As Israel’s assault on Gaza enters its fifth month, it remains unclear whether it will grow into a full-scale regional conflict. Among the decisive factors is Hezbollah, one of the most heavily armed non-state actors in the world, and arguably the most skilled in urban and alpine warfare. So far, the group has refrained from taking escalatory measures, aiming to prevent Lebanese involvement in the war while partially diverting the IDF with limited attacks from the north. Rather than targeting Israeli vital infrastructure, it has conducted hundreds of operations aimed at military outposts, forcing Israel to create an internal buffer zone by evacuating citizens from northern settlements. More than 170 Hezbollah fighters have been killed so far; but the party, which has an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 trained combatants, can handle such losses.

There are elements of the Israeli political and military leadership, however, which seem intent on provoking a major confrontation with Hezbollah. Their motives are clear enough. First, members of the Israeli cabinet, along with the IDF command and Mossad, know that their best chance of staying in power is to prolong the fighting – and they are not above sacrificing their own civilians to achieve this. Second, it is possible that if Israel continues to carry out mass murder without achieving any of its stated war aims, it may find itself more isolated on the international stage; whereas if Hezbollah were to start attacking Israeli cities and targeting civilians, Netanyahu’s government could revive the fantasy of an imperiled democratic state and rally the ‘forces of civilization’ to its cause. And third, there is a fear that Hezbollah might someday launch its own ‘Al Aqsa Flood’ across Israel’s northern border – prompting senior politicians, including Gantz, Gallant and Ben-Gvir, to call for a preemptive strike.

Israel has therefore been making repeated attempts to provoke its neighbour: targeting civilians in South Lebanon and launching attacks elsewhere in the country. Hezbollah and Hamas commanders, including Wissam Al-Tawil and Saleh Al-Arouri, have been assassinated on Lebanese soil, and Netanyahu has threatened to ‘turn Beirut and southern Lebanon into Gaza’. But Hezbollah remains committed to low-intensity warfare and has so far refused to respond with a major assault. What explains this strategic decision? It is not just a fear of further destruction that is preventing escalation; it is an awareness that this would not necessarily advance the group’s objectives, nor those of the Resistance Axis.

To understand Hezbollah’s calculation, we need to consider Lebanon’s position in the region. Since Obama announced the ‘pivot to Asia’ in 2009, the US has been trying to establish a new Middle Eastern security architecture that would allow it to minimize direct involvement in proxy wars and focus on containing China. As part of this process, the hegemon sought to normalize relations between Israel and the Arab world, culminating in the 2020 Abraham Accords. At the same time, Iran and Saudi Arabia began to pursue détente – hoping to reorient their economies, attract inward investment and forge ties with neighbouring countries, while reducing their respective roles in regional conflicts. Last year the two states reached a bilateral agreement in Beijing, the details of which remain obscure, but which seem to involve a compromise when it comes to nations where they both wield influence, such as Yemen and Lebanon. Some analysts have argued that Mohammed bin Salman is now ready to cooperate with Hezbollah and accept its status as the dominant political and military power in Lebanon. It may even be in the Saudis’ interest to have a strong deterrent force on Israel’s border, especially one for which they have no financial or political responsibility.

Given Lebanon’s ongoing economic misery, this could be a potential lifeline. The country’s downward spiral began in 2019 after the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, cut off aid and divested from its real-estate and financial sectors. Challenging Hezbollah’s hegemony was cited as the motive, although the decision also came after the ramifications of the 2008 financial crisis finally reached the Gulf, forcing its leaders to restructure their foreign investment plans. Now, the Lebanese political class, including powerful elements in Hezbollah, believe that the Saudi–Iran accords – which have so far endured following 7 October – could allow them to turn back the clock to before the 2019 collapse. Their aim is to revive the rentier model that was established in the post-Mandate period and consolidated under Rafiq Al-Hariri in the 1990s: a dominant financial sector propping up the central state through regular loans, and a real-estate market dependent on inflows from Gulf investors and Lebanese expatriates. They also hope that the Lebanese financial system could now serve as a mediator for Gulf and Iranian investment in the reconstruction of Syria.

With the Saudi–Iran deal in place, and the effects of the financial crisis having passed, the barriers to investment in Lebanon could be removed and Hezbollah’s legitimacy could be recognized across the region. Moreover, if Iran is hoping to scale down its involvement in regional conflicts and establish lasting economic partnerships with erstwhile rivals, then it may want Hezbollah to do the same: reducing its military activity in Lebanon and Syria and focusing instead on economic revival and ‘good governance’. One should refrain from making categorical statements about the relationship between Iran and Hezbollah, since its contours are unclear, and the latter can hardly be described as a simple proxy. But Tehran’s foreign policy outlook would seem, prima facie, to align with Hezbollah’s approach to Gaza over recent months.

It would also appear to tally with the interests of Washington, which is eager to prevent the war from engulfing the Middle East, and has reportedly been making diplomatic efforts to convince Hezbollah to continue its policy of restraint. Though the details remain unclear and uncorroborated, briefings from Iranian officials and Hezbollah-affiliated media suggest that the White House has offered Hezbollah a new ‘settlement for the entire region’, so long as it does not expand the war. Habib Fayad, a Lebanese journalist (and brother of a Hezbollah MP), has argued that the Americans would accept ceding control over Lebanon to Hezbollah, on the condition that the party pledges to never launch a 7 October-style incursion into Israel.

Yet this supposed settlement may also create a dilemma for Hezbollah. Previously, the group was able to evade accountability for the Lebanese economic crisis, since it has no ties to the banking and real estate sectors. It could use its status as a transnational military movement to distance itself from Lebanon’s national political parties, loathed for their mismanagement and corruption. Were Hezbollah to accept this American offer, some of its cadres are worried that it would signal its slow transformation into something more like a conventional party of government: integrated into the establishment, sapped of its insurgent energy. Whether it will take this course remains uncertain. The group consists both of politicians, most of whom have no military background and may be favourable to such ‘normalization’, and a militant faction – more heavily represented in the leadership – which is reluctant to be co-opted. 

The present situation thus appears to be one of deep asymmetry. Israel, foundering on the battlefield and discrediting itself internationally, is under pressure to set out some sort of end-game for its war. Hezbollah, meanwhile, has no real time constraints. As the fighting drags on, it believes it can renew its credibility – which was damaged during the Syrian civil war and the 2019 protests in Lebanon – by striking a balance between armed solidarity with Palestine and concern for Lebanese security. This is not to say that Hezbollah is merely instrumentalizing the conflict; its dedication to the Palestinian cause is genuine and should not be understated. The point is that Israel and the Resistance Axis are operating on two different timeframes, one more urgent than the other.

Still, Hezbollah’s policy could yet be reversed if regional war is deemed necessary or inevitable. Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly asserted that in these circumstances, his forces would engage with no limits or constraints – which, according to some Lebanese commentators, could mean attacking strategic Israeli targets including ammonium nitrate factories, plus petrochemical and energy plants, in an attempt to redress the significant military imbalance between the two sides.

If Hezbollah is currently pursuing a non-escalatory strategy and asserting its willingness to negotiate with Israel on condition of a ceasefire, that is because it is confident that it can consolidate its power both in Lebanon and across the region. In other words, Hezbollah still has something to lose from entering a full-scale war. But if Hezbollah comes to believe that this kind of war – which could lay waste to Lebanon, damage the party’s military infrastructure and compromise it politically – is unavoidable, then it would have nothing to lose. In which case, Israel may end up with a powerful presence on its northern border: heavily armed, and no longer interested in restraint. 

Read on: Tariq Ali, ‘Mid-Point in the Middle East?’, NLR 38.