In the aftermath of the recent Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip, there has been an intense debate regarding Hezbollah’s non-intervention in the conflict and the reasons behind this strategic decision. However, the group’s failure to take part in an armed attack against Israel should not overshadow the importance of the Lebanese organization’s non-military contributions to the conflict, in particular its attempt to reframe a reading of the war in line with the Iranian foreign policy agenda for the Middle East.
The Reasons behind the “Non-Intervention Policy”
France’s envoy to Syria, Senator Philippe Marini, advanced a possible theory regarding Hezbollah’s failure to take action in the midst of the war in Gaza by stating that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had used his personal influence on the Lebanese group to prevent it from attacking Israel. Senator Marini publicly stated, “President Assad told me he exerted his influence to ensure Hezbollah adopted a responsible attitude and showed restraint during the events in Gaza" (AFP, January 28). However, the report was quickly dismissed by Syrian sources, which denied that President Assad ever referred to Hezbollah in the course of his meeting with the French politician (Syrian Arab News Agency, January 30, 2009).
A different reading of the Lebanese group’s posture was found in the pan-Arab, Saudi-owned Al-Sharq al-Awsat, which—quoting an unidentified “Lebanese source close to Hezbollah”—asserted that the organization was evaluating the possibility of opening a second front against Israel, but was later deterred from doing so. Specifically, the source revealed that Hezbollah let a third party, believed to be the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command (PFLP-GC), fire rockets against Israel to signal to the Israelis that their northern border was unstable and could explode at any minute. The rockets were also meant to test domestic reaction to a military involvement in the ongoing hostilities between Israel and Hamas (see Terrorism Focus, January 15). Accordingly, the negative reaction to the firing of rockets—including within the Shi’a population, which constitutes the back-bone of Hezbollah’s support—along with military calculations finally dissuaded Hezbollah from continuing or escalating the attacks against Israel (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 9). This theory rests on the assumption that Hezbollah has tight control of the entirety of south Lebanon, and thus it seems highly implausible that any organization operating in the area could have fired rockets without the group’s knowledge (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 9).
In reality, it is likely that a range of political and military considerations influenced Hezbollah’s strategic assessment and its decision to refrain from getting involved in an armed confrontation against Israel. Among the most relevant factors are the upcoming Lebanese elections and the widespread popular opposition to initiating another war against Israel while the nation is still trying to repair the significant damage inflicted on Lebanon’s infrastructure in 2006.
Despite the lack of direct military intervention, Hezbollah nevertheless played an important role during the Gaza War. At the outset it is important to say that Hamas and Hezbollah maintained continuous communication in all phases of the conflict. For example, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General, Hassan Nasrallah, launched a pan-Arab campaign to bring an end to the embargo on Gaza on December 15, 2009—several days before the expiration of the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, and only one day after Hamas' political head in Damascus, Khalid Mashal, formally declared the organization’s refusal to renew the ceasefire. The timing of these announcements indicates the existence of an open channel of communication between the two groups, as well as a minimum level of inter-organizational coordination (Daily Star [Beirut], January 13).
Furthermore, it appears that certain tactics employed by Hamas in the course of the last Israeli military operation in Gaza had been taught to Hamas by Hezbollah; this was confirmed by Hezbollah MP Mohammad Raad (al-Manar, January 2). For instance, since the 2007 Hamas takeover of the Gaza strip, the group has relied more on rocket attacks and less on suicide operations, a change that could be attributed to both observing and applying tactics employed by the Lebanese Hezbollah, as well as to having obtained Iranian versions of the Katyusha and Grad rockets with a longer range (18.6 to 21.7 miles) (AP, December 31, 2008). Moreover, according to Iranian newspaper Hemayat, Hezbollah also trained Hamas in military tactics used to attack Merkava tanks (the main battle tank employed by the Israeli Defense Forces) (Hemayat; January 5).
However, aside from the pre-existing logistical support and the ongoing communication between the two groups, Hezbollah’s concrete contribution to the War in Gaza was at the propaganda and psychological operations level, with the Lebanese group playing an important role in galvanizing and mobilizing the Arab population across the Middle East.
Hezbollah’s Media Campaign
Once hostilities commenced, Hezbollah embarked on a massive media campaign to link the War on Gaza and Hamas’s response to the 2006 Lebanon War, declaring that the 2006 campaign had in fact marked the beginning of an Israeli military decline within the region. According to Nasrallah:
"What is taking place in the Gaza Strip is a Palestinian version of what took place in Lebanon in July 2006,” adding that “The Israelis said they learnt lessons from the second war in Lebanon, but it seems that the resistance in Gaza benefited from these lessons more than the Israelis. Actually, the lessons are making the Israelis appear weak and hesitant… they do not even dare to say the goal is stopping the firing of rockets from Gaza. What is the goal then? (…)Why do the Israeli leaders avoid setting a declared goal? They are afraid of failure" (al-Manar; December 31, 2008).
Irrespective of the military results on the ground and the substantial blow that Israel inflicted on Hamas, Hezbollah ran a well-planned media campaign to assert the weakness of the Israeli deterrence paradigm. After the Israeli withdrawal, Hezbollah congratulated Hamas “on the victory they have achieved in the face of the Zionists’ ruthless aggression against the Gaza Strip” (al-Manar; January 20, 2009).
Hezbollah aimed at reframing the Arab public’s understanding of the war in at least two ways; by conveying Israel’s weakness vis-à-vis Hamas and the “Resistance,” and by suggesting an alternative reading to the war itself. With this objective, Nasrallah stated:
"Those who believe that this war is being waged on the Hamas Movement or the Hamas government are mistaken; the war is being waged against the Palestinian people… The contradiction with the Islamic resistance factions in Gaza is not due to their ideological, religious, or intellectual affiliation. It is, however, due to the program of the resistance… What is being fought in Gaza today is not the Islamic title or the Islamic movement, but what is being fought is the resistance's platform" (al-Manar; December 31, 2008).
Nasrallah’s analysis of the war aimed at increasing the sense of solidarity and unity of the Arab world, and openly defied the views of Arab regimes such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or the Palestinian Authority itself, which had been critical of Hamas’s actions and insisted on its responsibility for the war.
The Confrontation with the “Arab Moderate Regimes”
Hezbollah’s reframing of the war in Gaza also allowed the organization to use the ongoing hostilities to chastise the above-mentioned Arab regimes, with Hezbollah's head of international relations Nawaf Mousawi criticizing the "suspicious silence" of Arab leaders, and Secretary General Nasrallah conducting a verbal campaign against Egypt.
In particular, Nasrallah delivered harsh criticism of Egypt for not opening the Rafah Crossing during the Gaza War, and called on the Egyptian people to protest against their government; “Let the Egyptian people take to the streets in the millions. Can the Egyptian police kill millions of Egyptians? No, they cannot” (al-Manar December 28; 2008). Hezbollah’s stance against Egypt, backed by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was rebutted by the Egyptian media, which accused the Shi’a group of being an Iranian front tasked with weakening the Egyptian position as a broker in the Arab-Israeli conflict, in line with Tehran’s plans to replace the Arab Republic (al-Manar; January 14, 2009; AFP, December 29, 2008; Al-Arabiya TV; January 30, 2009; Al-Wafd; December 30, 2008).
Indeed, Hezbollah’s posture regarding Egypt could be read in the framework of Iran’s ongoing quest to shift the regional balance of power, thus attempting to weaken Egypt’s regional status and the credibility of the Egyptian government. Similarly, Hezbollah also used the Gaza War to issue declarations casting doubts on the role of Saudi Arabia and its peace intitiative. In fact, Hezbollah’s Shaykh Na’im Qassem strengthened this thesis by stating; “we believe that the [Saudi] initiative was buried after the Gaza war,” adding; “as long as Israel exists, it will pose a threat to the entire region” (al-Manar; January 22, 2009).
Despite the lack of direct military involvement, Hezbollah invested substantial political capital in the Gaza War by embarking on a massive media campaign to support Hamas, reframing the entire reading of the conflict and raising the level of political confrontation within the Arab world by attempting to weaken the political position of key moderate Arab regimes, such as Egypt.