The expectations for Hizbullah leader Hasan Nasrallah’s speech on Friday were very high; even the U.S. National Security Council’s spokesperson at the White House admitted that they too were awaiting the speech. In the Arab world there was anticipation or a general wish that Nasrallah would declare an official entry into the larger war, thereby igniting a regional conflict that would change the shape of the Middle East.
Hizbullah, unwisely, increased expectations by releasing video teasers showing Nasrallah walking or seated. Israelis and much of the world were holding their breaths. Lebanese were nervous but hopeful that Nasrallah would take their plight into consideration.
But Nasrallah does not operate in a vacuum. There is a very complex context in which he does. In the Arab world, the Western-Gulf alliance has spent billions to demonize Nasrallah and to undermine his standing in the Arab and Muslim worlds; and his standing reached new heights in the wake of the 2006 war with Israel.
Hizbullah’s involvement in Syria, and the circulation of slogans that were sectarian and religious in nature, aided the Gulf regimes’ campaign against Nasrallah and the party, portraying them as purely Shiite and merely puppets of Iran. The Gulf’s mission was to push the party into a sectarian corner, and the party — through its political behavior in Lebanon — unintentionally aided that mission.
Since the Lebanese economic collapse in 2019, Hizbullah has pursued political options focusing on solidifying Shiite political ranks. This is only understandable from the perspective of the party protecting itself from a Gulf-Israel plot to instigate a Shiite, intra-sectarian, civil war.
Thus it’s not easy to assess the speech with disregard to the political context in which it took place. Nasrallah was addressing many audiences: the party’s rank-and-file, the Lebanese scene, the Arab scene, and his enemies in the West and Israel.
The video teasers before the speech would have worked if there was a dramatic announcement in the form of a major escalation or a declaration of war. When that did not materialize, it made those teasers feel hollow even though they succeeded in a form of psychological warfare against the Israeli enemy (an Israeli newspaper commented that Nasrallah succeeded in tearing the nerves of Israelis).
Hizbulllah is the first Arab political party, or even state if we add them to the mix, which devotes energy and resources to engage in psychological warfare against the Israelis. The PLO had no notion of that, and the speeches of its leaders (and of Arab leaders) were bombastic and emotional and did not rely on a base of military power and preparedness. Nasrallah is an expert on Israel; he spends hours reading about Israel and its politics and military.
Nasrallah must have felt enormous pressure before the speech. For a leader who uniquely (in the history of Arab leaders and of Israel) makes decisions on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis, Nasrallah’s hands were a bit tied in Lebanon. Half of the country (at least) is under the influence of Gulf regimes and have relatives in the Gulf and fear for their expulsion (Gulf regimes remind Lebanon regularly that if Lebanon were to take stands against the Gulf regimes, those Lebanese immigrants would be expelled en masses).
Furthermore, there is an enormous U.S. media apparatus headquartered in Dubai that coordinates with Israel and Gulf countries in the war on enemies of Israel, especially those who are engaged in resistance against Tel Aviv.
Weeks before Nasrallah’s speech, journalists on the payroll of Gulf regimes and journalists who work for media funded by NATO governments and George Soros came together and promoted a petition rejecting the war between Lebanon and Israel, insisting that Lebanon is too fatigued to participate in a war against Israel. Money was mysteriously made available for those people to buy billboards sending the same message: that Hizbullah should keep Lebanon out of the war.
The movement did not spread much, but it registered with people who are worried about their living conditions, in the wake of the economic collapse and the elimination of people’s life savings. It did not help that Israeli leaders make weekly threats that they would turn Lebanon back to the pre-industrial age or that they would threaten to eliminate Lebanon altogether.
Those genocidal statements don’t get covered in the Western press, but they alarm the Lebanese population; Lebanese know full well that in war Israel targets civilians first and foremost.
Most of the casualties in Israel in the July 2006 war were combatants, while most of the casualties in Lebanon were, typically, civilians. Lebanese infrastructure is in decrepit shape and Israel in the past consistently targeted Lebanese hospitals, power stations, airports, schools, and refugee camps.
That must weigh heavily on Nasrallah’s mind when he makes the cost-benefit analysis.
But there are also the party-stalwarts who have been raised on the slogan, nay expectation, of the liberation of Palestine. They genuinely believe that Israel would reach its demise in the next war. Those supporters of the party needed to hear from their leader to understand the regional ramifications of the war.
And Nasrallah, it must be pointed out, is now probably the most senior figure in the “axis-of-resistance” in the Middle East. Even Qassim Suleimani (murdered by the U.S.) was lower in rank than Nasrallah ( footage of meetings between the two men confirm that Nasrallah was the senior person in the relationship). Photos of family mourning in Suleimani’s home show a picture of Nasrallah in the house).
Even Ayatollah Khamenei, who is the most senior religious figure in the hierarchy of the axis, defers to Nasrallah on strategic matters (Iranian officials regularly briefed Nasrallah on nuclear negotiations with the West).
When it comes to war with Israel, Nasrallah is the ultimate decision maker.
So he knew expectations were high and that this was a historic moment with the Arab people unified in support of Palestine. He could not stand by or act indifferently. He has not only opened (since the Hamas attack on Israel) the front in the South where his has party lost 55 members so far in clashes with the Israeli occupation army, but he also allowed Palestinian factions (namely Hamas and Islamic Jihad) to use Lebanese territories to fire short range missiles at Israel targets.
The entire political class in Lebanon (in the form of the government and the prime minister) has said that Lebanon does not want war with Israel.
So Nasrallah did not declare war, but sent out these important signals:
- He made it clear that the planning and the timing of the Hamas operation was entirely Hamas and Hamas alone. He said that not even allies of Hamas in Gaza (clearly a reference to Islamic Jihad) knew of the operation because Hamas maintained absolute secrecy. Iran was not involved and that was important to stress because in the Western media all Iranian allies are presented as mere puppets of Iran. The picture is more complicated. In 2011, Hamas supported the Syrian revolt against the Syrian regime although the regime provided Hamas with sanctuary and military support. That stance poisoned the relationship between Hamas and Iran, and even between Hamas and Hizbullah. Hamas later reconciled with Hizbullah, but the Hizbulalh leadership still refuses to meet with Khalid Mishal, the leader behind Hamas’ decision to support the Syrian armed rebellion (he took that decision consistent with the stance of Qatar and Turkey, with which he is very close). Moreover, even the US has finally concluded (according to CNN) that Hizbullah does not merely follow Iranian orders in its decision making.
- Nasrallah wanted to make clear that the front from Lebanon to Syria to Gaza is one and that all members of the resistance camps will be fighting together. He made a reference to the Iraqi allies of Hizbullah.
- Nasrallah was preparing the Lebanese for the next phases of the war. He all but made it clear that a larger war is inevitable but he did not want to be the one to announce it, thereby opening the door for the Gulf-paid media to blame him for that decision. He spoke about phases of this war and reminded the audience about Israeli losses and Hizbullah’s successes in clashes in South Lebanon.
- Nasrallah sent a message to the U.S.: His group won’t be intimidated by the presence of the fleet in the Mediterranean and reminded the U.S. that some of those who fought against the U.S. in Lebanon in 1982-84 are still alive and trained others. He made it clear that Hizbullah would retaliate against U.S. forces if the U.S. strikes Lebanon.
It was not Nasrallah’s best speech, and it did not meet the very high expectations by many. But it achieved what he wanted from the occasion: to put the enemy on notice that Hizbullah would not rule out a major confrontation with Israel and that such eventualities are related to developments on the ground in Gaza.
As`ad AbuKhalil is a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. He is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Lebanon (1998), Bin Laden, Islam and America’s New War on Terrorism (2002), The Battle for Saudi Arabia (2004) and ran the popular The Angry Arab blog. He tweets as @asadabukhalil