As the world turns its eyes toward the war between Israel and Hamas, many in the Middle East are looking anxiously toward Israel’s other conflicts. One group in particular with a long-standing grudge against Israel is the Hezbollah group in Lebanon. But what exactly is Hezbollah, and is there a possibility of escalation between the group and Israel?
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Hezbollah is a “Shiite Muslim political party and militant group based in Lebanon, where its extensive security apparatus, political organization, and social services network have fostered its reputation as ‘a state within a state.’” Hezbollah is internationally recognized as a terrorist group due to its orchestration of several global terrorist attacks, and it is one of the most heavily armed non-state actors in the world. Even though it is technically a non-state actor, Hezbollah maintains heavy influence over the politics of Lebanon, with several of its members serving in Lebanon’s Parliament. And while Hezbollah originates from Lebanon, its Shiite-Muslim nature means an inherently close connection with Iran, which provides most of the group’s funding.
Given the Israel-Hamas War’s escalation in the past month, many are worried that tensions will carry over into Lebanon. And indeed, some attacks have already been reported. The Wall Street Journal writes that Israel shelled a village in southern Lebanon on Thursday after explosions were heard in a disputed border area, raising fears of a multifront escalation in the region. Additional clashes have been reported by Reuters, with Lebanese security sources saying 11 fighters with Palestinian groups allied to Hezbollah have been killed in the border area, alongside four civilians. At least five Israeli soldiers and one civilian have been killed on Israel’s side of the frontier, based on Israeli military reports. According to The Guardian, Hezbollah’s top leaders, such as Hassan Nasrallah, have been noticeably absent from the public domain since October 7, showing that although Hezbollah supports Hamas it will not take much public action to avoid worsening tension.
There are many reasons as to why Hezbollah might want to take a limited approach to the war. Firstly, it would detract from Hamas’s effort to gain political autonomy, which was the intended effect of the attacks by Hamas on Israel. Practically speaking, Hezbollah must also take into consideration public opinion in Lebanon, which is extraordinarily low due to a financial crisis. The World Bank writes that Lebanon’s economy “remains in precipitous decline, markedly distant from a stabilization path, let alone a recovery path.” With the people of Lebanon starving and political turmoil abundant, pushing forward with a war would be disastrous for Lebanon’s future. Another reason is the fear of U.S. intervention, which The Guardian writes could lead to conflict not only in Lebanon but also in Iran. A war against the United States will almost certainly result in absolute devastation, and despite public anti-American sentiment in both nations, would be devastating to the strength and stability of both governments.
One group particularly vulnerable to a potential war between Hezbollah and Israel is the 1.5 million Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon. According to Al Jazeera, after a political crisis sparked extreme violence, corruption, and poverty in their own nation, many Syrians now find Lebanon to be a safe harbor. Undeniably, there are problems with racism between Lebanese natives and Syrian refugees, and the economic situation is not comparatively any better in comparison to Syria. Some refugees believe that a return to Syria would be favorable to avoid discriminatory treatment. But many more refugees are disinclined to return due to fear of facing reprisal from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad if they return home. In 2021, Human Rights Watch spoke to 65 family members of people who returned to Syria. They were told that 21 of them were arrested, 13 tortured, three kidnapped, five murdered, and 17 were subjected to enforced disappearances. For these refugees, there is no easy choice to be made, and they would undeniably suffer if further escalation between Hezbollah and Israel were to take place.