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Militant Group Hezbollah Is on the Sidelines of the Israel-Hamas War. Here’s What to Know

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A month after the militant group Hamas, who govern the Gaza Strip, started a war with Israel that has reportedly killed more than 10,000 people, violence is rising on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. Powerful militant group Hezbollah and Israel Defense Forces have exchanged missile fire along the border in retaliatory skirmishes. A Reuters video journalist was killed in Lebanon on Oct. 13 when he was hit by missiles fired from the direction of Israel. The IDF told TIME in an emailed statement on Nov. 4 that the incident is under review. They said on the day before the journalist's death, they had requested that the U.N.'s peacekeeping force verify there were no civilians in the combat zone. They added that entering combat zones “creates a real and immediate danger to civilian lives." On that day, the IDF used tank and artillery fire in response to a missile that hit Israel's security fence, the statement said.

The cross-border fighting has stoked fears of a regional war, with international powers and leaders of the two entities warning against increasingly dangerous provocations. In a speech on Nov. 3, Hezbollah’s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah threatened escalation, but stopped short of declaring war on Israel.

As tensions rise, here’s what you need to know about Hezbollah and the group's role in the Israel-Hamas war.

What is Hezbollah? 

Hezbollah, meaning “Party of God," is an Iran-backed Shia Muslim militant and political group based in Lebanon. The group formed in 1982 during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war in response to Israeli forces invading southern Lebanon to expel Palestinian militants attacking Israel, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Iran formed the group with the objective to play a role in the Arab-Israeli conflict in support of Palestinians and to become a prominent regional actor, Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, told TIME.

Hezbollah’s original manifesto, published in 1985, stated its enemies were the Christian-affiliated Lebanese Social Democratic Party, Israel, France and the U.S., and its goal was to expel these groups from Lebanon.

The U.S. designates Hezbollah as a terrorist group associated with numerous attacks on civilians around the world, including bombings at U.S. and French military barracks in Beirut in 1983 that killed around 300 people. The European Union classifies Hezbollah’s military wing as a “terrorist group,” but not its political arm.

The group entered politics in 1992 and went more mainstream in 2009 with an updated manifesto that called for “true democracy,” the Council on Foreign Relations said. 

Hezbollah has made “tremendous achievements” in politics in Lebanon over the past 30 years, but it’s still a “lonely group,” Khashan said. Hezbollah maintained 13 seats in Lebanon’s 128-member Parliament in the most recent 2022 elections, but the party and its allies lost their majority.

Who is backing Hezbollah? 

The U.S. State Department says that Iran provides most of Hezbollah’s training, weapons and funding—to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

As a result, Hezbollah is a well-resourced armed group with a medium-sized force that can defeat most Arab armies, making it “the most powerful non-state actor” in the region, Khashan said. 

Why is Hezbollah coming up in the context of the Israel-Hamas War? 

Both Hamas and Hezbollah are reportedly funded by Iran. Hezbollah played a role in Hamas’ militarization in 2002, although the two groups found themselves on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war, Khashan said.

The extent of Iran’s involvement, if any, in Hamas' recent attack on Israel is unclear. Early U.S. intelligence indicated Iranian leaders were surprised by the assault.

Hezbollah released an early statement praising Hamas’ attack, describing it as a “decisive response to Israel’s continued occupation and a message to those seeking normalization with Israel.” In another statement, a Hezbollah official said “our hearts are with you. Our minds are with you. Our souls are with you. Our history and guns and our rockets are with you.”

Since the attack, Hezbollah has fired missiles across the border into Israel in a show of what the group calls “solidarity” with Hamas, leading to escalating skirmishes.

Hezbollah and Israel were last at war in 2006, when Hezbollah kidnapped Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, prompting Israel’s retaliatory invasion into Lebanon. The month-long war ended in a stalemate and ceasefire brokered by the United Nations.

What has Hezbollah said publicly about the Israel-Hamas War?

In a speech on Nov. 3, Hezbollah’s leader spoke out for the first time since the Israel-Hamas war began, celebrating Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, but distancing his group from the planning, saying he was surprised along with everyone else.

Nasrallah said Hezbollah’s decision to escalate further is contingent on whether Israel launches a larger attack on Hezbollah in Lebanon and escalation in the Gaza Strip. Nasrallah also criticized the U.S. for the support it has shown to Israel. “America is completely responsible for the current war in Gaza,” he claimed.

Nasrallah indicated he was not afraid of two U.S. warships that were positioned in the Mediterranean to deter further escalation.

What have world leaders said about Hezbollah in relation to the current events in the Middle East? 

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed back against Nasrallah’s speech, warning Hezbollah of the consequences of instigating a war, the Jerusalem Post reported. "As for the northern front, I reiterate to our enemies—do not be mistaken about us,” Netanyahu said. “Such a mistake will be very costly. You will pay an unimaginable price.”

U.S., French and Lebanese officials have all reportedly cautioned Hezbollah, Israel and Iran to not escalate the conflict. “Let me say again, to any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of the situation, I have one word: Don’t,” U.S. President Joe Biden said in the days following Hamas’ attack.

National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby said in a press briefing on Oct. 23 that the president does not want to see the conflict widen. Kirby said the U.S. has added additional military capability in the region to deter any actions and pledged to “act appropriately to protect and defend our national security…interests.”

Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, which formerly ruled Lebanon, also warned Hezbollah and Iran not to get involved in the conflict. 

Hezbollah and Lebanon must "exercise restraint to avoid opening a second front in the region,”of which "the first victim will be Lebanon,” the French presidency said in a statement on Oct. 14, France24 reported. "No pretext should be given for Lebanon to slide once again into war.” 

French officials are passing messages to Hezbollah and Israel to not destabilize the United Nations' peacekeeping force, warning a broader conflict could plunge already fragile Lebanon into an “abyss,” Reuters reported. 

Lebanese politicians have similarly urged Hezbollah not to escalate, though they have little to no sway over its decisions, Reuters also reported. 

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has warned of consequences if Israel’s Gaza offensive is not stopped, cautioning that the war could expand to other parts of the Middle East if Hezbollah joins the battle, and Israel would suffer “a huge earthquake.” More recently, Amirabdollahian said Iran does not want the current conflict to spread. 

What are the potential consequences if Hezbollah were to officially join the Israel-Hamas War?

Hezbollah entering the war would open up a broader regional conflict, tax Israel’s response on both borders and likely lead to greater destruction.

Tore Refslund Hamming, an expert in Islamic militants at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London, told TIME on Nov. 3 that he does not think Hezbollah wants to start a war with Israel. Hamming argues Nasrallah did not want to appear weak in his speech, but also did not want to come off as too aggressive.

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