Beirut, Lebanon — Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah on Friday called for a ceasefire in Gaza while holding off on announcing any broader conflict with Israel, bringing relief to Lebanon where many were fearing the prospects of war.
Nasrallah claimed that Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel, which set off the current war, was carried out without Hezbollah or Iran’s knowledge, in a live televised address on Friday.
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Yet, the leader of the Iran-backed Shia political party and armed group also said all options were on the table for an intensification with Israel if the crisis in Gaza deepens, in what were his first comments on the war. Nasrallah laid the blame for the current carnage in Gaza, where more than 9,000 Palestinians have been killed, at the feet of the United States.
“There is fear of an escalation or that [the Lebanese] front may lead to a broader war,” Nasrallah said. “This is possible and the enemy must keep that in mind.”
For now, the war in Lebanon is secluded to the southern region. Nasrallah reminded viewers as much. “They are saying [I] will announce we will enter the war,” he said. But “we entered the battle from October 8th.”
More than 70 people have died on the Lebanese side since the start of hostilities. Most of those killed are Hezbollah fighters, though they include civilians and one Reuters journalist. Israel has said six soldiers and one civilian have died on their side, though Hezbollah claims it has killed or injured 120 Israeli soldiers.
The run-up to the speech had the country wrought in anxiety over the prospect of Lebanon entering a wider confrontation with Israel. For the moment, those fears have been allayed.
“For a lot of Lebanese, they may find some form of reassurance that we are not plunging into an all-out war,” Nicholas Blanford, a Beirut-based expert with the Atlantic Council, said.
“Nasrallah did say the defeat of Israel is a step-by-step approach and is not going to be done in a single blow.”
Some within Lebanon’s political class, including caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, had been making statements about avoiding a wider war. Despite those efforts, many in Lebanon felt that any decision to take the country into war rested in the hands of one man: Nasrallah.
Lebanon anxiously awaited Nasrallah’s words after the speech was announced on October 29. Before the speech on Friday, many shops in Beirut closed early. Traffic was sparser than usual as many people either left work early or teleworked.
Group chats exchanged memes or anxious jokes about what Nasrallah would say. Large crowds gathered in Beirut’s southern suburbs, south Lebanon and the country’s eastern Bekaa Valley to watch the speech. Hezbollah enjoys a popular support base in all three areas.
In a cafe by Beirut’s seafront, Haytham smoked a cigarette. “Of course we’re scared,” Haytham said, just minutes before Nasrallah appeared on screen wearing a black turban and dress. If Nasrallah decided to enter a wider war “Israel could drop a bomb right here, where I’m sitting,” he added.
In his address, Nasrallah detailed the actions Hezbollah has taken along the Blue Line – the line that demarcates Lebanon from Israel – and said the current battle carried an unprecedented significance.
“What is happening on our front has not happened since 1948, even during the July 2006 war,” Nasrallah said. Days before the speech, Nasrallah had signed a handwritten letter demanding that all Hezbollah members killed in operations be declared “martyrs on the path to Jerusalem”.
Nasrallah also said that Hamas had acted alone on October 7, dismissing suggestions that Iran or Hezbollah helped plan that attack. He also insisted that civilian deaths in the operation came at the hands of Israel and not Hamas, despite Amnesty International’s claims that they verified videos of Hamas shooting and killing civilians.
Although Nasrallah declared the current battle unprecedented, he used examples of resistance operations from the 1980s and the July 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel. Despite thousands of casualties – mostly civilians – on the Lebanese side in 2006, Hezbollah’s status was bolstered after withstanding 34 days of war against the Middle East’s strongest army.
Nasrallah seemed to suggest that should Hamas withstand the Israeli barrage, it would signal a victory for the group similar to Hezbollah’s in 2006. However, Nasrallah also indicated that should things escalate in Gaza, they would also heat up on the Lebanon border.
“It’s almost a riposte to criticism from some Hamas leaders that Hezbollah is not doing enough,” Blanford said. “He explained in some detail that Hezbollah’s activities along the border have drawn a sizable number of troops, including elite forces, away from Gaza to look after Israel’s northern border.”
Nasrallah seemed to indicate that as long as Hamas can hold out against Israel’s military, there wouldn’t need to be a need to intervene. “Eliminating Hamas is an unachievable goal,” Nasrallah said.
In effect, Blanford said, Nasrallah made it clear that Gaza was still the primary front and Lebanon’s border with Israel would remain secondary.
“When you cut through all the fire and bluster, it was a rational speech,” Blanford said. At the same time, however, Nasrallah “obviously wasn’t going to give any reassurances to the Americans or the Israelis” about avoiding an escalation, he said.