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Thousands of Hezbollah supporters rally in Beirut on Nov. 3 as the head of the Iran-backed Shia movement delivers a highly anticipated speech amid clashes along the Lebanese-Israeli border and fighting in Gaza.

Israel-Hamas: A Looming Regional War?

As the conflict between Israel and Hamas worsens, fears grow that the fighting could erupt into a bloody regional war.

Words: Hunter Williamson
Pictures: Hunter Williamson
Date:

If the opportunity arises, Alaa Qassem says he is ready and willing to give his life for Palestine.

The 24-year-old drapery seamstress was born in Syria, but he has spent most of his life in Lebanon. Many people in the country fear that Lebanon will be dragged into the war raging further south between Israel and the armed groups in Gaza. But fear isn’t what Qassem and his friends expressed. They live in Beirut near the Shatila Refugee Camp, a site with a bloody history that is home to more than 11,000 Palestinians. They feel a deep affinity towards Palestine, and as border clashes between Israel and armed groups in southern Lebanon intensify, they hope for an opportunity to cross into Israel to fight for the liberation of Palestine.

“If the government removes the border between Lebanon and Israel, half of the Lebanese people will go and fight shoulder to shoulder with the Palestinians,” Qassem said while hanging out at a cafe on Thursday night.

Neither Qassem nor his Lebanese and Palestinian friends belong to any of the armed groups fighting Israel along the Lebanese border. But they fully support Hamas and feel close solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza. 

“Fighting the enemy is a duty,” he said. “Because we are Muslims, it is our duty to fight for our land.”

Such religious conviction left him feeling disappointed on Nov. 3 when Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Iran-backed Shia movement Hezbollah, delivered a message suggesting that Lebanon’s involvement in the Israel-Hamas war will be limited — at least for now. In a widely watched speech broadcast from an undisclosed location, the head of the armed political group declared the war to be a Palestinian one and said that Hezbollah is playing a supporting role.

“He talked about everything we already know about,” Qassem said. “We were waiting to start the war in order to go to jihad. When he was not talking, he made Israel more afraid than when he spoke. We were waiting for another speech, not this kind of speech.”

Nasrallah’s message suggested that Hezbollah and its Palestinian allies in southern Lebanon would continue to wage the tit-for-tat battle with Israel that they have since Oct. 8, one day after Hamas launched the Al-Aqsa Flood operation. Since then, border clashes have steadily intensified as Israel has pushed forward with an air campaign and ground invasion of Gaza that has left more than 11,000 Palestinians dead, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

The fierceness of the Israeli military campaign has heightened concerns about what a full-scale war in Lebanon would bring. Many fear that such a war would be even worse than the last one between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, which left over a thousand Lebanese and 100 Israelis dead and swaths of Lebanon’s infrastructure destroyed. Today, an acute 4-year-long economic crisis compounded by political dysfunction leaves the country and its citizens in no condition to face a war. 

Experts described Nasrallah’s message as a balancing act. While on one hand, he seemed to distance Hezbollah from the fighting in Gaza, he did not entirely rule out the possibility of deeper engagement. 

“All options are open on our Lebanese front,” Nasrallah said. “We say to the enemy that might think of attacking Lebanon or carrying out a pre-emptive operation, that this would be the greatest foolishness of its existence.”

In the week since Nasrallah’s speech, fighting along the Lebanese-Israeli border has further escalated, albeit in a contained fashion. On Nov. 5, an Israeli airstrike killed three children and their grandmother, raising the civilian death toll in Lebanon to at least 10, according to Lebanese security officials. The following day, Hamas’ military wing in Lebanon fired a barrage of rockets toward the Israeli city of Haifa, a distance deeper into northern Israel than previous attacks. Such cross border attacks persist with no signs of abating, leaving scores of combatants and civilians dead and injured on both sides as fighting also escalates elsewhere in the region. 

Regional Clashes 

In recent weeks, Iran-aligned groups in Iraq and Syria have stepped up attacks against US troops. In a message to reporters on Nov. 7, a US military official speaking on background said that US troops and their partners in Iraq and Syria had been attacked 40 times since Oct. 17. A few thousand US troops are in both countries ostensibly to help prevent the Islamic State (ISIS) from making a resurgence in the region. Iran-backed groups had attacked US forces before the start of the current Israel-Hamas war, but the attacks in recent weeks are a notable uptick. US officials have said that the attacks are unrelated to Washington’s support for Israel, despite Iran-backed groups in the region explicitly stating otherwise.

In the past month, the US has carried out three waves of airstrikes against sites it says belong to Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and affiliated groups. US officials have described the attacks as being meant to protect its forces and not aimed at escalating tensions.

Michael Young, senior editor at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center think tank, said the attacks by the Iran-backed groups are meant to pressure Washington into reigning in Israel’s campaign against Hamas and Gaza. “They know that [US President Joe] Biden doesn’t want to be tied up in another Middle Eastern war,” he said. “And it seems to be working, because all the news now is that the Americans are not willing to give Israel an open ended amount of time to end its operation.” While Israel has not stopped its military campaign on Gaza, it has agreed to daily four-hour pauses in northern Gaza to allow civilians to flee.

Further afield, Iran-backed Houthi rebels have also joined the fray. Over the past few weeks, the group has fired missiles and drones from 2,000 kilometers away toward Israel. As a member of the Axis of Resistance – a coalition of armed groups across the Middle East led by Iran – experts say the Houthis’ attacks serve more of a symbolic gesture rather than posing an actual strategic threat against Israel. But on Nov. 8, the Houthis seemed to take their involvement a step further by shooting down a US MQ-9 drone performing surveillance over Yemeni territorial waters.

Tehran has warned that the situation in the region is a powder keg, but so far Iran and Israel have publicly said they do not seek a larger conflict. Still, in such an environment, there is a serious risk for miscalculation. 

Such attacks from across the Middle East have heightened concerns that the war between Israel and Hamas could explode into a regional conflict. Young sees the attacks as being part of a calculated strategy by the Axis of Resistance to exert additional pressure on Israel. “While they’re respecting the rules of the game in terms of the Hezbollah-Israeli relationship, they are trying to widen the potential scope of actions [along the other fronts] in such a way… to sort of set new rules of engagement with Israel.”

Since the eruption of hostilities last month, Hezbollah and Israel have abided by an unwritten understanding of acceptable confines and limits of military clashes. In practice, that has seen attacks between the two sides focusing primarily on military targets with an effort to minimize civilian casualties.

Tehran has warned that the situation in the region is a powder keg, but so far Iran and Israel have publicly said they do not seek a larger conflict. Still, in such an environment, there is a serious risk for miscalculation. 

“This is a very high risk game that is being played by both sides,” Young said. “But they have made really a significant effort to try to avoid it degenerating into a much wider conflict.”

So has the US. At the same time that it has expanded its military presence in the region in an effort to deter escalation, US officials have also been meeting and speaking with counterparts across the region. Last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrapped a trip across the region that included meetings with Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian, Iraqi, and Turkish officials. The US defense secretary has also spoken with regional counterparts, including with the Israeli defense minister on Saturday. During that call, he reportedly stressed concerns about border clashes escalating. That conversation came days after a US envoy met with officials in Lebanon.

Calls for De-Escalation

Such efforts have reassured Hezbollah’s long-time rival, the Christian political party the Lebanese Forces, its foreign affairs head said last week. The party lacks the hard power of Hezbollah, but as the largest Christian party in Lebanon’s parliament, the Lebanese Forces represents a chunk of the country wishing to avoid entanglement in the conflict between Palestinians and Israel.

“We’re against dragging Lebanon into this kind of war, because it’s gonna be destructive for Lebanon,” said Richard Kouyoumjian, head of the party’s foreign affairs department. Like other political actors, the party has been meeting with foreign governments to try to prevent the border clashes from escalating. Publicly and in their meetings with foreign governments, the Lebanese Forces have doubled down on their calls for the enforcement of a UN resolution to have Hezbollah withdraw from southern Lebanon and allow the Lebanese military and UN peacekeepers to handle security along the border. 

“We’re sure that under the auspices of UNIFIL (the UN peacekeeping force stationed in southern Lebanon), with the pressure of the United States, we can reach a calm and we can reach security on the border for both sides,” said Kouyoumjian.

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Thousands of Hezbollah supporters rally in Beirut as the head of the Iran-backed Shia movement delivers a highly anticipated speech amid clashes along the Lebanese-Israeli border and fighting in Gaza. Photo by Hunter Williamson. Nov. 3, 2023.
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Photo by Hunter Williamson. Nov. 3, 2023.
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Photo by Hunter Williamson. Nov. 3, 2023.

During his speech on Nov. 3, Nasrallah boasted that Hezbollah’s attacks had diverted considerable Israeli forces from Gaza. But Kouyoumjian, speaking from his office a few days later, pushed back against that assertion. The war is “between Israel and Hamas,” he said. “Lebanon has nothing to do with this except showing sympathy or supporting the Palestinian people, asking to stop the hostilities, asking for peace, asking for humanitarian help. But what Hezbollah is doing now is not helping neither the Palestinian cause nor even the fighting in Gaza.”

Hezbollah’s Christian ally, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), has also been working to prevent escalation, with the party’s leader, Gebran Bassil, saying last month that Lebanon should not be used as a base for non-Lebanese groups to launch attacks. Bassil’s comments were aimed not at Hezbollah, however, but at Palestinian forces based in southern Lebanon. In a phone interview last week, FPM Vice President for Political Affairs Martine Najem Kteily expressed concern that such groups “could potentially do something erratic and drag us into the war.” Experts say that no group can act in southern Lebanon against Israel without Hezbollah’s knowledge and approval. 

Despite continuous escalation, Kteily said that the border clashes remain contained. “As much as the situation on the border is complicated now, we can still say that we are kind of within the existing rules of engagement,” she said. “We’re not yet crossing red lines in terms of escalating to a scale where you cannot contain the events anymore at the border.” The question of escalation, she continued, lies in Israel’s hands. “We can only find ourselves defending ourselves whenever Israel attacks.” 

Still, she acknowledges the risk of things getting out of hand. “So far, we have seen a lot of awareness in the way [Hezbollah] is dealing with the attacks on Lebanon, but we also know that at any time there could be a dramatic turn of events,” she said. “This is something we don’t want.” Like other political actors, she and other FPM officials have also been meeting with foreign officials to prevent escalation.

But ultimately, there is little that domestic actors seeking to de-escalate tensions with Israel can do. “The decision making at the end of the day, to go into war or not, is not in Hezbollah’s hand,” Kouyoumjian said. “Iran will decide at the end of the day whether they will escalate to a regional war or not.”

Experts say it is unlikely that Iran will take that step due to the considerable costs and risks of a regional conflict. This is especially true as Iran grapples with pressing domestic issues, said Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow and the founding director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute think tank. 

“[Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei is someone who has always been more cautious than people give him credit for,” Vatanka said. “It doesn’t mean he’s a good man, doesn’t mean he’s not anti-American or anti-Israel — it means he’s not suicidal. It means he takes basic cost-benefit analysis seriously. He’s done that on this occasion, and I can’t see for the life of me why he would risk the Islamic Republic for the sake of saving Hamas.”

Israel, too, is unlikely to escalate the situation, Vatanka continued. 

“If Israel is caught by surprise on October 7, what else do they not know about their adversaries? And do they not want to at least prepare, and if you want to prepare, it takes not weeks [but] months, probably a couple of years,” he said.

For the time being, Young said that Hezbollah will likely sit and watch to see how the war in Gaza unfolds.

“If we reach the stage where Hamas is under existential threat, then Hezbollah has to think again, what do we do? Do we actually intervene, which may lead to Lebanon’s destruction, or do we not do this? And to be honest with you, I think at this point, Hezbollah probably doesn’t know yet,” said Young. “I think it’s watching what’s going on in Gaza to determine what it will ultimately do.”

Young also doubts that Hezbollah has the ability to stop Israel from mounting a full attack against Gaza. “Does Hezbollah have the means to prevent or stop an Israeli offensive against Hamas in Gaza? I don’t think so. And I think Hezbollah knows this, that if the Israelis are determined to attack Gaza and take over territory in Gaza, there’s not much that Hezbollah can do.”

In the meantime, as Israel pushes forward with its operation in Gaza, the question remains of just how involved Iran and its allies will get, feeding concern, dread, and anticipation in Lebanon and across the region.

“The uncertainty emanates from this,” Kouyoumjian said, “whether Hezbollah is gonna act if they see Hamas is falling, or if they would keep the status quo.” 

Hunter Williamson

Hunter Williamson is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon and a Creative Capsule Resident. He has reported from Ukraine and across the Middle East.

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