Hezbollah alone will decide whether Lebanon − already on the brink of collapse − gets dragged into Israel-Hamas war
Lebanon, which is teetering on the edge of economic and political collapse, risks becoming entangled in the escalating war between Israel and Hamas.
Hezbollah has been gearing up for the possibility of joining the fight ever since Hamas’ surprise assault on Oct. 7, 2023, killed nearly 1,400 people, leading to Israel’s declaration of war a day later. The Shiite militant group has launched multiple attacks on Israeli targets from Lebanon, prompting return fire from the Israel Defense Forces. Over a dozen people have died, mostly Hezbollah fighters but also at least a few civilians on both sides of the border, including a JP photojournalist.
As a historian, I have focused my research and teaching on the dynamics of conflict and cooperation involving Israelis, Lebanese and Palestinians. If a war between Hezbollah and Israel does erupt, the already significant violence and destruction in southern Israel and Gaza will likely be greatly compounded by further massive loss of life in Lebanon, Israel and perhaps in other parts of the Middle East.
Hezbollah’s decision whether to fully join the war may answer a question that has been preoccupying analysts of the organization for decades: Is its priority the well-being of Lebanon or acting as a proxy for Iran?
A decades-old conflict
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been spilling into Lebanon since 1948, with the establishment of Israel and displacement of Palestinians, or what the latter call the Nakba, or catastrophe.
In fact, no Arab country has been more affected by this conflict. About 110,000 Palestinians took refuge in Lebanon in 1948. Today, the number is about 210,000, and they are denied basic rights.
In surveys, many Lebanese have said they resent the Palestinian refugees in the country and blame them for the eruption of the Lebanese civil war, which took place from 1975 to 1990. An estimated 120,000 died during the fighting, the scars of which can still be seen in the capital of Beirut.
Israel was deeply embroiled in the Lebanese civil war. It supported Christian militias and pursued its own fight against Palestinian militias, who used Lebanon as a base to launch attacks against the Jewish state. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon in order to wipe out the Palestine Liberation Organization and establish a pro-Israeli Christian government in Beirut. Neither objective was achieved.
Hezbollah becomes Lebanon’s strongest force
Since its foundation in 1920, Lebanon and its politics have been dominated by a sectarian system in which government and state positions are divided among the 18 officially recognized religious sects, most notably Sunnis, Maronite Christians, Druze and Shiites. Each sect has mandated representation in government.
Today, the Shiite population is the largest sect in the country, making up 30% to 40% of the general population – but no exact figure is available because the sensitivity of the matter has meant no official census has been conducted since 1932.
For decades, Lebanon’s sectarian system has resulted in what scholars call “hybrid sovereignty.” Political elites who represent their sects in the sectarian system are both part of the state apparatus and also operate outside of it by providing their constituents services that are normally the responsibility of government, from providing marriage licenses to armed protection.
Hezbollah formed in 1982 with Iranian and Syrian support to fight Israel after its invasion. It is by far the country’s strongest political, socioeconomic and military force. This is due to the support of Iran and a strong and cohesive internal social structure among its Shiite followers in the country. Not all Shiites identify with Hezbollah, but no doubt many of them sympathize with its causes.
Hezbollah also operates within the hybrid structure of the sectarian system by playing an integral part in the government but also by functioning as a state unto itself. For example, it boasts its own military force, which is far stronger than the formal Lebanese army, and provides social, educational and economic services to Shiites.
In fact, no group has benefited more from this sectarian hybrid system than Hezbollah.
Lebanon in free fall
Despite the fractured political system and weak state, Lebanon has managed to retain some stability and vitality, even under the duress of the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011.
Things took a severe turn in October 2019, when years of Ponzi-like financial mismanagement, excessive borrowing and a sharp decline in remittances from abroad led the Lebanese economy to melt down. The World Bank has described it as one of the worst economic crises since the mid-19th century.
The crisis sparked large-scale protests across the country, known as the “October 17 revolution,” in which the Lebanese demanded social and economic justice, an end to corruption and the dismantling of the sectarian political system. As a result, foreign donors were alarmed, foreign currency flowed out of the country, banks shut their doors to depositors, the government defaulted on its debt and the local currency collapsed.
A massive blast at the Beirut port in August 2020, which killed 225 people and caused billions of dollars in damage, further exacerbated the socioeconomic and political conditions in the country. And since October 2022, the Lebanese political system has been in complete gridlock, given the inability of the political class to agree on a new president and a new government.
Hezbollah has been the least affected by the national crisis among political forces in the country and has emerged as a staunch defender of the political system that nurtured it.
Some already see Lebanon as a failed state, so the last thing the country needs is to become part of another war.
‘Back to the Stone Age’?
But whether Lebanon becomes a part of the war, ultimately, is not up to the Lebanese government.
The current caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati, has cautioned against a war with Israel, as did Druze and Maronite political leaders, who have traditionally opposed Hezbollah’s military hegemony in Lebanon.
Mikati acknowledged, however, that he holds no power to decide whether Lebanon will go to war, reflecting the paradoxes of the Lebanese political system in which the most crucial decision any national leadership could make – the decision to launch a war – does not rest within the government but within Hezbollah and by extension within Iran.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly stated that the group’s prime role is to defend Lebanon’s sovereignty.
Its commitment to Iran, on the other hand, has been openly demonstrated through its direct involvement in the Syrian civil war, which saved Bashar Assad’s government. But that war was fought mostly on Syrian soil. A war with Israel would be very different.
It would be another tragic page in the history of Lebanon if Hezbollah were to join the war against Israel, in purported support for Palestinians in Gaza. It could prompt Israel – in the words of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant – to try to send Lebanon “back to the Stone Age.” Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, already answered in kind.
It would also likely lead to the broader regional war that U.S. officials, including President Joe Biden, have been trying so desperately to avoid. And Lebanon itself would move closer to the brink of absolute and irreversible collapse – and Hezbollah’s answer to the question about its main priority would be clear.