Lebanon: Hezbollah faces Israel’s war threat

Issue: 182

Simon Assaf

Lebanon is in the crosshairs of imperialism. Along with Yemen, it is one of the two countries currently engaged in military action to support the Palestinians. Yet, the unsettling prospect of the war on Gaza spilling over Israel’s northern border is causing unease among Western leaders.

Israel’s history includes three invasions of Lebanon: in 1978, 1982 and in 2006. During the last confrontation, Hezbollah (the “Party of God”) inflicted a humiliating blow on Israel over the course of a 33-day war. Despite the savagery of the wars and the disproportionate number of civilian casualties, Israel failed to achieve its central objective of subjugating the resistance.

Yet, much has changed since 2006. Hezbollah has now become integral to the survival of the Lebanese state and has chosen to prioritise neoliberal reforms above the needs of ordinary people. It has also lent support to the regime of Bashar al-Assad in crushing the Syrian Revolution and helped to stabilise Lebanon’s faltering political system amid the so-called October Revolution of 2019. Fundamentally, the party’s class character has shifted, moving away from its traditional base among impoverished Shia Muslims and towards becoming largely dominated by a new middle class.

The United States and France, alongside pro-Western Arab regimes, have made the destruction of Hezbollah a strategic priority. Imperialism sees a strong Lebanese state as a counterweight to the party. Yet, the Lebanese security forces are no match for the strength of Hezbollah, and there are doubts about the cohesion of the army, particularly if it were ordered to attack Shia-dominated areas. The stakes are high for Western powers, yet the momentum of war has its own logic, propelled by an Israeli government increasingly willing to risk everything to settle both the Palestinian and Lebanese questions in one go.

A military power

Estimates of Hezbollah’s current military strength vary. It can, factoring in its allies, deploy tens of thousands of highly trained and motivated fighters. It also has an arsenal of over 100,000 missiles, including guided munitions capable of reaching key strategic targets deep inside Israeli territory, such as petrochemical plants. Its armoury also includes anti-ship missiles with a striking range of 200 miles and advanced anti-tank weapons. The group is said to have acquired anti-aircraft systems that threaten Israeli air superiority over southern Lebanon. This fighting capability is rooted in a deep and extensive network of underground shafts and bunkers, which the Israelis refer to as the “Land of Tunnels”.1

The ongoing tit-for-tat skirmishes of low intensity warfare have left Israel rattled. Resorting to assassinations of Hamas and Hezbollah commanders and the deployment of phosphorus shells in wildlands, farms, orchards and olive groves, Israel has displaced over 100,000 Lebanese people. In retaliation, Hezbollah has launched missiles targeting military bases and border defences, resulting in the displacement of some 80,000 Israelis from their homes.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s minister of national security and a leader of the country’s ultra-right wing, wants Netanyahu’s war cabinet to rewrite the rules of engagement. He asserts that “it is time to abandon the current assumption in the north with Lebanon”, referring to informal agreements that have hitherto limited the extent of military actions along the border.2 The logic of war may grant Ben-Gvir his wish. Recent events indicate a widening of hostilities beyond the agreed geographical limits, 20 kilometres on either side of the border. With each Israeli attack, Hezbollah responds with the threat of escalation. The spectre of a full-scale war looms large, especially as the US has made it clear that any ceasefire in Gaza will not extend to Lebanon.3 Yet, victory for Israel on these killing fields remains far from certain.4

The mounting pressure within Netanyahu’s cabinet for a military offensive obscures the fact that a Gaza-style strategy of besieging people with bombardments is unfeasible in Lebanon. Unlike Gaza, there are no physical barriers to trap people. Nor is there a compliant Western-backed regime to enforce a siege. Instead, Israel would need to unleash mass destruction across the entire country, including areas outside of the traditional Hezbollah strongholds in South Beirut, the Bekaa Valley and southern Lebanon. This would involve implementation of Israel’s so-called Dahieh Doctrine, that is, the calculated use of disproportionate and massive force against civilians to secure its war aims.5

Lebanon is a patchwork of regions, and Israel will be reluctant to involve some in a war. East Beirut and its surroundings are overwhelmingly Christian, while Beirut’s suburbs are ethnically diverse working-class communities. The historic commercial heart of the capital is dominated by Saudi investments. Meanwhile, Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, a pro-Western party hostile to Hezbollah, holds sway in many Sunni Muslim neighbourhoods in West Beirut.6 Similar demographic mixes can be found in most major towns and cities.

Furthermore, Lebanon hosts around half a million Palestinians spread across 12 refugee camps—most notably in the southern cities of Saida and Tyre, in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila neighbourhoods, and in the north and the Bekaa Valley.7 These camps are under the control of various Palestinian groups, including Hamas and Fatah, but also left-wing organisations such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.8 Many of these camps rely on services funded by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which is now threatened by budget cuts, exacerbating the general economic crisis in the country.9

Given the difficulties of conducting a war against Lebanon, there are no guarantees that another Israeli military campaign could fulfil its objectives. Indeed, according to the Washington Post, the US was determined to reign in Netanyahu during the onset of the Gaza war, fearing what a war in Lebanon might unleash:

Biden was on the phone up to three times a day…in part working to dissuade Israel from attacking Hezbollah—a move that would have resulted in “all hell breaking loose”… The Israelis’ deep fears about the threat influenced Biden’s decision to fly to Tel Aviv less than two weeks after the Hamas attack, according to one senior official.10

The danger of this war spreading is rooted in the waning power of the US in the region, particularly following its debacle in Iraq.11 As regional powers such as Iran, Turkey and the Gulf kingdoms vie for hegemony over Lebanon, France is increasingly nervous about losing the loyalty of the country’s Christian population, with the prospect of an escalating conflict threatening to undermine its existing influence. Hezbollah’s warning that any Israeli strike on Beirut would trigger missile attacks on Tel Aviv only serves to heighten tensions further.12

Since France carved out the territory from Syria in 1920, Lebanon has been a battlefield for rival imperialist powers, both global and regional. Under the colonial mandate system set up following the First World War, France was the dominant Western power in Lebanon and implemented a sectarian system that favoured the Maronite Christian sect, which is affiliated to the Catholic Church. Sectarianism functions both as a tool for resolving power struggles within the cross-sectarian ruling class—with ministerial posts, parliamentary seats and civil service jobs distributed according to sect—and as a tool for securing the loyalty of subordinate classes through welfare services and employment opportunities. Rather than relying solely on a unified national identity, Lebanon’s rulers exploit sectarian identities to sow divisions among workers and the poor. This system remains stable because leaders from each sect offer material rewards to “their” community.13

France, and later the US, viewed Lebanon as a key Western ally in the region and intervened whenever this alliance was threatened by movements from below. The country’s banking system was designed to facilitate the flow of capital from the oil-rich Gulf monarchies, bypassing the Arab boycott of Israel, while its economy was oriented towards free-market principles and pro-Western policies. In 1958, US troops landed in Beirut to suppress an insurrection inspired by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser’s vision of Arab unity. Subsequently, during the 1960s and early 1970s, a movement from below emerged, reinforced by the influx of Palestinians escaping persecution after the Jordan’s Black September uprising in 1970. These developments triggered the first phase of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975-6.14 Just as victory seemed within reach for left-wing forces and their Palestinian allies, Syria, under the rule of dictator Hafez al-Assad, intervened to crush the movement.15 The ensuing conflict descended into an intractable sectarian war until the Israeli invasion in 1982.

Israel’s 1982 invasion

Israel had hoped that their intervention would deliver a death blow to Palestinian movements and secure their northern border. Israeli forces had already occupied southern Lebanon in their initial invasion of 1978, but they soon saw an opportunity to annihilate the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), expel Syrian troops from the country and tilt the balance of war against the left-wing factions. A further aim was to establish a Christian-dominated government willing to sign a peace treaty with Israel. The invasion began with extensive bombardments, followed by a ground invasion that brought Israeli troops to the outskirts of Beirut. After months of siege, the PLO and its allies surrendered. Yet, although the PLO leadership and its fighters withdrew, none of Israel’s other objectives were realised.

Far from subjugating Lebanon, a popular insurgency emerged, compelling Israeli forces to retreat from Beirut. In April 1983, a bomb outside the US embassy killed 63 people. Subsequently, in October of the same year, the resistance drove two lorries with explosives into buildings housing US and French troops, resulting in the deaths of 241 American and 58 French soldiers. Both countries withdrew shortly thereafter. Opposition to the Israeli occupation coalesced around Hezbollah, with former military commanders from the left-wing militias and Palestinian groups forming an experienced core of officers. Hezbollah conducted low intensity, but effective, guerrilla raids against the occupying forces and their proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army.

Far from the “Peace for Galilee” promised in 1982, the Israelis became entangled in asymmetrical warfare more sophisticated than they faced with the poorly equipped Palestinian guerrillas. Hezbollah, born out of resistance to the occupation, was deeply entrenched in the Shia Muslim communities in southern Lebanon. Over the years, Hezbollah’s activities expanded incrementally, with some 4,928 operations conducted between 1996 and Israel’s withdrawal in 2000. Despite two major Israeli offensives—Operation Accountability in July 1993, which caused extensive destruction, and Operation Grapes of Wrath in April 1996, a 17-day bombardment of southern Lebanon resulting in 154 civilian deaths—efforts to uproot the resistance failed.16

The long occupation met a dramatic end in May 2000. An Israeli incursion into a village on the outskirts of its control zone triggered a strike by Lebanese students, developing into an uprising in areas under occupation. Locals seized Khiam prison, referred to as the “Bastille of the South”, as the Israeli army fled and its allies dissolved. From 2000 to 2006, a simmering conflict persisted over the control of Shebaa Farms, a contested piece of land that remained under Israeli occupation.

The July War

In July 2006, Israel unleashed its Dahieh doctrine of mass destruction, but despite subjecting Lebanon to 33 days of relentless bombardment, it once again fell short of achieving its objectives. The July War was an attempt to dismantle Hezbollah’s infrastructure in the south, yet it would become one of Israel’s most significant defeats since its establishment in 1948. Hezbollah not only survive Israel’s onslaught; it also emerged with its political and influence bolstered. The defeat represented a major strategic and psychological blow for Israel, thwarting the ambitions of US president George W Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair to neutralise Iranian influence in Lebanon and stabilise their faltering occupation of Iraq.

Israel bombed Beirut’s suburbs, towns and villages in the south, the Bekaa Valley, and critical infrastructure across the country. However, rather than inciting opposition against Hezbollah, the Israeli offensive galvanised a movement of solidarity in support of the resistance. Shia neighbourhoods emptied as many residents found refuge in Christian areas, as well as across the Syrian border. The establishment of Samidoun, a relief organisation spearheaded by a small group of revolutionary socialists, cemented popular backing for the resistance.17 Chris Harman outlined the scale of the Israeli setback in 2006:

What began as a long planned Israeli attack aimed at destroying Hezbollah ended in a humiliation for Israel. This outcome was not only a shock to the Israeli military. It was also a devastating blow to Bush and his junior partner Blair in their attempt to rescue US global hegemony from the debacle of their Iraq adventure. The US administration gave at least a nod and a wink to the Israeli military and may well have been involved in planning the onslaught unleashed on 12 July… Their aim was simple. The Israelis were to deal a devastating blow to Iranian influence in Lebanon—and hopefully to Iranian influence over the Shias in Iraq—as part of the offensive against Iran itself… What was meant to be a great military and political advance for Israel and the US turned into its opposite.18

Resistance and compromise

Hezbollah’s victory in the 2006 war captivated the Arab world, demonstrating that uncompromising opposition to Israel was no longer a recipe for defeat. Yet, the party would ultimately squander this victory, becoming sucked into Lebanon’s sectarian system and losing its relevance amidst the Arab Revolutions of 2011. This journey from a popular resistance movement to a key pillar of the state is a path often travelled by national liberation movements.

Unlike traditional political parties, Hezbollah did not emerge to represent Lebanon’s sectarian elites; rather, it originated from the most deprived segments of Lebanese society. Shia Muslims were historically underrepresented in a system that, rooted in colonialism, apportions political power along religious lines. Comprising a third of the population, Shia Muslims were allocated the least influential government positions. This systemic marginalisation provided fertile ground for left-wing and other radical groups in the years before the civil war. By the 1980s, Hezbollah had eclipsed the many left-wing parties prevalent in Shia areas and, despite its rootedness in Islamism, gave voice to aspirations for economic and social equality. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, was born in Bourg Hammoud, an impoverished neighbourhood near Beirut’s port, which was founded by Armenian survivors of the Ottoman genocide. He rose to prominence as a talented commander in the resistance against occupation.

Hezbollah evolved into more than just a military organisation, expanding its reach into social welfare provision by establishing clinics, hospitals, schools and community services that often replaced the Lebanese state. Operating a fully equipped television channel, al-Manar (The Lighthouse), and securing representation in professional associations and unions, Hezbollah cemented its influence across various sectors of society. However, its commitment to defending the south led to one of its most crucial contradictions.

Following the 2006 war, the party welcomed the dictates of the so-called Paris Agreements, which unlocked international funds for reconstruction but at the cost of implementing sweeping neoliberal policies that devastated Lebanon’s working class.19 To mitigate the impact of these reforms, Hezbollah maintained a system of social welfare supported by remittances and funds from Iran and Qatar. However, this influx of money encouraged the bureaucratisation of the party, fostering the emergence of a new class of entrepreneurs engaged in property speculation in South Beirut. Consequently, Hezbollah’s social networks began catering more towards a rising middle class, with its hospitals and schools becoming some of the most expensive in the country. By the onset of the Arab revolutions in 2011, Hezbollah increasingly resembled other mainstream political parties.

Hezbollah, much like previous resistance movements, has become reliant on outside sponsorship, a dynamic that compromises its autonomy. Counting on Iran and Syria for weaponry, the organisation found itself at odds with the spirit of the 2011 wave of revolutions. In response to the uprising in Syria, Nasrallah used the status of the resistance to bolster support for the Assad regime. He denounced the Syrian uprising as a “foreign plot” and the revolutionaries as “salafi fanatics”.20 Deploying thousands of its fighters to assist the Syrian state, Hezbollah alienated itself from the widespread popular support it had enjoyed in 2006. Moreover, as an organisation embedded within and dependent upon capitalist social relations, Hezbollah moderated its social and economic demands. Bassem Chit, a Lebanese Marxist, wrote:

Hassan Nasrallah’s famous line—“we will not hide behind a loaf of bread”—and Hezbollah’s support for privatisation, its opposition to the demands of the trade union coordinating committee and the agreement it made with the [sectarian Shia] Amal Movement and the [pro-Western] Free Patriotic Movement to stop the state electricity company workers winning their demands are proof of Hezbollah’s bourgeois nature… Hezbollah has clearly entered a phase of bureaucratic bourgeois growth, particularly since the Israeli war on Lebanon in July 2006. This is evidenced by the way its cadre and members display the wealth and privileges they enjoy such as social, economic, educational and health services. This will naturally cause a split between this arriviste bureaucracy and the large masses that Hezbollah relies on to assert its political legitimacy during elections and popular rallies. This is sometimes shown by the latent complaints of common Hezbollah supporters, who have expressed their resentment over the flaunting of wealth and bullying influence that members of this bureaucratic clique often exert on other people in the neighbourhoods where they operate.21

Hezbollah’s integration into the state provided some degree of protection during the 2006 war, but its real power came from its social base and broad popular support, regardless of religious affiliation. By joining the government and making political concessions, Hezbollah’s ability to address social and economic questions was constrained, diminishing its potential to become a voice of the poor and to challenge sectarian politicians.

The pressure to compromise with imperialism in the name of serving the “national interest” is best illustrated by the October 2022 gas exploration deal between Lebanon and Israel, in which Hezbollah played an active role. Under the agreement, Israel gained rights to exploit some 1.75 trillion cubic feet of gas, valued at $3 billion, situated beneath 300 square miles of the Mediterranean Sea near the maritime borders of Israel and Lebanon. In return, Lebanon, through French contractors, secured access to an adjacent gas field worth $200 million annually. Although touted as a victory for Lebanon, and facilitated by Hezbollah’s military strength, the agreement grants Israel a 17 percent share of any future profits from Lebanon’s gas field and complete control over the neighbouring Karish field. While Hezbollah’s threat to target Israel’s gas facilities and supply vessels tipped the balance in the negotiations—actions beyond the capacity of the under-equipped Lebanese military—the deal with Israel represents a precedent: an effective recognition of Israel, albeit obscured by diplomatic manoeuvres.22

Hezbollah’s ideological stance has shifted towards the right on a number of issues, exemplified by its calls for the expulsion of Syrian refugees—a position aligned with demands articulated by far-right Christian parties.23 Additionally, Hezbollah has joined the chorus amplifying a moral panic over sexuality, echoing the most reactionary sections of Lebanese society in a campaign initiated by Saudi Arabia.24 Its involvement in Lebanon’s culture wars is part of a broader ideological attack on the 17 October Revolution, one of the largest popular revolts in Lebanon’s history.

The Lebanese October Revolution

When Lebanon’s long-suffering people rose in rebellion in October 2019, Hezbollah found itself positioned on the wrong side of the barricades. The 17 October Revolution exposed the limitations of Hezbollah and its strategy of integration into the Lebanese political system. Nasrallah famously described the 2006 victory over Israel as a “victory from God”, the truth was that it was achieved through incredible solidarity shown by ordinary people. During that time, Hezbollah enjoyed an exceptional surge in popularity. However, this victory also marked a turning point. As economic discontent came to the surface in 2008, Nasrallah prioritised the supposed “national interest” over the welfare of the popular masses. As mentioned above, during the Arab Revolutions, Hezbollah deployed troops that were previously tasked with safeguarding Lebanon’s southern border to suppress the revolution in Syria. Back then, Nasrallah had invoked “foreign conspiracies”; now he rehashed the same narrative to discredit the October Revolution in Lebanon.

Despite its shortcomings, the uprising represented one of the largest movements in Lebanon’s history. This was not simply in terms of sheer numbers, but also in the breadth and depth of protests, which transcended communal divisions entrenched during the civil war. Approximately one in four Lebanese people took part in demonstrations, street occupations and strikes. Although the trigger for the uprising was a proposed tax on WhatsApp messages—a important and cheap communication tool for many people—it was rooted in years of austerity measures and neoliberal policies that pushed large segments of the population, including workers and the middle classes, into poverty. So, these protests did not materialise out of thin air. Rather, they were the culmination of a series of strikes and protests that united Lebanese society across class lines. As Anne Alexander notes:

The uprising that erupted in October 2019 followed a round of major protests and public sector strikes in 2014-15, and a series of smaller demonstrations in 2011… The revival of strikes and protests in 2014-5 marked an important step towards the 2019 uprising. Public sector workers walked out over pay and conditions in 2014, including teachers whose action paralysed public schools for more than a month, and outsourced workers from Électricité du Liban (Electricity of Lebanon), the national electricity company, who mobilised to demand job security. These strikes were followed by demonstrations over the breakdown of Beirut’s refuse collection system, which had left large parts of the city overwhelmed by mountains of uncollected rubbish. Tens of thousands took to the streets chanting “You Stink!” at politicians.

The protests of 2019 represented both a quantitative and qualitative shift. The numbers involved were larger, the geographical spread was wider and the protests have continued much longer. The mobilisation was no longer concentrated in the capital Beirut, but more widely dispersed across the country, with Tripoli in the north emerging as a key protest centre, and small but highly significant mobilisations across the south in Baalbek, Tyre and Nabatiyyeh, the heartlands of Hezbollah and Amal, the two major Shia Islamist parties.25

Despite working-class neighbourhoods becoming more diverse, many of them remain segregated. Factories and offices are the main places where class relations predominate and sectarian divisions can break down. Chit, writing in 2009, traced the development of this process:

Class antagonism is more and more displacing interfaith hostility. Between 2000 and 2005, we have witnessed a steady decline in sectarianism and growth in working-class struggles. This popular feeling is expressed in common phrases such as “the problem is politicians” and “when leaders disagree, they use us in their wars, and when they agree, they agree to make war on us”. More recently a popular song expresses this sentiment with the line, “The leaders have left the country / Now we can live in peace”.

Although these relationships of dependency exist in each of the communities in Lebanon, they do not have the same weight. The Shia bourgeoisie is mainly established in the sectors such as property and trade, which provide few if any opportunities for employment. Shia workers therefore have to find work in areas dominated by the Christian and Sunni bourgeoisie. At the same time, the falling birth rate has resulted in Christian community becoming a demographic minority. As a result, the older and more establish Christian bourgeoisie began to employ workers from the Shia community, especially in Beirut (tourism and the food industry) and in the Bekaa (agriculture and power generation).

Partial community economic integration and the development of class antagonisms associated with declining purchasing power for the majority of the population (more than 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and 60 percent of Lebanese families do not have enough income to see out the month) brought back to the fore the contradictions of class.26

This class solidarity grew out of collective actions that transcended divisions, often despite the presence of sectarian gangs. In one of his last interviews, Chit stated:

We had a strike by electricity workers that lasted approximately 90 days. The workers demanded permanent employment contracts. The state attacked them for being a majority of Muslim workers. In response, Christian workers among them moved to the forefront to defend their colleagues when a Christian militia attacked the picket lines. We also had a strike at the Christian Jounieh power plant in support of a strike at another power plant located in a Muslim area.27

The 17 October Revolution ensnared the regime in a precarious situation. The sheer breadth and profound impact of the movement unsettled the ruling class, as ordinary Lebanese people found common ground and a unity of purpose. Unable to deploy armed gangs of gun-wielding thugs to quell dissent within their own communities, sectarian leaders faced a formidable challenge, compounded by the unreliability of the army in suppressing popular discontent.

A major test for the power of a mass movement to undermine the ideological grip of the Lebanese ruling class is its capacity not only to reject sectarianism—as important as this is—but also to forge alliances with the Palestinian masses in Lebanon. This has to be done on both social and political fronts. However, Lebanon’s October Revolution failed to challenge the ruling class’s oppression of Palestinians and its pervasive racism towards Syrian refugees. Thus, unlike the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, it failed to fuse the Palestinian and Lebanese struggles for change. This vital connection has been severed. Far from welcoming Palestinians into the struggle, the October demonstrations often exhibited hostility towards displays of the Palestinian flag.

For this reason, the movement also failed to achieve a breakthrough. The protests called for reforms, but they fell short of presenting alternatives beyond offering a handful of new parliamentary candidates. However, at the same time, the ruling class has been unable to form a cohesive government that can represent its collective interests. It remains deeply divided on how to manage the persisting crisis and the implementation of the reforms needed to access international aid: layoffs, an end to subsidies on essential goods such as food and fuel, and an audit of the Central Bank of Lebanon’s financial records. Instead, the ruling class has wagered that the US will prioritise regional security over any systemic change; after all, in the event of the collapse of the Lebanese state, Hezbollah would emerge as the sole remaining power. Western powers have blinked first.

The US hopes that the Lebanese army can act as a counterweight to Hezbollah and aims to establish Lebanon as one of its key operational bases in the region. The construction of a massive new embassy near Beirut underscores the commitment of the US to this agenda. The fortified complex is planned to replace Baghdad’s Green Zone as the hub of counter-insurgency operations in the Middle East. However, Lebanon’s economic crisis has undermined the effectiveness of this strategy and significantly weakened the Lebanese army. According to the Carnegie Middle East Center, General Joseph Aoun, commander of the Lebanese armed forces, told senior officers in March 2021 that the economic collapse had resulted in an 80 percent loss in salary value, forcing many soldiers and officers to seek second jobs. He threatened to disobey orders to disperse street protests if wages remained unpaid. The army is in need of $100 million to address the basic needs of its personnel. A US security advisor observed:

The commander’s speech was the first open criticism voiced by a senior military official against the political class since Lebanon’s collapse began in late 2019. It was also a signal that the military had crossed the Rubicon. The commander spoke at 10am. At noon, President Michel Aoun called on the army to clear the streets. By 5pm, no action had been taken. Therefore, Lebanon appears to have entered the unknown in terms of civil-military relations.28

The crisis of the army at a time when the ruling class was confronted with an insurgent mass movement led to a bailout. The US alone injected $3 billion to bolster the security forces, just enough to tackle the immediate crisis.29 Qatar also played a role by supplying 70 tonnes of food per month for a year to feed soldiers and contributing $60 million towards salaries. As the mass protests intensified, the state fortified the political and administrative heart of Beirut with steel walls, while police stations were surrounded with barbed wire and upmarket shopping centres were shuttered. As the security forces were almost paralysed and a growing number of protests and roadblocks made the country ungovernable, Hezbollah intervened. In a March 2021 speech, Nasrallah accused the revolutionaries of “making people hungry and making people poor” and hinted at potential actions “if the army and security forces do not succeed in reopening roads”.30 Regime-affiliated thugs, comprised of various sectarian gangs, regularly attacked the symbolic heart of the revolution, the Martyrs Square in Central Beirut.

These factors, together with repression and the devastating aftermath of the huge explosion in Beirut’s port in August 2020, meant that the uprising faltered. However, it achieved a significant symbolic victory by demonstrating the potential for unity across confessional divides and highlighting class as the primary division in the country. Hezbollah’s portrayal of itself as the armed wing of the sectarian system has exposed the way it protects the state’s integrity and the sectarian system in the name of national unity.


Lebanon has been and remains as a battleground for imperialism, where Israel’s repeated failures to subdue the country underscore the enduring need for resistance. Hezbollah emerged from this resistance, marking its most effective phase to date. However, the organisation’s integration into a sectarian system that cannot deliver any real reforms for the masses has eroded its base of popular support, which had propelled its victories during war and occupation.

The pressure on Hezbollah to integrate itself into Lebanon’s sectarian political system means that it cannot represent the interests of the majority of the population, which is working class or poor. Yet, it remains in the crosshairs of imperialism, with Israel seeking to eliminate it. This distinguishes Hezbollah from many other national liberation movements—under whatever ideological banner they fought—that compromised with imperialism to become a new ruling class (for example, those in Algeria and Egypt). Even if Hezbollah represents a rising wealthy class within the Shia community, it cannot escape from its role in southern Lebanon. These contradictory pressures are becoming clear today as Israel threatens to unleash a new war.

Simon Assaf is a Lebanese revolutionary socialist based in London.


1 Tal Beeri, an Israeli security analyst, recently described the extent of this network, claiming that Israel has “identified several kinds of tunnels in Lebanon”: “First, there are what everybody calls attack tunnels, particularly large and long tunnels that lead from area to area. One can enter them in vehicles and even medium-sized trucks… [Second], there are tactical tunnels… They are intended for people to move around in, and in extreme circumstances, maybe a motorcycle.” Some may be up to 45 kilometres long, and there are hundreds of kilometres of tunnels in total. See Schneider, 2024.

2 Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International, 2024.

3 Middle East Eye, 2024.

4 Saad, 2024.

5 The doctrine is named after the Dahieh neighbourhood of Beirut, which was destroyed by Israel during the 2006 war. In 2012, Colonel Gabriel Siboni, director of military and strategic affairs at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, spelled out its logic: “With an outbreak of hostilities, the Israeli Defense Forces will need to act immediately, decisively and with force that is disproportionate to the enemy’s actions and the threat it poses. Such a response aims at inflicting damage and meting out punishment to an extent that will demand long and expensive reconstruction processes.” Cited in Institute for Middle East Understanding, 2012.

6 Hariri served two terms as Lebanese prime minister between 2009 and 2020. According to researcher Hannes Baumann, “Hariri turned Lebanon into an outlet of Gulf capital in finance and real estate.” See Baumann, 2012.

7 There were 475,075 registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in 2019—see United Nations Relief and Works Agency, 2024.

8 Marfleet, 1986.

9 United Nations Relief and Works Agency, 2024.

10 Hudson, Abutaleb and Harris, 2024.

11 Marfleet, 2019.

12 Already in 2009, seasoned Middle East journalist Nicholas Blanford outlined the absurd logic of Israel’s Dahieh doctrine, noting Hezbollah had “articulated a Dahieh-for-Tel Aviv strategy in which Israel’s largest city will be struck if the southern suburbs are bombed again… Furthermore, it is widely believed that Hezbollah will take the war into Israel next time, dispatching commando units across the frontier to cause havoc in border settlements, mining roads, blowing up bridges and attacking military bases.” See Blanford, 2009.

13 Alexander, 2020.

14 Marfleet, 2015.

15 Petran, 1987.

16 Major General Gershon Hacohen, an Israeli commander during the occupation, spelled out the sophistication of Hezbollah’s strategy: “In the security zone, a kind of guerrilla warfare prevailed that was unfamiliar to the IDF, and it only grew more complicated over the years.” See Hacohen, 2020.

17 Assaf, 2023.

18 Harman, 2006.

19 Schenker, 2007.

20 Naisse, 2016.

21 Chit, 2015a.

22 Haidar, 2022.

23 Kikano, Fauvead and Lizarralde, 2021.

24 Junud al-Rab (Soldiers of God), a far-right Christian militia, have engaged in physical attacks on the LGBT+ community, justified by a larger moral panic that originated in Saudi Arabia. Hezbollah have seized upon this homophobia as a tool to weaken and demobilise the cross-sectarian popular unity that emerged during the 17 October mass protests, despite Nasrallah claiming, “We are not making up battles. Nor are we making up dangers. This is a real danger that is imminent and has begun.” He went onto say that those who engage homosexual acts, “even if they do it once…are to be killed.” See France24, 2023.

25 Alexander, 2020.

26 Chit, 2009.

27 Chit, 2015b.

28 Nerguizian, 2021. Joseph and Michel Aoun are unrelated.

29 See www.macrotrends.net/countries/LBN/lebanon/military-spending-defense-budget

30 Al-Manshour, 2021.


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