Lebanon is on edge in advance of Hezbollah leader Syed Hassan Nasrallah’s anticipated Friday speech on Israel’s war on Gaza, which residents and experts fear could inflame regional tensions if he pledges to escalate attacks against Israel.
Fighting between Hezbollah and Israel has escalated along their fraught border in recent weeks. The Lebanese armed group claims to have lost 47 fighters while Israel says that six of its soldiers have been killed. At least six civilians have also been killed.
Yet, some believe that Nasrallah could be preparing his constituents in southern Lebanon for an intensified conflict, even though many worry that a war could upend their lives as it did in the past.
South Lebanon has historically suffered significantly more from Israeli aggression than any other region in the country — including a 15-year-long occupation by Israel between 1985 and 2000.
“Even among [Nasrallah’s] supporters, there are people who feel that [the south] always fought Israel [in the past] and that right now … we’re not ready for war,” said Mohamad, a resident from South Lebanon who did not disclose his last name for fear that speaking frankly about Hezbollah could hurt his livelihood.
Violence between Israel and Hezbollah erupted shortly after Hamas launched a surprise attack against Israeli military outposts and civilians on October 7. About 1,400 people were killed, according to Israeli officials.
Israel has retaliated by bombing Gaza relentlessly and conducting ground invasions. Gaza’s health ministry says that more than 8,000 Palestinians have been killed, including more than 3,000 children. Many others are dying from Israel’s suffocating siege, which several legal experts have said is a war crime under international law. After October 7, Israel completely blocked the entry of food, fuel, medicines and other essential supplies into Gaza. While some aid trucks carrying food and medicines have been allowed in through the Rafah crossing with Egypt in recent days, Israel still isn’t allowing fuel into the enclave, crippling hospitals that need electricity to operate life-saving machines.
Despite growing calls for a ceasefire, Israel has said it will not stop attacking Gaza until it eradicates Hamas, which forms a so-called “axis of resistance” with Hezbollah, other Shia armed groups in the region and their sponsor Iran.
But Nasrallah could warn Israel to reconsider its objective, analysts have said.
“I believe Hezbollah … views this conflict as an existential one,” said Mohannad Hage Ali, an expert on Lebanon with the Carnegie Middle East Center. “They think that if Israel manages to meet its objectives in eradicating Hamas in the Gaza Strip, then they will turn around and deal with what they see as the Hezbollah threat.”
Hearts and minds
Hezbollah has struggled to win back support from the wider Sunni Arab world after intervening in Syria to rescue President Bashar al-Assad, an ally who belongs to an offshoot of Shia Islam.
Al-Assad allowed Iranian weapons and goods to pass through his territory to reach Hezbollah in Lebanon. And during the height of the war, Hezbollah besieged and starved civilians who opposed the Syrian regime.
Hezbollah’s involvement dispelled its claim that its weapons were exclusively used to defend against Israeli aggression. But Nasrallah may now see the crisis in Gaza as an opportunity to repair his image.
“This is Nasrallah’s moment,” Hage Ali told Al Jazeera.
“Millions of Arabs will be watching his speech across the world. They will listen to the only leader in the region that is capable of speaking to their anger and despair by telling them that he will act and support Palestinians in Gaza, who face an existential threat of expulsion.”
Other Lebanese Sunni fighters are already cooperating with Hezbollah to target Israel.
Mohamad, the resident of southern Lebanon, believed that many more Sunni Muslims would support Hezbollah if its battle with Israel intensified.
“Everything that happened in Syria was forgotten in just a few days [after the war in Gaza started],” he told Al Jazeera.
Despite the anxiety of Lebanese residents, Palestinian refugees in the country said that they would like Hezbollah to intensify attacks against Israel, which Nasrallah could authorise during his speech.
Ahed Bahr, a member of a Palestinian political party in Lebanon, told Al Jazeera he hoped that images of dead children from Gaza would compel the “axis of resistance” to escalate against Israel from multiple fronts, including Lebanon.
“This is the opportunity to finally free Palestine,” he said from Sabra and Shatila, two neighbourhoods that are home to a refugee camp in Lebanon’s capital Beirut. “Arab nations can finally help Palestine, but most are doing nothing.”
So will Hezbollah and its allies step up attacks on Israel?
Iranian-backed fighters in Syria and Iraq are believed to be responsible for launching several rockets and drones at US assets and personnel in the region. The attacks appear to be in retaliation for American support for Israel’s attacks on Gaza.
While no US service personnel have been killed, Washington has responded with air raids targeting fighters near the Syria-Iraq border. The US had also warned Hezbollah against escalating attacks against Israel.
Rather than respond, Nasrallah has kept mum for three weeks. Until now.
“It just feels like there is a major decision from the ‘resistance axis’ coming,” said Mohamad. “That decision could come on Friday.”