By Emilie El Khoury, Queen’s University, Ontario | –

The devastating war in Gaza is now in its sixth month, and the figures are alarming: more than 33,000 Palestinians have been killed. Almost one-third of the population is suffering catastrophic food insecurity and over two million (almost the entire population) have been displaced.

More than 9,000 Palestinians (including around 460 minors) have been imprisoned by Israel, and there are over 17,000 Palestinian children who have been separated from their parents. And most of the Israelis taken hostage by Hamas remain in Gaza.

As the war drags on, it threatens to spread to more countries. On April 1, Israel bombed the Iranian consulate in Damascus, Syria, killing Iranian military officials.

Since the war began, Israel has been engaged in an undeclared war against the broader Axis of Resistance which aims to resist the United States and its allies in the region. The axis, made up of Iran and allied armed groups in the region, aims to support Palestinian groups in Gaza by engaging Israel on multiple fronts.

In Yemen, Ansarullah (commonly known as the Houthis) have launched a blockade of the Red Sea targeting Israeli-connected vessels. While Iran-backed militias in Iraq have launched attacks on American troops in the region. Most notable however is the involvement of the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah, which has been directly engaging the Israeli military along the Israel-Lebanon border for months.

Al Jazeera English Video added by IC: “Hezbollah continues to exchange fire with the Israeli army across the border”

Who are Hezbollah?

Hezbollah was established on Feb. 16, 1985 during the Lebanese Civil War. The group was primarily founded in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and occupation of parts of the south, as well as the disappearance of religious leader Musa Al-Sadr in 1978.

Since then, Hezbollah has grown to become a state within a state, developing a complex religious and sociopolitical structure. Its political wing holds seats in the Lebanese parliament, and the group provides vital public services in many parts of the country, thereby consolidating its support base. Militarily, it has a powerful armed wing of around 100,000 fighters, outnumbering the official Lebanese army’s 84,000 soldiers.

After the civil war ended, Lebanese armed groups agreed to disarm as part of the peace process. However, Hezbollah did not, asserting that it will disarm when Israel is no longer a threat to Lebanon and when Palestinians are free.

Israel’s 2000 retreat from southern Lebanon, and Hezbollah’s willingness to confront it, has gained the group the support of many in Lebanon and the broader Arab world.

Some western countries like the United States, Canada and Australia classify Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, while the European Union has designated only its armed branch as such since 2013. This stems from Hezbollah’s alleged links to attacks on U.S. and other western targets in Lebanon, although it has always denied any involvement.

Border clashes

In his first speech after Oct. 7, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, stated the group had been engaging Israel since Oct. 8.

Hezbollah has deployed along the entire Lebanese-Israeli border, plunging southern Lebanon and northern Israel into a state of informal war.

The border deployment constitutes a violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war. While there have been skirmishes between Israel and Hezbollah over the past 18 years, they have always been contained and Hezbollah had not deployed along the entire border since 2006.

The group is not the only party to have violated Resolution 1701. Israel has regularly violated it including by destroying infrastructure.

Officials from Hezbollah and Israel have exchanged threats, heightening fears of a more destructive war. On Jan. 8, 2024, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant threatened to “copy-paste” the destruction of Gaza onto Beirut if Hezbollah does not cease its attacks.

In a recent speech, Nasrallah labelled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “madman,” adding that Israel wants to wage war on Lebanon yet “can’t cope in Gaza.”

Nasrallah’s comments appear to be designed to indicate that any war in Lebanon could be just as disastrous for Israel. Hezbollah has the capability to target anywhere inside Israel with its missile arsenal.

Managing public perceptions

Lebanon is divided when it comes to support for Hezbollah. The country faces deep political and economic crises. The presidency has been vacant since 2022 amid political deadlock between political factions. Meanwhile, Lebanon faces an economic crisis that has pushed over 80 per cent of the population into poverty.

According to a November 2023 poll, 93 per cent of Lebanese Shiites had a positive opinion of Hezbollah, compared to only 34 per cent of Sunnis and 29 per cent of Christians. Support for Hamas was more widespread, with 79 per cent of Lebanese having positive opinions.

Since 2020, support for Hezbollah has strengthened among some Lebanese regardless of religious affiliations due to the welfare services it provides, however, that does not mean they agree with its politics or ideology.

The war creates more political instability, religious and social tensions, and further impacts the economy. As the economy and government services collapse, many Lebanese have turned to the humanitarian social services provided by Hezbollah.

This has maintained some stability and order amid the institutional disorder of the Lebanese state. Without these services, the system would risk further collapse, exacerbating the precariousness of the situation.

Pressure is mounting on Hezbollah to justify its strategy. To this end, Nasrallah has touted the impact of the group’s attacks, declaring that Israel was losing in the north. Over 200,000 Israelis have been displaced, with many refusing to return out of fear of Hezbollah attacks.

However, southern Lebanon is also paying a heavy price. Over 347 Lebanese have been killed by Israeli attacks, most of whom were Hezbollah members, but also over 50 civilians. According to the International Organization for Migration, almost 94,000 people have had to leave southern Lebanon to flee Israeli attacks.

The agricultural sector has suffered significant damage, with over 800 hectares of land damaged by Israeli bombings. This situation has a devastating impact on the economy of southern Lebanon where agriculture is a major industry.

Given this impact on civilian life, it is imperative to prioritize diplomatic solutions that end the violence, with special attention to securing food security and the agricultural sector in Lebanon. Simultaneously, efforts must be made to establish lasting peace among peoples exhausted by conflict.The Conversation

Emilie El Khoury, Postdoctoral fellow at Queen’s University’s Centre for International Policy and Defence (CIDP), Queen’s University, Ontario

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.