During the war in Gaza between Hamas and Israel, the other main terror group in the region, Hezbollah, based in Lebanon, has been firing artillery salvos, sending drones, “Burkans” (short-range missiles), and rockets into northern Israel. The IDF, in turn, has been hitting back — much harder — at Hezbollah outposts in Lebanon, hitting observation posts, weapons storehouses, and Hezbollah fighters, of whom the IDF believes it has killed close to 200. Hezbollah’s official figure is 122 fighters killed as of December 24. That is more than ten times the number of IDF soldiers killed by Hezbollah in the exchanges since October 8. Hezbollah has not, however, let fly thousands of rockets, as it might have done, possibly as part of a ground invasion into the northern Galilee, if it really wanted to draw the IDF into another major conflict and thereby lessen the pressure on Hamas in Gaza.
Hezbollah has held back because it is not only a terror group, but a political group with members in the Lebanese parliament and cabinet, and it has ambitions to take over the central government. Lebanon is on its knees economically, with mass impoverishment, and Hezbollah realizes that were it to start a serious war — as opposed to the current limited cross-border exchanges of fire with Israel — this would lead to widespread devastation by the IDF, and the Lebanese would blame Hezbollah for dragging the country into a damaging war that few in Lebanon want, one that would only make matters worse for the Lebanese. So for now Hezbollah is engaged in artillery fire, drone attacks, and missile attacks, on Israel, across the northern border, making sure to carefully calibrate its violence so that Israel will not feel compelled to respond with the ferocity the IDF has demonstrated, much to Hezbollah’s alarm, in Gaza.
Hezbollah has come up with a different explanation as to why it has so far limited its rocket, drone, and artillery attacks to northern Israel, and not sent in ground troops to draw the IDF into a second-front war. It comes from Nawaf al-Moussawi, a member of Hezbollah’s political wing and of the Lebanese Parliament. More on his explanation of why Hezbollah has held back militarily can be found here: “Hezbollah official: Hamas told us not to begin a war on Israel,” Jerusalem Post, December 23, 2023:
For the first time since the outbreak of the war two and a half months ago, a senior official in Hezbollah provided an explanation of the Lebanese terrorist organization’s reluctance to launch an all-out war against Israel, N12 reported on Saturday.
Nawaf al-Moussawi, a Shia member of Hezbollah’s bloc in the Lebanese parliament, explains that following Hamas’s terror attack on October 7, Hezbollah approached the Gaza-based Islamist organization and basically asked whether they should begin a war against Israel on the northern border.
“We asked our brothers in Gaza, ‘what can we do?’ If we initiate an all-out war in Lebanon – will it stop the fighting in Gaza or not?” al-Moussawi said in an interview broadcast on Al-Manar TV, the official channel of Hezbollah. “Their answer was no, it will not stop; the fighting in Gaza will not cease. Only with a victory over Israel within Gaza,” he continued.
Does this statement seem verisimilar to you? After all, Hezbollah’s entry into the war would force Israel to redirect some military resources, as well as some of its attention, away from the war against Hamas in Gaza. The question Al-Moussawi says Hezbollah asked Hamas was whether “our launching an all-out war on Israel [will] stop the fighting.” And Hamas said no. But surely the follow-up to that would have been Hezbollah telling Hamas that “an all-out war by us won’t stop the fighting in Gaza, but it will make your task of repelling the Zionist enemy in Gaza easier, so surely you would welcome that? It would dilute the IDF’s attention and force it to transfer ground forces to the northern border with Lebanon.” But Hezbollah did not ask that second question, because it wanted an excuse to avoid entering a full-scale war with Israel. It was happy to report that Hamas itself had dissuaded it from starting such a war.
Thus, it can portray itself as having been ready to enter a major war, but was willing to defer to Hamas, which wants a “victory” by withstanding the IDF on its own, hoping that international pressure will eventually force the IDF to agree to a permanent ceasefire. That is Hamas’ definition of victory. Hezbollah is a Lebanese group, and is not ready to risk the destruction of Lebanon in order to help the Palestinians. Israel has already warned Hezbollah that any escalation by it on Israel’s northern border could lead to the IDF “turning Lebanon into Gaza” Having seen what the IDF has managed to accomplish in Gaza, Hezbollah has to take such a warning seriously.
Israel has said it expects this campaign against Hamas to last for months. Will Hezbollah continue to engage in intense exchanges of fire with the IDF but nothing more? What if Hamas, battered by the IDF, and having by that time lost not 9,000 fighters but twice that number, makes a public plea for Hezbollah to enter the war in a major way? Could Hezbollah still resist that call, that would risk the group losing face in the Arab world? Or would it still want to prevent provoking the IDF into attacking Lebanon so fiercely that much of the country would lie in ruins, and the Lebanese would blame Hezbollah? And what will Iran calculate? If Hezbollah, that everyone understands takes its marching orders from Iran, that supplies it with both weapons — some 150,000 rockets and missiles from Iran are now in Hezbollah’s arsenal — and money, enters the war to help Hamas, will Israel then feel compelled to attack with great ferocity not just Hezbollah, but its puppet-master in Tehran? Right now the Israelis do not think Hezbollah will enter the war, as long as Jerusalem continues to respond as fiercely as it has been doing to each Hezbollah salvo. Let us hope that they are right.