Lebanon’s chaos, Hezbollah and Israel

"The concern is over what will happen if the anarchy spreads from Beirut to the south of the country...There is always the danger that the events on the street will lurch completely out of control."
Hezbollah fighters pictured at a ceremony in Lebanon in 2018.

A note from our publisher John Kunza

We need to be paying closer attention to what’s going on in Lebanon right now. I say this as a journalist who has covered the Middle East for multiple years. 

(Warning: The video in the tweet below contains violent content and may be upsetting to some people.)

I’m actually surprised at the lack of interest in what’s happening in Lebanon because let me be frank: The situation in Lebanon is dire and what happens next could have drastic regional implications. A chaotic Lebanon means an unstable northern border for Israel. On top of a near complete collapse of government services, there is also the fact that Hezbollah (which is backed by Iran) is trying to exploit the crisis.

There’s no way to independently verify Hezbollah’s recent claim that it has 100,000 armed forces (more about that below), but that doesn’t change the situation. Lebanon is a powder keg waiting to be ignited. Hundreds have already died in clashes, and the nation is struggling with one of the worst financial crises in the world in the last 150 years. 

What happens next could bring the nation closer to civil war, or closer to stability. Speaking of stability, it turns out Israel actually could become a major player in Lebanon’s future stability despite still being technically at war with the country. Only time will tell.

We’re curious…

Last week, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah declared that his group has 100,000 trained fighters. It’s difficult to verify Nasrallah’s claim (Hezbollah does not allow independent third parties to find out information about its activities), but if it’s true, Hezbollah would outnumber the Lebanese military by 15,000 troops.

Hezbollah receives hundreds of millions of dollars in support from Iran each year and openly calls for the destruction of Israel. Though Nasrallah’s announcement seemed to be directed at a domestic audience — a way of demonstrating its power to its political rivals — the boast also raised questions about what this could mean for the Jewish state.

The announcement comes amidst heightened tensions in Lebanon. Earlier this month, seven people were killed in gun battles in Beirut when Shiites who were attending a demonstration came under fire as they marched through Christian neighborhoods.

Hezbollah accused the Christians of starting the fighting, while the leader of the Lebanese Christian Forces party claimed his group was simply defending itself from armed Hezbollah fighters.

What does all of this mean for Israel? Was the recent violence in Beirut limited to one particular event, could Lebanon be headed to a civil war, or will Hezbollah exploit the situation and open up a new war with Israel along its border as they did in 2006?

Hezbollah could do that because it claims to be the archenemy of Israel and openly calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. The group has gained in strength in recent years, with Brian Katz of the Center for Foreign Relations asserting that “Hezbollah has more military and political power today than at any point since its founding in 1985.” 

With Nasrallah’s recent announcement and the violence in Beirut, we wanted to unpack who Hezbollah is, how they originally formed and what the news coming out of Lebanon means for Israel.

What is Hezbollah?

Hezbollah (which means “Party of God” in Arabic) is a terrorist organization based in Lebanon. This Shiite Muslim group — which is backed by Iran and Syria — advocates the destruction of Israel as a primary goal. Its first manifesto, released in 1985, called for the establishment of an Islamic Republic in Lebanon and stated the following with respect to the Jewish state: “Our struggle will end only when this entity [Israel] is obliterated.”

Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s current leader, has affirmed this position on Israel, saying that Israel “is an aggressive, illegal, and illegitimate entity, which has no future in our land. Its destiny is manifested in our motto: ‘Death to Israel.’” Nasrallah has also expressed animosity and threats against the Jewish people, saying, “If they [Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.”

Hezbollah has acted on this by carrying out attacks on Jewish and Israeli targets around the world. It was blamed for the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina that killed 29 people, as well as the 1994 bombing attack on a Jewish center, which killed 85 people and injured hundreds more. A 2012 attack on a bus in Bulgaria that was filled with Israeli tourists was also attributed to Hezbollah.

“In recent years, Hezbollah has attempted to reinvent itself as a political party. The party enjoys solid support from the country’s Shi’ite community (which comprises 40% of Lebanon’s population),” according to the Anti-Defamation League. The group also provides its constituents with a wide array of social services, including infrastructure, healthcare systems and schools.

The U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Arab League, Israel and many other countries consider Hezbollah to be a terrorist organization, while the European Union only designates its military wing as a terrorist group. According to estimates from the U.S. State Department, Iran supports Hezbollah with weaponry and more than $700 million per year.

How did Hezbollah form?

The group emerged during the Lebanese Civil War, after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. Here’s a brief history of what happened: During the 1970s, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) carried out hundreds of attacks into Israel from Lebanon. Meanwhile, the new wave of Palestinian fighters who were recruited to Lebanon by the PLO upset the balance between Muslims and Christians in the country; this led to a civil war there in 1975. 

Lebanese Christians looked to Israel for support in confronting the PLO’s growing presence and, ultimately, hoped to drive them out of the country. Israel, hoping to stop the terrorist attacks coming from the PLO, began backing the Christians in the Lebanese civil war. 

In 1982, Israel, under the leadership of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, invaded Lebanon, allying with the Christians against the Syrian-backed PLO. This began the 1982 Lebanon War, also known as the First Lebanon War or “Shalom HaGalil” (“Peace for the Galilee”) in Israel.

That’s when a group of Shiite fighters, who were influenced by the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, formed Hezbollah. According to historian Anita Shapira, their goal was “not only to drive the IDF out of Lebanon but also, with Iranian support, to fight Israel incessantly.” 

Backed by financial support and training from Iran, Hezbollah began carrying out attacks on IDF soldiers and headquarters. Throughout the 1980s, they also carried out terrorist attacks including kidnappings and car bombings against Westerners, such as the 1983 bombing of barracks housing U.S. and French troops in Beirut, in which more than 300 people died.

In 1992, Israel assassinated the leader of Hezbollah, Abbas Musawi; he was succeeded by Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s current leader.

After Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah — funded by Syria and Iran — began building up its supply of rockets and arms. On July 12, 2006, a group of Hezbollah terrorists crossed into Israel, killed eight Israeli soldiers, and kidnapped two others. This began the Second Lebanon War.

In the 34-day war that followed, Israel carried out air strikes and a ground offensive that was aimed at destroying Hezbollah targets and removing Hezbollah terrorists from Southern Lebanon. Hezbollah launched thousands of rockets into densely populated areas of Israel, at a rate of 120 rockets per day, during this time. 

The Second Lebanon War ended on August 11 with a UN resolution that called for a ceasefire. Iran and Syria proclaimed a victory for Hezbollah, while then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert claimed that the war was a success for Israel.

What does this mean for Israel?

Taking part in the midst of all the chaos are peace talks between Israel and Lebanon — talks brokered by the U.S. and the U.N. 

Israel and Lebanon both lay claim to about 330 square miles (860 square kilometers) of the Mediterranean Sea. At stake is a large deposit of natural gas: Israel already pumps gas from the deposit and Lebanon has yet to find reserves off of their coast. If Lebanon is given access to the reserve, it could be a huge financial boost to the cash-strapped country (as much as $6 billion a year), leading it one step closer to stability.

The U.S. is brokering the talks because Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic relations as they are both technically in a state of war against each other. The U.S. is pushing for a quick resolution to the dispute, underscoring the dire situation in Lebanon, and, so far, Lebanon has described the talks as “positive.”

Regional watchers are also calling attention to the fact that Hezbollah’s announcement about the size of its armed forces wasn’t directed at Israel; instead, it was aimed at the government and its domestic rivals in Lebanon. As The Jerusalem Post put it: “Hezbollah wants to remind Lebanon that it is the group with the most weapons and armed members.”

“This is more about flexing Hezbollah’s muscles to demonstrate its power against other opposing political parties that want to undermine it,” Dina Arakji, a researcher at Control Risks, a Dubai-based global risk consultancy group, told The Times of Israel.

“What [Hezbollah] is actually saying is ‘I’ve built up great power not only to fight Israel but to fight Lebanese,’” Sarit Zahavi, a former Israeli military intelligence officer who runs the Alma research institute in northern Israel, said in the same article.

Meanwhile, Shimon Shapira from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, offered the following analysis of the situation, telling Haaretz:

“Iran and Hezbollah are continuing to pursue the same strategic line. They are preserving the achievements they have already recorded — control of the ports and growing influence in the army, the other security branches and in parliament — but are taking care to operate through the legitimate institutions, not to topple them.”

“It’s an internal Lebanese event,” he added. “The concern is over what will happen if the anarchy spreads from Beirut to the south of the country. At the moment, Hezbollah is making sure to prevent this and to contain the event within Beirut. But it’s all up in the air — there is always the danger that the events on the streets will lurch completely out of control.”