In a televised speech on Tuesday, May 25, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah commented on the most recent Gaza war by proposing a new formula: Jerusalem or regional war. “An attack on Jerusalem or the holy sites will lead to a regional war. When the matter is related to Jerusalem and its Muslim and Christian holy sites, it will not remain limited to the resistance in Palestine,” Nasrallah said as he tried to catch his breath between coughs. His obvious physical illness ironically reflected a faded threat, and a weak rhetoric, even as he attempted to threaten Israel and the region with a war. “After this battle, the 'Deal of the Century' fell and vanished,” Nasrallah added.
Of course, Nasrallah declared victory and praised Hamas’ performance, adding, “all the resistance movements cannot stand by and watch this happening if the holy city is in real, grave danger."
Talk is easy, but actions are more complicated. And Hezbollah’s reaction to the war last week was pathetic to say the least. Hezbollah – and Iran behind it – did not want to be involved – for two main reasons: Hezbollah is not ready – financially and militarily – for war, and Hezbollah is Iran’s last resort, one that will only be used in the full-fledged war, not such a conflict.
Rather than taking military action to support Hamas and the Palestinians, Nasrallah took the role of the observer. But this idleness was embarrassing, as the support-base of Hezbollah and Iran in the region were expecting some kind of action – not necessarily as strong as Hamas’ reaction to the clashes in Jerusalem – but at least some kind of retaliation that proves Hezbollah’s commitment to “the Palestinian Cause,” as they claim.
Instead, as a few missiles were launched from Lebanon by either Palestinian factions or the resistance brigade factions, Hezbollah officials rushed to deny involvement and allow only for calculated demonstrations in Lebanon and at the borders.
Following a number of demonstrations along the border emerging from Palestinian camps in the North, South, Bekaa, and Beirut, and after one of their members, Mohamad Tahhan, was shot by the Israeli army, Hezbollah finally decided to take control of the situation. According to media reports, Hezbollah has circulated orders to its members, and supporters prohibiting them from demonstrating close to the borders, and party leadership will solely issue that further guidelines. The decision was taken to prevent anyone from approaching the barbed fence along the border and possibly causing tension with the Israeli, which could result in another shootout.
In order to avoid further embarrassment and media spotlights, Hezbollah contacted leaders of Palestinian factions and their Lebanese allies and asked them to avoid further calls to go south to the borders. In addition, Hezbollah asked the Lebanese Army to ensure that Palestinians who do not have a permit cannot enter the South.
However, as calls for action increased, Hezbollah’s rhetoric sounded too far from reality. Organized and calculated protests of solidarity were OK, but anything beyond that was forbidden. In this context, the missiles – although Hezbollah denied responsibility – acted as a vague confirmation of Hezbollah’s blessing and slight readiness for military action. As soon as the war was over and Israel agreed to a ceasefire, Hezbollah’s officials immediately claimed responsibility and Nasrallah’s deputy Naim Qassem said in an interview with Al-Nour radio station that Hezbollah was behind all the missiles that were launched into Israel, the majority of which ended up falling inside Lebanese territories. According to Janoubia, a news website in Lebanon, quoting a security source, the Resistance Brigades, a Hezbollah affiliate, were behind the launching of missiles.
Timing is everything – once the war was over, and the risk of a wider confrontation diminished, Hezbollah came out of their hiding to beg the resistance rhetoric back to their narrative.
Damned if they do; damned if they don’t.
In addition to their financial and military challenges, Hezbollah had to abide by the Iranian guidelines and strategy. Therefore, as long as the US-Iran nuclear talks are taking place in Vienna, no further confrontation was necessary. On the contrary, a regional war, as Nasrallah defined it and threatened Israel with it, is not going to be endorsed by Iran because it will disrupt the Vienna talks and could jeopardize a much-needed deal. No matter what happened in Jerusalem, all Nasrallah could do is talk, and organize parades. Evidently, for both Iran and Hezbollah, sanctions relief is more significant than the resistance or the Palestinians.
That being said, Hezbollah might still launch its own war against Israel, when the time comes, but not before a deal with the US is made, and after the group regains access to the hard currency that Iran used to send their way. That money is needed if they want to rebuild their military force that was shattered and thinned-out during the Syria war, and it will certainly be needed for post-war reconstruction and the rehabilitation of their own organizational structure.
Meanwhile, the threat of the missiles is more powerful than the missiles themselves. And the threat of war is more significant than the war itself. If Hezbollah goes to war now, or even attempts to get involved in any conflict against Israel, they will likely lose, even if they try to claim victory.
However, Hezbollah’s resistance rhetoric – with all the claimed victory and threats of a regional war – is no longer convincing to a large number of their support base. The group has ignored many of the hits it suffered due to Israeli attacks on its military structure and personnel, both in Syria and Lebanon. They have proved time after time that resistance is no longer a priority, and that their focus today is on regional hegemony. Meanwhile, the Lebanese people, including their own support-base, are struggling to put food on the table. For the people, Hezbollah has failed to address their economic woes as well.
In an ideal situation, Hezbollah hopes that the US-Iran deal comes to fruition soon, and they regain access to hard currency. Until then, the group will continue using whatever resources are left within state institution, including the central bank reserves to fund their operations in Lebanon and the region. In addition, they will manipulate regional dynamics – such as the recent Gaza conflict – to maintain the remnants of their resistance rhetoric. When Hezbollah claimed victory after its war with Israel in 2006, it was translated in an aggressive regional takeover by Iran, and a vicious control of Hezbollah over Lebanese state institutions.
Today, as they claim Hamas’ victory, Hezbollah is preparing a complete takeover of Lebanon and its institutions. Turning Lebanon into a Gaza-like situation is more convenient for the group than saving the country from an imminent social, economic and security implosion. These claimed victories can only signal that the worst is yet to come.
Hanin Ghaddar is the Friedmann Fellow at The Washington Institute’s Geduld Program on Arab Politics, where she focuses on Shia politics throughout the Levant.