How Will Hezbollah React as Israel Declares War on the Resistance Axis in Gaza?

Israel is a country tragically all too familiar with violence and warfare. But even in the bloody annals of the Jewish state, October 7, 2023 is, and will likely remain, a unique wound. The images of murdered civilians strewn in the streets of the towns surrounding the Gaza Strip intertwining with the cries of abducted children being carted off into the dark abyss of the Hamas-controlled enclave to haunt the Israeli national psyche – and all people of conscience –  for decades. But as much as Hamas is ultimately immediately responsible for the perfidious attack which, at the moment of this writing, has claimed over 1200 Israeli casualties, the group was not alone in the planning or execution of this operation.

Hamas has long ceased to be a lone militant organization. The group has officially operated as a first among equals of the 12-member “Joint Operations Room of the Palestinian Resistance Factions,” since June 2018 – an entity whose technical genesis stretches back to 2006. Indeed, judging from the headbands worn by some of the assailants who infiltrated southern Israel, these other factions were well represented among the attackers. More broadly, Hamas has long been integrated – in deepening, though inconsistent, stages starting with the deportation of their militants to Hezbollah-controlled south Lebanon in 1992-1993 – into the regional, Iranian-led “Resistance Axis.” Among Tehran’s constellation of forces, Hezbollah has taken point on coordinating the Khomeinist regime’s relationship with its Palestinian proxies – and the Shiite group’s fingerprints can be detected all over this week’s attack on Israel.

For years, Hezbollah has been promising to “liberate the Galilee” in a future war with Israel. The group’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah first stated this objective in a February 2011 speech, and conducted exercises simulating the execution of this promise. At different times, Hezbollah threatened this would be a classical invasion, meant to seize and permanently hold territory. But such a conventional military maneuver was then, and remains, beyond the group’s capabilities. Moreover – taken at face value – such an action would require Hezbollah to establish static supply lines and expose massive numbers of its fighters on Israeli territory, where the IDF would possess the numerical and qualitative advantage, in addition to armor, artillery and air power. In other words, Hezbollah would be discarding the advantages conferred by its hybrid-guerilla warfare methods, without developing the conventional methods or doctrine necessary to match or neutralize the IDF’s vast superiority in conventional warfare.

What then would have the intended invasion of the Galilee looked like? Precisely how Hamas’ October 7 attack, dubbed Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, unfolded: a territorially limited surprise incursion, focused on murdering and kidnapping as many Israelis as possible, and capturing the attack on video to maximize the psychological impact on Israeli society and the morale boost to the supporters of the “resistance.” It would appear, then, that Hezbollah imparted its plans, and the training to execute it, to its Resistance Axis partners in the Gaza Strip. In fact,  Hezbollah appears to have shared this knowledge with Hamas and other Gaza-based militant groups at least a decade ago: In fact, Israeli security sources noted that the Israel Defense Forces launched 2014’s Operation Protective Edge to preempt exactly such a mass casualty scenario that had been planned by Hamas for that year’s Rosh HaShana.

Hezbollah appears to have contributed more to the execution of Al-Aqsa Flood than the operational blueprint. The Shia group -- constrained in its direct ability to attack Israel by Lebanon’s economic collapse, and not wanting to be seen as compounding Lebanese misery with a security conflagration – has effectively exported its attacks against Israel to Palestinian actors, both within Israel and Israeli-held territories, and from inside Lebanon.  Relevantly, Hezbollah, either working directly with Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) or separately at its behest, has spent considerable efforts recruiting assets inside Israel – from among Arab Israelis and Palestinians – to gather intelligence and establish sleeper cells within Israel to plan terror attacks. Here, the connections of Lebanese and Arab Israeli criminal networks have proven invaluable.

The Shiite organization has also spent the past 18 years building up the warfighting capabilities of militant groups in the Gaza Strip. This effort began in earnest after Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, when Hezbollah’s then-military commander Imad Mughniyeh spent months in the coastal enclave training Palestinian militants in rocket and launching pad production and tunnel and rocket warfare. Credible reporting – and the admissions of Hamas spokesmen – also reveals that the inception of this particular attack occurred months ago in Beirut, in coordination with the IRGC, but also doubtlessly under the watchful eye and with the input of Hezbollah.

Having established that the genesis of Operation Al-Aqsa Flood rests, in part, with Hezbollah, the pressing question remains how the group will act moving forward.

So far, Hezbollah’s actions have differed little from the group’s prior behavior during fighting between Gaza-based militants and the Israel Defense Forces, particularly since the October 17, 2019 economic crisis further complicated its ability to act openly, or aggressively, against Israel. The group has voiced its now customary support for Hamas, stressing the attack on Israel was a message “to the Arab and Islamic world…especially those seeking normalization” with the Jewish state (and thus signaling that Hamas’ attack was intended to derail ongoing Saudi-Israeli normalization talks). One of its ad-hoc formations, named after Imad Mughniyeh, conducted a largely symbolic solidarity mortar strike in Har Dov/Shebaa farms – in other words, a territory understood by both Hezbollah and Israel as within the red lines governing their conflict – that, likely by design, caused no casualties.

But otherwise, Hezbollah has so far sat out the fight. It was quick to deny involvement in a Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) infiltration into northern Israel. The group’s response to Israel killing three Hezbollah fighters while retaliating for that incursion was also limited and measured. Hezbollah’s promise that this reprisal was only its “preliminary response,” and other belligerent statements, should be taken in the context of similar previously unfulfilled vows to avenge fallen fighters. The intent is to delay avenging them until a time more suitable to Hezbollah or, as happened on October 10, carrying out a limited attack meant to convey the message to the Israelis that the matter is now considered closed. Furthermore, it should also be understood in the context of its other statements – a promise to Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdullah Bou Habib abstain from getting involved in the Gaza conflict unless Israel “harasses” Lebanon and its own MP Ibrahim al-Mousaoui saying Hamas’ operation was a “preview of what the resistance factions will execute in the future (emphasis own).”

The likeliest scenario, therefore, is that Hezbollah will continue to allow Palestinian militants to engage in limited harassment against Israel from Lebanon, thus contributing to Gaza-based militant war efforts by keeping the IDF partially focused on the northern border but without sparking a major conflagration.

But Hezbollah’s calculus could change as the IDF’s battle against Hamas and the remaining “Resistance Axis” factions in Gaza progresses. And here, two divergent possibilities for the Shiite organization exist.

The first is indirect action. Part of Hezbollah’s long-term strategy against Israel has involved creating an option for attack behind enemy lines. On the one hand, in cooperation with Iran, the group has spent the past several years reinvigorating classical Palestinian militant groups – like Hamas, PIJ, and Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades – and helping create or strengthen new ones in the West Bank. Hezbollah has been smuggling arms into the territory, and transferring warfighting knowledge to these groups, including rocket-manufacturing capabilities. It is a distinct possibility that Hezbollah and Iran could activate these assets to divide the IDF’s attention between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

A potential alternative option here for Hezbollah is to build upon its efforts to exploit Arab-Jewish tensions inside Israel to create a potentially on-demand option to ignite inter-ethnic clashes on the scale seen in May 2021. This would not take much effort by Hezbollah, particularly as tensions between Arab and Jewish Israelis will likely rise as the war with militants in Gaza continues and intensifies. The Shiite organization could tap an affiliate within the Arab Israeli criminal networks to carry out a nationalistically motivated attack on a Jewish target such asa synagogue in a mixed Arab-Jewish Israeli city. This simple act could capitalize on the heightened tensions to initiate a cycle of actions and reactions by Jewish and Arab extremists or hotheads which, like in May 2021, could spread throughout the country.

Hezbollah could thus instigate disturbances on both sides of the Green Line that could divert the attention of Israel’s government and security forces from other fronts, bleeding Israel without the group incurring a price itself. 

Alternatively, if Hamas and its allies find themselves in dire straits against an expected Israeli ground incursion, Iran could deem it necessary to directly activate Hezbollah. Indeed, it’s possible the Shiite organization may already have its orders to enter the war, but to do so in a manner that will allow it to survive Lebanese ire after the dust of conflict settles. As noted, Lebanon’s current circumstances are such that Hezbollah cannot be seen to instigate a war with Israel from which there will likely be no recovery for Lebanon. Foreign reconstruction aid will not likely be forthcoming in such a situation, and Iran’s figurative pockets are not deep enough to carry the cost of reconstruction alone. In such a situation, Lebanon’s already impoverished population may turn its ire on Hezbollah for dragging them into a conflict that was not their own.

To avoid that outcome, Hezbollah could continue its direct and indirect harassment of Israel on the northern border, in an attempt to goad the IDF into a serious enough retaliation that the group could then use to justify launching war against Israel – to its supporters and the broader Lebanese public – as an act of self-defense against “Zionist aggression.”

David Daoud is the Director of Israel, Lebanon, and Syria Research at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).