As the horrors of war envelop the Gaza Strip, fears of the conflict expanding beyond Israel and Hamas are steadily rising.
All eyes are now on Hezbollah, the militant group and political party that controls southern Lebanon and acts as a proxy for Iran, with one of the organisation’s most senior figures insisting the party was “fully ready” to contribute to the fighting.
So, what is Hezbollah, how did it form, and what does Iran have to do with it?
What is Hezbollah?
Hezbollah is a Lebanese Shiite Muslim militant group that emerged in the early 1980s during the 15-year Lebanese civil war. Its ideology calls for the destruction of the Israeli state and pledges allegiance to Iran’s supreme leader.
It has been behind a number of deadly terror attacks around the world and has been declared a terrorist organisation by the US, Israel, the European Union and several countries across the Arab world.
The radical group, which constitutes a political party and a military arm, receives hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as substantial training and weapons from Iran. The name Hezbollah translates to “party of God” or “party of Allah”. It has been led by Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah since 1992 when it entered politics.
While it is designated internationally as a terrorist group, its political wing in Lebanon has also developed a substantial social services network for its supporters. However, political support for Hezbollah has fallen, with the group and its allies losing their parliamentary majority in Lebanon’s most recent 2022 election, when they secured 62 seats in the country’s 128-member parliament.
The Centre for Strategic and International Studies has described the group as “the world’s most heavily armed, non-state actor … a militia trained like an army and equipped like a state”, given its hefty military arsenal which is said to include at least 130,000 rockets. Hezbollah has claimed it has about 100,000 fighters.
How was Hezbollah formed?
Hezbollah was founded by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to export its Islamic Revolution. It first formed out of the Lebanese civil war, which began in 1975 when infighting was sparked between Lebanon’s sectarian communities – Christians, Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
A growing number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon increased the Sunni population, while Shiites felt marginalised by the ruling Christian minority, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Amid the infighting, Israeli forces invaded southern Lebanon in 1978 and again in 1982 to expel Palestinian guerrilla fighters that used the region as their base to attack Israel,” the Washington think tank says.
Lebanese Shiite clerics then grew Hezbollah with the goal of driving Israel from Lebanon and establishing an Islamic republic. The movement had the strong backing of Iran, which continues today, through funds and militia training. Today, its military wing is the main military force in Lebanon.
While Israel withdrew from Beirut by September 1982, it would maintain an almost two-decade occupation of a zone in southern Lebanon, finally pulling out of the area in 2000.
Are Hamas and Hezbollah allies?
Hezbollah is part of a regional alliance made up of Iran, Syria and the Palestinian Hamas group. All broadly oppose US policy in the Middle East and Israel. Both are designated terrorist organisations and like Hamas, Hezbollah does not recognise the right for the state Israel to exist.
One of the most important differences between the two is that Hamas originates from the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, while Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim organisation. While they were on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war, they have maintained close regional ties and support at various times, including during the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.
Both enjoy substantial financial and military backing from Iran.
As the full scale of Hamas’ land, sea and air invasion dawned last week, Hezbollah released a statement congratulating “the resisting Palestinian people,” for the “heroic operation”.
The Lebanese militia said the Hamas attack was a “response to the continued crimes of the occupation and the continued assault on holy sites”.
“Our hearts are with you. Our minds are with you. Our souls are with you. Our history and guns and our rockets are with you,” a Hezbollah official said in another statement.
Why is Hezbollah fighting Israel?
Since the violence between Israel and Hamas erupted last week, there have been mounting fears of it escalating into a broader regional conflict that could involve Hezbollah and hitherto, Iran.
Icy relations between Israel and Hezbollah date back to Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon in 1978. The two last fought in a war in 2006, after Israeli forces invaded Lebanon to respond to Hezbollah attacks on Israeli settlements. Rocket attacks and heavy fighting ensued, while Israel launched a naval blockade of Lebanon.
The Council on Foreign Relations describes Israel as Hezbollah’s “main enemy” since 1978, adding that the scale of weaponry provided to the group by Iran ensures Hezbollah is “an increasingly dangerous threat to Israel”.
“Hezbollah and Israel have yet to relapse into full-blown war, but the group reiterated its commitment to the destruction of the Israeli state in its 2009 manifesto,” the council states.
Analysts say Israel is ready for a two-front war. There have already been artillery exchanges across the Israel-Lebanon frontier, while missiles were fired from Lebanon on Sunday in retaliation for the death of a Reuters journalist and the wounding of six in a strike last week from the direction of Israel. A Hezbollah spokeswoman said the increased strikes represented a “warning” and did not mean the Iran-backed militant group had decided to enter the war.
Why does Iran support Hezbollah?
Since its inception, Hezbollah has served as a proxy for Iran.
Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps first provided the funds and training to establish Hezbollah as it saw an opportunity to further its influence in the Arab world. The US State Department estimates Iran funds Hezbollah to the tune of US$700 million-$US1 billion a year.
One of Hezbollah’s earliest manifestos in 1985 said the Iranian regime was “the vanguard and new nucleus of the leading Islamic State in the world,” vowing to abide by the orders of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini.
Iran has warned Israel of escalation if it continued aggressions against Palestinians.
What’s the risk of Hezbollah getting involved?
Hezbollah deputy chief Naim Qassem last week said the group would not be swayed by calls for it to stay on the sidelines and that the party was “fully ready” to join the fighting.
“The behind-the-scenes calls with us by great powers, Arab countries, envoys of the United Nations, directly and indirectly telling us not to interfere will have no effect,” he told supporters in southern Beirut in remarks reported by Reuters news agency.
Fears continue to mount of the conflict spilling over to Lebanon. The US has repeatedly urged state and non-state actors against attempting to take advantage of the Israel-Hamas war, while deploying two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the military posture was not meant as a provocation, rather, “it’s meant as a deterrent”.
“No one should do anything that could add fuel to the fire in any other place,” Blinken added.
Israel has told residents living near the northern border with Lebanon – 28 communities – to evacuate the area.
The Israel Defence Force has highlighted the increasingly delicate situation on the border, with Hezbollah increasing anti-tank strikes, saying the group was doing so “under the direction” of Iran.
Since the recent fighting with Hamas began, Israel has conducted the largest military mobilisation effort in its history, calling up more than 300,000 troops to ensure it is also prepared for any potential outbreak of violence with Hezbollah.
Source » smh