Hezbollah’s Shifting Narrative

Hezbollah’s Shifting Narrative

How has the Lebanon-based paramilitary changed its tune since October 7?

After eight months of war in Gaza, and amid the continuing escalatory clashes between Israel and Hezbollah along the Israel-Lebanon border, Hezbollah is presenting its own assessment of the course of the war that reviews the objectives of the opposing sides and evaluates actions and their consequences on the ground. 

Presenting such an assessment now is a rather strategic maneuver and can be interpreted as an attempt by Hezbollah to define and unify the so-called Axis of Resistance’s strategic objective after eight months of battle in Gaza. This is also occurring as Hezbollah appears to be adopting a new level of escalation against Israel in the wake of Iran’s unprecedented attack against the Jewish state in April and against the backdrop of Israeli operations in the southern Gaza city of Rafah. Hezbollah has been earnestly touting Hamas’ victories in Gaza and claiming that whatever happens in Rafah will not alter the outcome of the war. 

Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, presented this assessment during a recent speech on May 13, naming Hamas and the Axis of Resistance on one end and Israel, with its U.S. and Western backers on the other. Nasrallah said that Hamas’ and the Axis of Resistance’s overall goal of its October 7 attack was the revival of the Palestinian cause and the rights of the Palestinian people. Israel’s stated goals of its ensuing war against Hamas were to destroy the militant group, free the Israeli hostages, and eliminate the threat of potential future attacks from Gaza. 

On the Palestinian side, Nasrallah said that Hamas’ goal to revive the Palestinian cause as a top priority on the international scene was achieved, citing as evidence the 143 countries in the United Nations that voted for ending the war as well as the protests in the United States and Europe in support of Palestine. On the Israeli front, Nasrallah argued that all three Israeli goals have thus far failed to materialize, judging from the consequences on the battlefield. He claimed that there is a consensus in Israel about the failure of Israeli war in Gaza, citing as proof the non-release of remaining hostages by force thus far and Hamas’ sustaining combat operations, including its recent rockets targeting the Israeli towns Beersheba and Ashkelon, reflecting the reach of its warfare.

Redoubling the so-called “unity of fronts” narrative, Nasrallah claimed the effectiveness of the Axis’ supporting fronts against Israel—whether in military, political, financial, or moral aspects—highlighting the fronts in the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran. He concluded his core arguments by portraying Israel—although backed by the most powerful country in the world—as a defenseless country not capable of reestablishing deterrence after the October 7 attacks and the Iranian missile attack on April 14.

Nasrallah reiterated similar lines in his latest speech on May 24, which was delivered to commemorate the deaths of Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi and several other senior officials in a helicopter crash on May 19. Such reassertion, however, was made only briefly, as most of the speech centered on highlighting the deeds of the late Raisi and the late Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian as part of wider claims demonstrating the resilience of Iranian institutions. 

Contradictorily, in his first speeches on the subject at the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, Nasrallah spoke of open options in the Gaza war, such as the possibility of the Lebanese front escalating into an all-out war. Still, he was deliberate in avoiding any strategic deliberation about Hezbollah’s current fighting with Israel and Hamas’ war in Gaza—except for saying that Hezbollah’s battle is a “supporting front” to Hamas. Since then, he has repeatedly stated that the nature of the battle waged by the Axis will determine the current conflict. 

In fact, at the onset of the conflict, both Hezbollah and Iran indicated they had no prior knowledge of Hamas’ planned attack against Israel. Reuters reported that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, told the head of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, during a meeting in Tehran in early November that Iran would not enter the war on Hamas’ behalf, given that Hamas had given Iran no warning regarding their planned attack. Having realized that Hamas had apparently no defined political objective for the October 7 attack and having been caught by surprise by the event, Hezbollah acted in an impromptu manner the next day by bombarding Israel. 

As widely reported and seen on television, even Hamas political leaders in Qatar were caught by surprise by the attack on October 7. In the following days, their individual statements and speeches gave way to disparate views about the reason for the attack, ranging from freeing the Palestinian hostages from Israeli prisons, countering an (alleged) planned attack by Israeli forces designed to destroy the Aqsa mosque, anticipating and countering an attack by Israeli forces against Hamas in Gaza that was (allegedly) planned to take place after the holidays, to derailing the process of normalization between Israel and Arab countries (as per Haniyeh’s statement). Above all, in these statements, there was no mention of the claimed unified goal of reviving the Palestinian cause.

In addition, examining the first declaratory statement proclaiming the October 7 attack issued on the day of the attack by one of Hamas’ lead commanders in Gaza, Mohammed al-Deif, believed to be the organizer of the October 7 attack with Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, there is no stated objective, such as the claimed revival of the Palestinian cause, for the attack, except for a description of the overall plight of Palestinians in Gaza—primarily the suffering of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, (alleged) Israeli raids against civilian people along the West Bank, and (alleged) arbitrary lands’ seizures, and the Gaza blockade—and calling repeatedly on Palestinians, Muslims, and Arabs to participate in Hamas’ then ongoing attack against Israel. Initial and following statements by Abu Obaida, the military spokesman of the Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, mirrored Deif’s statement and almost replicated the same lines raised by Deif describing the suffering of the Palestinian people. 

As observed by many analysts, Hamas commanders in Gaza, and more broadly, the political wing in Qatar, believed that the members of the Axis of Resistance, particularly Hezbollah, would join them in their October 7 attack against Israel and were disappointed when they did not. Such calls initially appeared in Deif’s declaratory statement and later in Abu Obaida’s following statements. Grievances were later reflected in statements by several senior Hamas leaders criticizing Hezbollah for not fully joining Hamas in its military action.

Generally speaking, Hezbollah’s maneuvering of the narrative to engage in and sustain a conflict is not new. Over the last decades, different objectives were presented at each juncture to justify Hezbollah’s involvement in conflicts and wars, whether on the Lebanese front or in other countries’ conflicts, such as its military intervention in the Syrian civil war since 2012 to support Bashar al-Assad’s regime or its intrusion in the current war in Gaza. However, Hezbollah’s latest “unity of fronts” narrative presents a new level of encouragement for its actions and interventions and is explicit on its overall objectives. These include the elimination of the United States’ presence in the Middle East and the destruction of Israel. Nevertheless, Hezbollah suffers from several vulnerabilities and is rife with instances of propaganda, as is evident, for example, in this latest claim of the overall goal of the October 7 attack being the revival of the Palestinian cause. 

Rany Ballout is a New York-based political risk and due diligence analyst with extensive experience in the Middle East. He holds a master’s degree in International Studies from the University of Montreal in Canada and a bachelor’s degree in Linguistics from Uppsala University in Sweden.

Image: Mohammad Kassir / Shutterstock.com.