November 1, 2023 | Commentary
Nasrallah’s Big Speech
November 1, 2023 | Commentary
Nasrallah’s Big Speech
Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hezbollah—Iran’s terrorist proxy in Lebanon—is set to deliver the most important speech of his life on Friday afternoon. There are signs Nasrallah is preparing to announce an all-out war against Israel, opening a second major front where the Israeli military will face an adversary that is better armed and more entrenched than Hamas in Gaza.
Within days of the October 7 massacre in southern Israel, Hezbollah began launching attacks on northern Israel from across the Lebanese border. Employing rockets, mortars, and missiles, the group claims to have carried out more than 105 strikes since October 8. Hezbollah numbers are suspect, but they underscore its ambitions. The group claims to have “killed and wounded 120 [Israeli] soldiers and destroyed nine tanks, two personnel carriers, and two Humvees. “Additionally, Hezbollah claims its attacks “destroyed 69 communication systems, 140 cameras, 17 jamming systems, 33 radars, and 27 intelligence systems.”
Whatever the real numbers, these are not just pinpricks. Israel has evacuated more than 40 communities near the Lebanese border, forcing tens of thousands of Israelis out of their homes.
Hezbollah has also drawn significant attention to its fallen fighters. The group claims to have lost 50 in battle, yet based on the number of reprisals and pre-emptive strikes reported by the IDF, that number is likely far higher.
Nasrallah himself has been conspicuously absent from the limelight during the past three weeks. But on Tuesday he announced he will deliver that major address to his supporters from Dahiyeh, Hezbollah’s stronghold in Beirut.
There are essentially two paths that lie ahead for Nasrallah, although it’s not clear if he has chosen one.
The first is an all-out war against Israel. Destroying the Jewish state has been Hezbollah’s ultimate objective since Iran’s Revolutionary Guards helped found the group in the early 1980s. With Tehran’s unstinting support, Hezbollah has been planning, training, and equipping itself for such a war since its 34-day clash with Israel in 2006. According to the State Department, Iran provides Hezbollah “with the bulk of the group’s annual operating budget, an allocation estimated in recent years to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Hezbollah has an arsenal of around 150,000 rockets, approximately ten times what Hamas had in its arsenal when the current crisis erupted. The most lethal weapons in this arsenal are the hundreds of precision-guided munitions (PGMs), furnished by Iran, that can potentially strike strategic targets in Israel—air bases, seaports, power plants— with pinpoint accuracy. Fired en masse, even Hezbollah’s “dumb” rockets may overwhelm Israeli air defenses such as Iron Dome, which already have to contend with continued launches from Gaza. Israel has never sustained a strike of such magnitude on its home front.
We also know that Hezbollah has planned to capture Israeli towns, whose residents would likely suffer the same fate as the Israelis in the south whose homes fell to Hamas.
A Hezbollah assault would also invite horrific destruction upon Lebanon. Indeed, the moment Israel sustains a significant strike by Hezbollah is the moment Israel unleashes a firestorm on Hezbollah infrastructure all across Lebanon. Many figures in Lebanon have already voiced grave concern about such a scenario. The country is already reeling from political dysfunction and economic collapse. Yet Hezbollah subordinates the lives of Lebanese citizens, not just Israelis, to its ideological mission.
But there is a chance that Nasrallah’s speech will be an exercise in chest-thumping and excuse-making rather than a declaration of war. He may declare that Hezbollah will continue to “resist” Israel’s invasion of Gaza by carrying out limited strikes that would fall short of eliciting a major response to Israel. The Hezbollah chief might even lament that his hands are tied because the United States has warned his group not to widen this war. This is exactly what the Biden administration would like to hear. Israel is prepared to fight on two fronts, but would prefer to focus on Gaza, at least for the time being.
If Hezbollah remains mostly on the sidelines, one can envision a scenario in which Israel announces in a few days or a few weeks that its military objectives in Gaza have been met, thereby opening the door for a new political, economic, and diplomatic order in Gaza. This all depends on the effectiveness of American deterrence.
But the American goal is to deter the Lebanese terror group, as well as Iran and its other proxies. The White House has sent a clear message that it will be listening closely to Nasrallah’s speech on Friday. Accordingly, U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby warned, “One of the reasons why the president sent an extra carrier strike group into the region and parked one in the Eastern Med is to make sure we send a strong message to any actor, including Hezbollah, who may want to widen the conflict: They ought not to do it…Nasrallah can say what he wants to say. And we’ll certainly be paying close attention to it. But our message is the same to him, to them, to any other actor in the region.”
Will American deterrence hold? Will Israel have to fight as hard in the north as it is now fighting in Gaza? Tune in on Friday 3pm Beirut time to find out.
Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. Follow him on X @JSchanzer.