What is Hezbollah? A look at the Lebanese armed group backing Hamas

Hezbollah has described the deadly Hamas attack as ‘a decisive response to Israel’s continued occupation’.

Hezbollah senior official Sayyed Hashem Safieddine speaks as supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah attends a rally to express solidarity with the Palestinians
Hezbollah senior official Sayyed Hashem Safieddine speaks as supporters of the Lebanon-based group attend a rally to express solidarity with the Palestinians [Emilie Madi/Reuters]

The deadly skirmishes on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon have raised the prospect of a broader conflict in the Middle East, as the Hezbollah armed group has fired artillery and rockets in solidarity with Palestinians.

As Israel pummels the Gaza Strip with air strikes in the wake of deadly attacks by the Hamas armed group, fear of another front in the north is growing with an exchange of fire between Israeli and Hezbollah fighters. On Monday, the Iran-backed group fired a barrage of rockets after three of its members were killed in Israeli bombardments.

Here is what we know about Hezbollah:

What is Hezbollah?

Hezbollah, meaning “Party of God”, is an Iran-backed Shia armed and political group that was formed in 1982 to fight Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon.

It emerged from the armed groups formed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the wake of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The group, which finds its support among Shia Muslims, is one of Israel’s biggest foes in the region.

In 2021, leader Hassan Nasrallah claimed Hezbollah had 100,000 fighters. The group boasts precision rockets and says it can hit all parts of Israel.

The United States estimates Iran has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars annually to Hezbollah in recent years.

The group, headed by Nasrallah since 1992, is one of the most influential political blocs in Lebanon’s sectarian political system, commanding the support of a large section of the Shia population. The group is often dubbed “a state within a state” due to its vast network of political and military set up in a country divided along sectarian lines.

Why was Hezbollah formed and what are its aims?

Hezbollah’s fighters carried on a sustained campaign against Israeli forces in Lebanon and launched attacks on Israeli civilians in other countries.

Israeli forces withdrew unilaterally from southern Lebanon in 2000 after nearly 20 years of deadly fighting, prompting Hezbollah to proclaim itself the first Arab army ever to force Israel to cede control of territory.

Israel continues to occupy Syria’s Golan Heights and Palestinian territories it captured in the 1967 War. Hamas has been fighting against Israeli occupation and the expansion of illegal settlements on Palestinian lands.

Hezbollah released its manifesto after its formation, highlighting its ideology and objectives, which included defeating Israel and expelling Western colonialist entities from the Middle East.

Has Hezbollah clashed with Israel before?

In a cross-border raid in July 2006, Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers, which it hoped would secure a prisoner swap deal with their Israeli counterparts. Israel responded militarily, resulting in a 34-day war also called the July War.

The conflict ended inconclusively as neither side was able to prevail militarily, but it resulted in the killing of more than 1,100 Lebanese and 165 Israelis.

But Nasrallah has said on multiple occasions that the 2006 war was a success for Hezbollah, noting it withstood Israel’s larger and stronger forces.

An Israeli government inquiry concluded that the 2006 war was an unsuccessful and “missed opportunity.”

How is Hezbollah different from Hamas?

Hezbollah and Hamas are separate entities but share the common objective of armed resistance against Israel.

While Hezbollah is a Lebanese organisation, Hamas is a Palestinian group that was formed in Gaza in 1987 after the beginning of the first Intifada, an uprising against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. Hamas politically controls the Gaza Strip after winning elections in 2006.

After Saturday’s Hamas attack on Israel, Hezbollah released a statement saying it was closely following the situation and was in direct contact with the leadership of the Palestinian resistance.

The statement added it was a “decisive response to Israel’s continued occupation and a message to those seeking normalisation with Israel“, referring to the Arab countries seeking to normalise ties with Israel.

Leaders of Hezbollah and Hamas also met in 2020 to discuss the normalisation of the relationship between Israel and Arab countries.

Will Israel fight a war on two fronts?

Three members of Hezbollah were killed during an Israeli bombardment on Monday after a cross-border raid claimed by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) armed group.

Hezbollah said that those killed had been “martyred as a result of the Zionist aggression in south Lebanon. As a response, the group fired a barrage of rockets into Israel.

Analysts speculate that Palestinian factions in Lebanon are eager to open a second front if Hezbollah initiates an attack.

Hence, it is possible that Lebanon could become involved in an all-out war between Israel and Hezbollah, backed by Palestinian factions.

While Hezbollah fired artillery in an Israeli-controlled area claimed by Lebanon on Sunday, the group has avoided deeper participation so far. This could change if Israel were to launch a ground offensive in Gaza, some experts say.

What are the other Palestinian groups in Lebanon?

Palestinian groups in Lebanon include Hamas, the secular party Fatah, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

Some of these members are based in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon including Ein el-Hilweh and Burj al-Barajneh.

Is Hezbollah a ‘terrorist’ organisation?

The United States and other Western countries consider Hezbollah a “terrorist organisation”. US-allied Gulf states including Saudi Arabia also consider the group to be a “terrorist” group.

The European Union classifies Hezbollah’s military wing as a “terrorist group”, but not its political wing.

What is the group’s role in Lebanon?

Hezbollah has ministers in government and lawmakers in parliament.

Parties in Lebanon who oppose the group accuse it of driving Lebanon into conflict.

The group became more politically prominent after Syria, Hezbollah’s close ally, withdrew from Lebanon following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

Hariri, a Sunni politician, symbolised Saudi influence in Lebanese politics.

In 2016, the Hezbollah-endorsed Christian politician Michel Aoun became president. Two years later, Hezbollah and its allies won a majority in the country’s first general election in nine years.

In the 2022 elections, Hezbollah’s political bloc lost its majority but the group continues to hold sway in the country’s politics.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies