Is it the beginning of the end of Hezbollah?

Israel's war on Gaza will likely end with a diplomatic compromise, which would weaken Hamas. This would, in turn, weaken other Iran-backed groups in the Middle East.

The more Israel's war on Gaza drags on, the more Nasrallah's speeches lose their value, and the more impotent Hezbollah appears.
The more Israel's war on Gaza drags on, the more Nasrallah's speeches lose their value, and the more impotent Hezbollah appears.

Is it the beginning of the end of Hezbollah?

As Israel continues to assassinate one Hezbollah officer after another, the question of how Hezbollah will respond becomes increasingly important.

There is widespread concern about the war between Israel and Hamas spilling over into Lebanon, but so far, Hezbollah’s reaction has been measured. But this is not because Hezbollah is scheming, the way Hamas did before its surprise attack on Israel on 7 October.

The war began at a time when the Lebanese militant group was already facing challenges both in Lebanon and more broadly and has further exposed Hezbollah’s weaknesses on multiple fronts. In many ways, the war underpins the beginning of the end of Hezbollah.

The intensity of Israel’s attacks on Hezbollah officers is remarkable. Israel has killed at least 166 members of Hezbollah since the 7 October war began. This is a huge number considering that Hezbollah and Israel are technically not engaged in all-out war like they were in 2006.

Back then, in 33 days of intense fighting, Israel killed more than 1,000 Hezbollah fighters. This is the first time that Israel has gone after particular Hezbollah individuals in a rapid sequence of assassinations.

What is also notable is that Israel continues to target senior Hezbollah military officers rather than just regular fighters involved in active combat.

Assassinations of such officers have happened as the individuals were in buildings in residential areas and while riding in moving vehicles. This illustrates the high level of intelligence that Israel has over Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Members of Hezbollah carry a coffin during the funeral of Wissam Tawil, a commander of Hezbollah's elite Radwan forces who was killed during an Israeli strike on south Lebanon in Khirbet Silem, January 9, 2024.

Despite this sparking public debate in Lebanon about the potential presence of pro-Israel agents within Hezbollah’s ranks and the holes that must exist in its communications network and security arrangements, Hezbollah seems unable to safeguard itself against such attacks.

Instead, it is resorting to hollow PR stunts. Pro-Hezbollah media outlets continue to repeat the same allegations about other Lebanese media outlets that are covering the events, implying that those rival media channels are traitors propagating an Israeli narrative about Hezbollah’s vulnerability.

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has stepped up the number of speeches he has given since the war began. But this is a far cry from the speeches he used to deliver at the height of the 2006 war.

Back then, Nasrallah’s speeches were defiant and carefully staged as a tool of psychological warfare that aimed to threaten Israel and rally the masses around Hezbollah across the Arab world.

The speech he delivered on 14 July 2006, during which he asked viewers to watch an Israeli warship burn only for the camera to cut to a scene of the warship after being hit by an Iranian-made missile, was a landmark moment in Hezbollah’s communication strategy, which stands in sharp contrast to the group’s lacklustre messaging of today.

Early on in the current war, there was mass panic in Lebanon about Hezbollah getting involved in aiding Hamas militarily, but Nasrallah’s speeches — ripe with empty propaganda — seem to have lost their value.

Assassinations of Hezbollah officers have happened as they were in residential buildings and while riding in moving vehicles. This illustrates the high level of intelligence Israel has on the group in Lebanon.

Nasrallah's first speech after 7 October was anticipated with bated breath by Lebanon's residents, who expected him to declare war.

This was especially because, in the run-up to the speech, different formal and informal channels connected with Hezbollah online and on Telegram circulated video teasers that seemed to imply that significant action was imminent. Many people speculated on the meanings of those videos and whether they carried coded messages.

However, when Nasrallah finally gave his address on 3 November, the expected war declaration never happened. Instead, Nasrallah indicated that Hezbollah was not going to escalate the war. Since then, every Nasrallah speech has been unremarkable.

Hezbollah cannot be seen to be sitting still while the war between Israel and Hezbollah's ally, Hamas, rages on, but the more time passes, the more impotent Hezbollah appears.

Not only does Hezbollah seem unable to protect itself from Israel's assassinations, but each speech by Nasrallah is proving to be much talk backed by little action, which gradually chips away at his credibility. 

Vulnerability exposed

There is only so much Nasrallah can say to express outrage at Israel, to warn it that its attacks will not go unpunished, and to show support for Hamas. Because of this, Nasrallah's speeches have been having the opposite effect than they intended — exposing Hezbollah's vulnerability.

Read more: Iran's increasing regional adventurism shows its vulnerability

Each speech by Nasrallah is proving to be much talk backed by little action, which gradually chips away at his credibility. 

There are valid reasons why Hezbollah does not want an escalation with Israel. Contrary to 2006, neither domestic nor regional support for such a scenario exists. Hezbollah also will not want to spark an escalation that could drag the US into a regional war, which would pose a direct threat to Iran.

Gone are the days when Hezbollah would threaten the US. Instead, in his speech on 14 January following a bout of Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea, Nasrallah sounded more like a detached geopolitical analyst.

"The security of the Red Sea, calm on Lebanon's front, the situation in Iraq, and all developments in the region are tied to one thing: stopping the aggression against Gaza. You are trying to deal with the consequences and the results; go fix the reason," he told Washington.

All the above is happening against the backdrop of political paralysis in Lebanon, with the country remaining without a president and only a caretaker cabinet. Although Hezbollah is the primary actor blocking progress on those fronts, it cannot impose its will on its political rivals in Lebanon.

This shows that Hezbollah's influence, like Iran's on a regional level, is based more on disruption than a proactive strategy. Hezbollah also recently used the war in Gaza as an excuse for why the political crisis in Lebanon cannot be resolved.

Despite Israel's hard-line statements, the Gaza war is likely to eventually end with a diplomatic compromise, which would weaken Hamas's political influence.

In this scenario, other Iran-backed groups in the Middle East, including Hezbollah, will also start to lose their standing. That will be the final nail in the coffin.

Hezbollah members during the funeral of one of its fighters.

Little left to offer

Looking back at what Hezbollah has been doing and saying since 7 October, it is clear that the group has little left to offer.

Despite its huge arsenal, Hezbollah is no longer the mighty military threat it used to be to Israel because Iran needs to tie Hezbollah's hands to ensure its own survival. Its political authority in Lebanon is based on negative power rather than agenda-setting.

Its leader is no longer the charismatic figure who garnered popular admiration across the Middle East. It is increasingly reliant on empty propaganda rather than deeds. It continues to be proven to be exposed in the face of Israeli intelligence. It is bound by loyalists who are nevertheless no longer as keen on martyrdom and sacrifice as they used to be in 2006.

And if the Gaza war is succeeded by a breakthrough on the Israel-Palestine peace process, as leading Arab countries and the US are demanding, then Hezbollah will be backed into a corner. After all, Hezbollah cannot be more Palestinian than the Palestinians.

Hezbollah made many mistakes in its history but continued to project a mask of invincibility. With the Gaza war, this mask has fallen.

The Middle East is now witnessing the beginning of the end of the group. It will not be a swift ending, but there is no going back to the old days of glory. Hezbollah, as the world used to know it, has already vanished.

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