Militant Group Hezbollah Is on the Sidelines of the Israel-Hamas War. Here's What to Know

Sheikh Naim Qassem, the deputy chief of Lebanon's Shiite militant group Hezbollah, delivers a speech in support of Palestinians, amid the Israeli air strikes, on Oct. 13, 2023. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images) Credit - AFP via Getty Images

Israel’s border with Gaza is not the only one to watch. A week after the Palestinian militant group Hamas started a war with Israel that has killed more than 3,600 people on both sides, violence is also rising on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon.

Powerful militant group Hezbollah launched a missile into Israel Sunday morning, killing one person, in the latest in a series of retaliatory skirmishes that have stoked fears of a more regional war. Sunday’s attack was in response to an earlier attack from the direction of Israel this week that killed a Reuters journalist and injured six others. Hezbollah said Israel fired that missile into Lebanon. Israel said it is investigating.

As tensions escalate, here’s what you need to know about Hezbollah and what role it could play in the Israel-Hamas war.

What is Hezbollah? 

Hezbollah, meaning “Party of God," is an Iran-backed Shia Muslim militant and political group based in Lebanon. The group formed in 1982 during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war in response to Israeli forces invading southern Lebanon to expel Palestinian militants attacking Israel, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Iran formed the group with the objective to play a role in the Arab-Israeli conflict in support of Palestinians and to become a prominent regional actor, Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, told TIME.

Hezbollah’s original manifesto, published in 1985, stated its enemies were the Christian-affiliated Lebanese Social Democratic Party, Israel, France and the U.S., and its goal was to expel these groups from Lebanon.

The U.S. designates Hezbollah as a terrorist group associated with numerous attacks on civilians around the world, including bombings at U.S. and French military barracks in Beirut in 1983 that killed around 300 people. The European Union classifies Hezbollah’s military wing as a “terrorist group,” but not its political arm.

The group entered politics in 1992 and went more mainstream in 2009 with an updated manifesto that called for “true democracy,” the Council on Foreign Relations said.

Hezbollah has made “tremendous achievements” in politics in Lebanon over the past 30 years, but it’s still a “lonely group,” Khashan said. Hezbollah maintained 13 seats in Lebanon’s 128-member Parliament in the most recent 2022 elections, but the party and its allies lost their majority.

Who is backing Hezbollah? 

The U.S. State Department says that Iran provides most of Hezbollah’s training, weapons and funding—to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

As a result, Hezbollah is a well-resourced armed group with a medium-sized force that can defeat most Arab armies, making it “the most powerful non-state actor” in the region, Khashan said.

Why is Hezbollah coming up in the context of the Israel-Hamas War? 

Both Hamas and Hezbollah are funded by Iran. Hezbollah played a role in Hamas’ militarization in 2002, although the two groups found themselves on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war, Khashan said.

The extent of Iran’s involvement, if any, in Hamas' recent attack on Israel is unclear. A Wall Street Journal article last week alleged Iran helped Hamas plan the attack, but Israeli and U.S. leaders said they had no evidence to corroborate the report, and early U.S. intelligence indicated Iranian leaders were surprised by the assault.

Hezbollah released a statement praising Hamas’ attack, describing it as a “decisive response to Israel’s continued occupation and a message to those seeking normalization with Israel.” In another statement, a Hezbollah official said “our hearts are with you. Our minds are with you. Our souls are with you. Our history and guns and our rockets are with you.”

Since the attack, Hezbollah has fired missiles across the border into Israel in a show of what the group calls “solidarity” with Hamas, leading to escalating skirmishes.

Hezbollah and Israel were last at war in 2006, when Hezbollah kidnapped Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, prompting Israel’s retaliatory invasion into Lebanon. The month-long war ended in a stalemate and ceasefire brokered by the United Nations.

What are the potential consequences if Hezbollah were to officially join the Israel-Hamas War?

Hezbollah entering the war would open up a broader regional conflict, tax Israel’s response on both borders, and likely lead to greater death and destruction.

However, Khashan doesn’t believe that Hezbollah want to provoke an all-out war with Israel. The current skirmishes don’t violate the terms of the UN Security Council guidelines that ended the 2006 war. If those attacks escalated to total war, Hezbollah “stands no chance” and would be obliterated, Khashan said.

Khashan predicts that if a war were to start with Hezbollah, Israel would be the one to start it, pointing to some of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent statements hinting at ambitions beyond Gaza. In one post on X this week, Netanyahu pledged to not only destroy Hamas, but “Islamic Jihad.”

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