November 3, 2023 - 4:30pm

After a week of tense anticipation, in which the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah had trailed short promo clips of their leader Syed Hassan Nasrallah like a Marvel supervillain, his long-awaited speech today came as an unexpected piece of good fortune for Israel. PR stunts such as the mutual pledging of eternal solidarity between Hezbollah and Palestinian fighters — as well as the escalation of cross-border shelling deeper into both Israel and Lebanon — had hinted that Nasrallah might be ready to announce Hezbollah’s entry into the conflict. Such a statement would have practically ensured a regional war.

But when the Hezbollah leader finally reached the meat of his long and rambling speech, his tone was, if anything, de-escalatory. For all his furious denunciation of what he called Israeli war crimes in Gaza, and jibes at “the Great Satan” itself, Nasrallah repeatedly took pains to emphasise that the 7 October attack was a Palestinian decision carried out without the knowledge or support of either Hezbollah or Iran. Further, he remarked, “this conflict is completely Palestinian and has nothing to do with any regional or other issue”.

Nasrallah continuously mocked Israel, declaring that the Jewish state is as “weak as a spider’s web” and stating that “for a whole month Israel wasn’t able to have one military achievement.” Yet he shied away from any concrete threats of widening the war, instead emphasising that Hezbollah’s border clashes with Israel were a vital part of the same conflict, and are successfully dividing Israeli forces, drawing away IDF troops and materiel that would otherwise be deployed to Gaza.

If this was an attempt to assuage Hamas criticism of Hezbollah’s modest involvement so far, it’s unlikely to work. Hamas officials have already complained in Arabic media that the level of support offered by Hezbollah has fallen far below their expectations; with Israel successfully cutting the narrow Gaza Strip in two and preparing to besiege Gaza City, the group’s immediate prospects look grim. 

The tone of Nasrallah’s speech was defensive if anything, urging the US to impose a ceasefire, warning both America and Israel away from any attempt to widen the conflict to Lebanon, and threatening that it is only if the group is attacked that “all options are on the table”.

While a bitter pill for Hamas, the reaction from both the US, keen to dampen any prospect of a regional conflagration, and from Israel, whose capacity to intercept Hezbollah’s fearsome arsenal of missiles is doubtful, will be one of relief. Lebanon’s people will feel similarly: with their political system essentially held hostage by Hezbollah, many feared that the group would drag their country into a war that Israeli officials have already publicly warned would destroy it.

But this isn’t the end of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Gaza war. The border clashes with Israel, which have already claimed the lives of 57 Hezbollah fighters and 7 Israeli soldiers, are still escalating as the scene of fighting extends deeper into both countries. Hezbollah’s attacks so far have been focused on degrading Israel’s surveillance and anti-missile early warning systems, establishing the conditions for later entry into the war should circumstances demand. 

US officials have briefed that Hezbollah is attempting to acquire Russian anti-aircraft capabilities delivered via Syria, and Israel — already piqued by the welcoming of a Hamas delegation to Moscow — is reportedly no longer providing Russia with advance warning of its strikes on Syrian airports. 

Like a brawler performatively demanding others hold him back from a fight he does not really wish to have, Hezbollah today backed away from full involvement in the Gaza war, yet it is hurriedly preparing to fight it on the best terms later on. A regional catastrophe has only been delayed, not defused. In the current dire circumstances, though, even that looks like a win for the wider Middle East.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.