation on the edge of their seats amid the backdrop of deadly clashes along the Lebanese-Israeli border. Many in Lebanon had feared that the leader of the Iran-backed militia would officially declare war against Israel, which it fought in the 2006 war, potentially drawing the country into a regional conflagration.

Instead, Hassan Nasrallah attempted to navigate a delicate balancing act.

He ruled out the prospect of an immediate all-out conflict in Lebanon and called for a ceasefire, all the while maintaining that “all options are open on the Lebanese front. All options are on the table, and we are ready for all possibilities.”

“The speech turned out to be less confrontational than anticipated. Mr Nasrallah has chosen to keep his options open, but it appears he has recognised the lack of appetite within the Lebanese population for Lebanon's involvement in this conflict,” said political analyst Karim Bitar.

Hezbollah had quickly backed Hamas's attack on October 7, escalating violence on the Lebanese-Israeli border the day after, which resulted in daily clashes between Israel and the Shiite militia, killing 71 on the Lebanese side as reported by AFP, including 7 civilians.

Hassan Nasrallah slams Israel and US in long-awaited televised speech

Hassan Nasrallah slams Israel and US in long-awaited televised speech

So far, the conflict has loosely followed the so-called “rules of engagement”, which govern retaliation between the two enemies.

“Lebanese citizens are breathing a sigh of relief tonight, as they had been apprehensive about the prospect of an escalation,” Mr Bitar added.

While expressing support for the Palestinians, the Lebanese government, amid its continuing economic crisis, is wary of the conflict spilling over into Lebanon.

The key decision-maker, however, is not the Lebanese state, with no president, a government in its caretaker capacity and a barely functioning parliament, but rather Hezbollah and its sponsor, Iran.

“Mr Nasrallah knows that most of Lebanese are against the war and that he cannot afford a conflict in these circumstances,” he added.

'Mixed feelings'

But the ambivalence of the speech generated a range of emotions among the Lebanese population since it neither fully de-escalated nor fully escalated the situation.

Marc, a 33-year-old resident of Beirut, said: “The speech was well-balanced, but we are still anxious; he did say that all options are still on the table.”

“I have mixed feelings,” said Mireille, a 47 year-old project manager. “I'm reassured because he doesn't seem to want to escalate, but at the same time, Mr Nasrallah made us believe for all these years that Hezbollah is here to support Palestine and destroy Israel; if he is not doing it now, then when is he going to do it?”

On the other hand, anti-Hezbollah parties, such as the Lebanese Forces, a right-wing Christian party, did not interpret the speech as having a balanced tone.

“We were overwhelmed trying to finalise internal issues and figure out ways to support the state institutions and help our Lebanese people amid these harsh situations and we did not have the chance to listen to Mr Nasrallah,” a spokesman for the party told The National.

“But reading the speech later on, we found our narrative even stronger and our request to fully implement resolution 1701 even more critical after Mr Nasrallah's speech,” he added. Resolution 1701 calls for the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon, including Hezbollah.

“One would expect from a political leader in these times to speak about the interests of Lebanon, yet Mr Nasrallah yesterday, all he tried was to show that he speaks on behalf of the Axis of Resistance.”

'Everything is under the Sayyed's control'

In Dahieh, a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut, the atmosphere significantly diverged from the rest of the capital. The majority of Hezbollah's supporters present at the rally on Friday in Ashoura Square, where the speech was screened, expressed their support for war against Israel.

However, according to Karim El Mufti, a professor of international relations at Sciences Po Paris, the situation is more nuanced.

“Mr. Nasrallah's speech also aimed to address his base, which is divided between radicals eager for a wider conflict and those who do not want a repeat of the 2006 war. Hezbollah could potentially fracture,” he observed.

That is why, he explained, Mr Nasrallah attempted to play on both sides, emphasising that the country had “entered the battle on October 8” while deflecting any escalation on Israel and the United States.

Has Mr Nasrallah's strategy proven effective? There was no indication of disappointment among the thousands of gathered supporters, who all enthusiastically applauded the speech, but that is also to be expected at such a rally as Hezbollah knows how to keep its troops in line.

“We are soldiers; we are prepared to fight on the ground, and we are in agreement with everything he said,” Youssef, a 17-year-old, told The National.

“It was a very impressive speech. Even if there is a war, we trust that everything is under the Sayyed's control. He lifted up the spirits, and we are not afraid, whether there is a war or not,” added 14-year-old Fatima.

Updated: November 04, 2023, 3:18 PM