Hezbollah takes to the high ground

Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah’s speech was keenly awaited in world capitals, principally for any clues on Hezbollah’s intentions going forward. But the master tactician instead focused on the big picture, for, as he put it, October 7 “heralds a changed landscape, necessitating a shared responsibility from all parties” 

November 06, 2023 by M.K. Bhadrakumar
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah delivers a speech on the Israeli assault on Gaza. Photo: Houssam Shbaro/Anadolu

The Palestine question, which Benjamin Netanyahu had thought he had all but resolved by incrementally assimilating “all of Israel” as a Zionist entity, has roared back to the center stage of West Asian politics and the international society, thanks to Hamas, the charioteer of Palestinian resistance.

If the Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah is to be believed, Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel was “entirely a product of Palestinian determination and execution, meticulously concealed from all, including the Gaza-based resistance factions … and free from entanglements with regional or international actors.”

Nasrallah underscored in his landmark speech from Beirut on Friday, that Hamas’ attack on Israel “unequivocally demonstrated that Iran exerts no control over the resistance factions, the true decision-makers being the leaders of the resistance and their dedicated fighters.”

Nasrallah’s speech was keenly awaited in world capitals, principally for any clues on Hezbollah’s intentions going forward. But the master tactician instead focused on the big picture, for, as he put it, October 7 “heralds a changed landscape, necessitating a shared responsibility from all parties.”

Thus, halting the Israeli aggression against Gaza and securing a victory for Hamas in the region should be the objectives today, which is in the national interests of Egypt, Jordan and Syria and of “paramount importance” for Lebanon. Of course, the Gaza Strip has always been central to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and has long been connected to Palestinian nationalism.

Hezbollah entered the battle for Gaza already on October 8 as “what is unfolding on our Lebanese front will not be limited to it, it will extend beyond that,” Nasrallah pointed out. Therefore, the resistance operations in the south of Lebanon serve as a deterrent and any attack on Lebanon or a preemptive operation “would be the gravest folly in the history of Israel’s existence.” He said escalation hinges on two “fundamental factors” — the unfolding events in Gaza and, secondly, Israeli military’s conduct towards Lebanon.

“All possibilities remain open on our Lebanese front, with every option being considered and available for implementation at any given moment, it is imperative for us to remain prepared for all potential future scenarios.” Nasrallah said.

“We have also made preparations to counter the US Fleet”, he added. Recalling the humiliation meted out to the US in the early 1980s in Lebanon, Nasrallah said, “Those who aim to avert an American war should act promptly to halt the aggression against Gaza… In the event of a regional conflict, naval fleets and aerial warfare will prove futile and of no real benefit… your interests and soldiers will be the ones to suffer the most and endure the greatest losses.”

So, what is the big picture? Nasrallah summed up: “While we may require more time, we are achieving victories in different aspects, much like we did in different aspects in Gaza and as the resistance in West Bank…This battle is characterized by resilience, patience, endurance and the accumulation of achievements, all aimed at preventing the enemy from attaining its objectives.”

It appears the contents of Nasrallah’s speech did not take the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken by surprise, who was on a trip to Tel Aviv. Presumably, backchannels would have been active. To connect the dots, the head of Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force Gen. Esmail Qaani had traveled to Beirut last Tuesday and met with Nasrallah.

On the same day, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian met the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in Doha, followed by a meeting with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. (This was Amir-Abdollahian’s second visit to Qatar within the fortnight.)

In the chronicle of the Axis of Resistance, figures such as Nasrallah (or Muqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi Shia Muslim cleric) are anything but one-dimensional figures. Iran’s success lies in its tact, infinite patience and resilience to adjust to external and internal demands of resistance politics. Much of that is the legacy of Gen. Qassem Soleimani who was targeted and killed in a US drone strike near Baghdad airport in January 2000.

Blinken told reporters in Israel that during the meeting with Netanyahu, he urged Israel to pursue a pause in the fighting in Gaza and gave advice about how to minimise Palestinian civilian deaths. Netanyahu shot back soon after by holding his own press conference, saying, Israel “refuses a temporary cease-fire that doesn’t include a return of our hostages.”

On the eve of Blinken’s arrival, Netanyahu told the media quoting Ecclesiastes that “The Bible says that ‘there is a time for peace and a time for war.’ This is a time for war.” Netanyahu is a tough fighter. He is already reaching out to the influential evangelical constituency in the US.

Blinken’s visit ratcheted up the tension within which Netanyahu is now operating. Haaretz calls Netanyahu “a haunted politician facing the end of his career, with the present troubles compounding the serious criminal entanglement into which he maneuvered himself with his own hands. Netanyahu does not enjoy the public’s confidence, and most of his efforts are invested in his personal survival.”

Indeed, how far Netanyahu’s promises to eradicate Hamas are mere rhetorical declarations has yet to be seen. He banks on the consensus in the Israeli political and security leadership — and possibly also the stance of the majority of the public — that it is necessary to defeat Hamas and that it cannot be done from the air, but requires the massive implementation of a maneuvering ground force.

But these are early days. Once the Israeli brigade combat teams enter into the heart of Hamas’ infrastructure and its key operational assets are degraded, the mood can change. Netanyahu’s gamble is very large. Besides, he very much needs the Americans to be supportive while the latter is already asking for a quid pro quo in Gaza and would expect him to renew his support for the two-state solution, aside reining in his coalition partners in the Hardalim (ultra-Orthodox, nationalists) and their allies who are are committing atrocities against Palestinian population and cutting down their olive trees across the hills of the West Bank.

What Hamas and Hezbollah truly want is a ceasefire in Gaza. From Hamas’ perspective, the international interest in freeing foreign nationals will generate pressure to arrive at a deal. As for Hezbollah, it is averse to risking vast damage in Lebanon. Hezbollah is also a political party with grassroots support and is sensitive to the crisis of the Lebanese economy and the acute hardships that people have to undergo. Such considerations would favor caution.

However, Nasrallah’s speech showed that the fog of war is deepening. Things are not what they seem on surface — especially, given Biden’s credentials as the world’s number one Zionist, as someone once described. People do not change at 80.

A leaked policy draft from the Israeli intelligence ministry last week confirms the worst suspicions of keen observers that Israel harbors secret plans to expel much or all of the Gaza enclave’s Palestinian population into Egypt’s Sinai desert.

Jonathan Cook, British journalist and author, has written a stunning piece that Netanyahu government is “seriously considering a massive ethnic cleansing operation, conducted at lightning speed and with US assistance.” Cook cited an FT report that the EU is seized of the US-Israeli plan and some member countries are receptive to the idea of putting concerted pressure on Egypt to accept the exodus from Gaza.

There is reason to believe that the Biden Administration is dissimulating and creating false narratives in the media — feigning differences with Netanyahu, etc. — while in reality, the Israeli plan is very much in Blinken’s talking points in the diplomatic engagements behind closed doors, especially with the wealthy Gulf countries who would be called upon to bankroll the settlement of Gaza’s displaced population in Sinai.

MK Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat. He was India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey. The views are personal.