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Hezbollah’s Post-October 7 Strategy: Avoiding yet Preparing for War

Pro-Iranian Hezbollah militants march with Lebanese, Palestinian, and Hezbollah flags during a mass rally to mark al-Quds Day (Jerusalem Day). (Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Pro-Iranian Hezbollah militants march with Lebanese, Palestinian, and Hezbollah flags during a mass rally to mark al-Quds Day (Jerusalem Day). (Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Just one day after the October 7 surprise attack on southern Israel, Hezbollah, the Lebanese Islamist Shi’ite proxy of Iran, officially entered the war against Israel in an attempt to prevent the defeat of the Gaza-based Hamas.1 Yet, unlike in its previous confrontations with Israel, Hezbollah has not unleashed the full force of its powerful arsenal.

Apparently, Hezbollah believes full engagement in open warfare with Israel will be unpopular among Lebanese due to Lebanon's current political deadlock and economic crisis. Yet, the group is still preparing for such a scenario. This approach reflects Hezbollah's commitment to supporting Iran's Sunni militant proxy Hamas while also ensuring readiness to respond effectively if a broader conflict with Israel erupts.

Hezbollah’s prompt, although for now limited, involvement in the regional conflict underscores the Iranian-backed militia's strategy aimed at preparing Lebanon, albeit unwillingly, for a potential large-scale war with Israel if given the green light from its patrons in Tehran. This strategy hinges on maneuvering across two main fronts, one military and the other political.

Political Maneuvers

Lebanon has long faced an institutional paralysis and is presently reeling from its worst economic crisis in decades. Mass protests swept the country in October 2019 over wildfires, the cost of living, and the government’s proposed new taxes on tobacco, petrol, and telecoms services.2 The situation was further exacerbated by the devastating Beirut port explosion in August 2020, which resulted in at least 218 deaths and 7,000 injuries. As a result, the country's currency has lost around 95% of its value, inflation has surged to triple digits, banks have restricted most depositors from accessing their savings, and 80% of the roughly 6.5 million people in the country has fallen into poverty.34 Rather than trying to prevent this economic meltdown, the recently passed 2024 budget exhibits an incoherent and ineffective economic strategy.5

Against this political backdrop, Hezbollah, which is both a militant group and political party, has so far succeeded in thwarting all parliamentary attempts to elect a new president owing to the fact that the party and its parliamentary allies have enough seats to deny a two-thirds quorum. The 128-member parliament’s June 2023 failure to elect a successor to Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah-allied former president,6 marks the twelfth such failed vote since Aoun left office in October 2022.7 This deadlock leaves Lebanon in an institutional vacuum, vulnerable to further corruption under caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and the temporary central bank chief. This political impasse, which has made life immensely difficult for ordinary Lebanese, is partly caused by Hezbollah as it seeks political dominance in Lebanon. The group is presently pushing for the election of its ally Suleiman Frangieh as Lebanon's new president.8 However, the Hezbollah-allied Christian Maronite leader has lacked the needed support of his own Christian community, which views Frangieh as “the man of the Syrian-Iranian axis.”9

To maintain its dominance in Lebanon, Hezbollah acts on two parallel political tracks. First, it seeks to ensure the election of a new president aligned with its interests, recognizing that a failure to do so might reignite international and internal calls for disarming the militia, curbing Iranian influence, and restoring state sovereignty over Lebanon’s entire territory. In other words, Hezbollah seeks to maintain political cover for retaining its weapons and foreign alliance with Iran by having the Lebanese head of state accept or at least tolerate this status quo. Second, on the foreign diplomatic track, the Shi’ite militia maneuvers to counter Israeli efforts to push for the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1701. This 2006 resolution would force Hezbollah to move its fighters north of the Litani River, approximately 18 miles from the Israeli border. Cognizant of the recently intensified Western efforts to implement this resolution, especially by U.S. special envoy Amos Hochstein, Hezbollah strategically maneuvers to uphold its military presence in the border area with Israel. The group has rejected Western demands that the group disarm or withdraw fighters from the border areas as "unrealistic" and directly challenging Hezbollah’s core narrative as a “resistance” group against Israel.

These maneuvers help Hezbollah maintain its dominance and allow it to operate with greater freedom to achieve two primary objectives: continuing to wield political and military hegemony in Lebanon while playing a pivotal role in shaping and advancing Tehran's wider foreign policies.

Military Maneuvers

During the 2006 war with Israel, Hezbollah made extensive use of unguided rockets, mainly Russian-made Katyusha-style missiles with a range of up to 19 miles, along with guided anti-tank missiles. Hezbollah's cross-border skirmishes since October 7, by contrast, have relied more on guided missiles (primarily sourced from Iran) to target military installations, settlements, and towns along Israel's northern border with Lebanon. Hezbollah has not engaged in ground confrontations or guerrilla warfare thus far, but it has claimed to have used a surface-to-air missile to shoot down an Israeli drone. If confirmed, this would represent a notable advance in the capabilities and precision of its arsenal.

Despite Hezbollah’s initially limited response to October 7, it has gradually escalated its military engagement as part of a broader strategic calculation: that Hezbollah should steer clear of an immediate, wider war in order to prepare Lebanon for the possibility of deadlier, protracted war should the daily hostilities grow. Hezbollah’s calculus is no doubt influenced by threats from Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant, that bombings along the border with Lebanon will not end even if there is a pause amid the war in Gaza.10 Following the recent assassinations of Hezbollah and Hamas figures in Lebanon, for which Israel is suspected of being responsible, this rhetoric likely leads Hezbollah to think that a wider conflict is possible. Hezbollah’s calculation takes into account the catastrophic consequences for Lebanon that a full-scale war with Israel could bring, including the complete destruction of infrastructure, the derailing of the country's offshore oil and gas exploration efforts, and mass displacement. Moreover, Hezbollah may encounter fierce internal resistance to any war from Lebanese citizens who are already discontented with corruption, the lack of accountability, and the absence of a functional state.

To prepare Lebanon for a potential all-out war,11 Hezbollah has therefore been conducting three military maneuvers both internally and externally. Firstly, the Shi’ite group has sought to secure a Sunni cover among other Lebanese militants. Secondly, it has coordinated operations with Iran's regional network of proxies commonly referred to as the “Axis of Resistance,” specifically the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the Houthis (also known as Ansar Allah) in Yemen, and several Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Syria. Finally, Hezbollah has tested out its powerful arsenal, including new Iran-supplied weaponry, in its daily cross-border attacks while maintaining battle readiness through deployment of elite fighters from the Radwan special forces unit into the border region.

1. Securing Sunni Cover 

There appears to be a growing degree of coordination between Hezbollah and Sunni militants in Lebanon despite strong differences over the former’s involvement in the Syrian civil war on behalf of Bashar al-Assad. On October 18, 2023, al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyah (“The Islamic Group” a.k.a. the Muslim Brotherhood in Lebanon), launched its first attack with Hezbollah's blessing against Israel from southern Lebanon.12 The attack was conducted by the Quwwat al-Fajr (Dawn Forces) militant wing, a Sunni militia group established in 1982 following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Since October 2023, the Sunni militia has launched at least five cross-border attacks on Israeli sites, with the most recent attack occurring on January 6, 2024.13

The involvement of Quwwat al-Fajr in the cross-border attacks on Israel seems to have created disagreements within the Lebanese Sunni group. Various factions within the group are reportedly competing over its foreign affiliation, with some leaning towards Turkey and Qatar, while others align with the Iran-backed Hamas and Hezbollah. Thus far, the group's officials have denied joining any foreign axis while nonetheless confirming military coordination with Hezbollah.14 However, according to a report published by the Saudi-owned media outlet Al-Majalla,15 Hamas was able to create a third loyal faction within the Sunni militia through Saleh al-Arouri, the deputy Hamas leader and Hamas’s main link to Iran and Hezbollah. Al-Arouri has masterminded Hamas’s operations in the West Bank while moving between bases in Syria, Turkey, Qatar, and finally Lebanon, where he was killed in a drone strike in Beirut’s southern suburbs on January 2, 2024 along with six other Hamas members.16 The report from Al-Majalla also claimed that the attacks by Quwwat al-Fajr against Israel were conducted by the Hamas-funded faction and that these attacks were actually spearheaded by Hamas’s military wing, al-Qassam Brigades. 

The coordination between Hezbollah and Quwwat al-Fajr can be attributed to Hezbollah’s attempt to burnish its credentials and secure a Sunni cover for a potential open conflict with Israel. Furthermore, Hezbollah proactively seeks to involve various Lebanese groups, especially Sunnis, in "resistance" efforts to prepare Lebanon for any potential wide-scale war with Israel. In doing so, it seeks to deflect accusations from its Lebanese political rivals and critics that it is unilaterally dragging Lebanon into conflict with Israel.

2. Unification of Arenas: Operational Coordination with Iran’s “Axis of Resistance”

Operationally, Hezbollah has permitted its Islamist Palestinian allies, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to carry out infiltration operations into northern Israel and launch cross-border rocket attacks from the parts of southern Lebanon under its control.17 Further, Hezbollah has given the green light for Hamas to recruit Palestinian refugee youths within Lebanon, a controversial policy that for many Lebanese is reminiscent of the destabilizing recruitment and operations from the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in southern Lebanon during the Lebanese civil war (1975–1990).

On December 4, 2023, Hamas’s branch in Lebanon announced the creation of a new group called Tala’i Tawfan al-Aqsa (“Vanguards of the Al-Aqsa Flood”) and asserted the Palestinian people’s role “in resisting the occupation by all available and legitimate means and to complete what was accomplished by Operation Al-Aqsa Flood.” The announcement caused public outrage and criticism in Lebanon, which prompted Hamas to assure the public that the “Vanguards of the Al-Aqsa Flood” would not be a military effort.18 But since the newly established group would not exist in the first instance without Hezbollah’s blessing, it appears to be a strategic effort on the Shi’ite group’s part in any case. Specifically, Hezbollah seeks to recruit Sunni fighters in Lebanon into a partner organization while also drawing foreign fighters from the broader Arab world, thereby turning southern Lebanon into a jihadi arena that could mobilize in the event of a full-scale war with Israel. This is especially true after the Houthis in Yemen likewise launched a recruitment campaign for “jihad in Palestine.”19

Hezbollah’s internal military preparations have coincided with several attacks carried out by Iran's so-called Axis of Resistance, including the Houthis' targeting of international shipping and U.S. warships in the Red Sea and Iraqi militias' targeting of U.S. military forces in Iraq and Syria. The synchronization of these attacks highlights an advanced degree of coordination between Hezbollah and other Iran-backed Islamist proxies. This operational coordination aligns perfectly with Iran's strategy of “unification of the arenas,” i.e., the creation of a unified front across different theaters of the Middle East to effectively target Israel.20 Despite the limitations of Iran's “unification of the arenas” strategy,21 the synchronized involvement of its proxy network in the current war is a demonstration of Iran’s ability to pressure Israel and the United States simultaneously from Palestine, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq.

Indeed, in a series of posters commemorating the 100 days22 since Hamas's October 7 rampage, Hezbollah's media propaganda outlet Al-Manar highlighted the significant support provided by the Axis of Resistance to Hamas and counted the “martyrs” that each of the different groups within the Axis had produced. These self-reported figures should be taken with a grain of salt given that Hezbollah's media outlets, like their counterparts in Tehran, tend to exaggerate.

According to these banners, the Houthis in Yemen have so far conducted 24 attacks, including 12 attacks on ships in the Red Sea or Gulf of Aden and 11 attacks involving ballistic missiles targeting Israel.23 This is in addition to the seizure of a British-owned and Japanese-operated cargo ship in the southern Red Sea. These attacks resulted in 17 Houthi “martyrs.” Meanwhile, the Iran-back Shi’ite militias in Iraq carried out 162 attacks, including 65 on U.S. bases in Iraq, 87 on U.S. bases in Syria, and 10 attacks on Israel. These attacks resulted in 12 militia “martyrs.”

However, as the spearhead of the Axis of Resistance, Hezbollah had the lion's share of attacks, with 722 self-reported attacks on military targets, border sites, and settlements in Israel. Approximately 160 of Hezbollah's fighters have been killed in these attacks, in addition to many Israeli casualties and damaged equipment, per the infographic.24 These Hezbollah “martyrs” include Abbas Raad, the son of Hezbollah's parliamentary bloc leader, and Wissam Tawil (also known by his nom de guerre Hajj Jawad), a senior commander in Hezbollah’s elite Radwan unit.25

3. Fighter Readiness and Arsenal Enhancement

Since October 7, Hezbollah has carried out cross-border attacks with the intent of distracting Israel—specifically, by providing Hamas with greater freedom of operation in the Gaza Strip by entangling Israeli troops along the Lebanese border. At the same time, the group has refrained from opening a major front along the northern border, fearful of the internal challenges that would emerge amid large-scale war with Israel. This careful approach is tailored to maintain the readiness of its trained fighters and test its arsenal, especially precision-guided weapons, in preparation for the unwanted possibility of an expanded war.

While it is difficult to assess the full extent of Hezbollah’s capabilities, a number of clues can be gleaned through open-source analysis. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah once said that his group had 100,000 trained fighters, which, if true, would constitute a larger force than Lebanon's military, which is estimated to have approximately 85,000 personnel.26 The Israeli military contests this figure and estimates that Hezbollah has a ground force of only 30,000 fighters.27 While the Radwan special forces alone is estimated to number 2,500.28 There is broad agreement, however, that Hezbollah also has a vast and diverse array of powerful weapons, including rockets, missiles, and drones, mainly supplied by Iran.29 This includes more than 100,000 long- and short-range rockets, some of which have sufficient range to strike any area inside Israel.30 The group’s vast rocket and missile arsenal includes a number of Iranian models, such as Raad (Thunder), Fajr (Dawn), Zilzal (Earthquake), and Burkan (Volcano) rockets.

Although most of the above-mentioned rockets are unguided, the group also possesses precision-guided rockets, armed drones, and anti-tank, anti-aircraft, and anti-ship missiles. In February 2022, Nasrallah revealed for the first time that his group has the ability to convert thousands of rockets into precision missiles and has been producing drones within Lebanon with the help of Iranian experts.31 Information about Hezbollah's precision-guided capabilities are often not publicly disclosed due to the clandestine nature of its arsenal. However, an in-depth research into Iran’s precision-guided munitions project revealed that Hezbollah possesses an arsenal of precision-guided variants, many of them based on Iranian platforms, with others obtained from Russia and China.32 This lethal aspect of its arsenal includes surface-to-surface rockets and missiles such as Fateh-110/M-60010; Zelzal-2; Zulfiqar and the Quds-2; anti-ship cruise missiles such as Russian-made Yakhont and the Iranian version of the Chinese C-802 missile; and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as Ayub, Mirsad-1, Mirsad-2, Ababil-2, and Ma'arab.

Some of these missiles have already been used in the post-October 7 attacks on Israel. On October 29, 2023, Hezbollah claimed to have shot down an Israeli drone over south Lebanon using a surface-to-air missile (SAM) for the first time.33 Although the attack has not been independently confirmed, if true, it would suggest that Hezbollah began using SAMs in this war. The exact type of SAM fired is unclear, but Iran seems to be intensifying its efforts to supply Hezbollah and other regional proxies with advanced air defense systems.34 This could have significant implications for Israeli and U.S. strategic calculations, not just in the ongoing conflict in Gaza but also with regards to the prospect of an all-out war.

Hezbollah's drones also pose a serious concern, as estimates suggest that the Iranian-backed group has approximately 2,000 drones in its possession,35 including Mirsad-1 and Mirsad-2 drones (based on the Iranian Mohajer-2 and Mohajer-4 UAVs), Ababil-2 and Ma’arab suicide drones (the latter based on the Iranian Yasser UAV, which has a range of up to 250 miles and electronic warfare capabilities), and the Ayoub drone (a derivative of the Iranian Shahed-129, which can carry eight Sadid precision-guided bombs). Like the Hamas rockets and projectiles that have revealed some vulnerabilities in Israel's Iron Dome,36 Hezbollah's precision-guided short-, medium-, and long-range missiles and drones would certainly play a key role in any potential war with Israel. Indeed, the significant number of Hamas missiles that have penetrated through Iron Dome since October 7 have shown the vulnerability of even the most sophisticated air defense systems when confronted with overwhelming firepower. 

As the prospect of an Israel-Hezbollah war looms, the Lebanese militant group seems to be intentionally limiting its attacks on Israel in order to avoid exhausting its military capabilities while still testing and enhancing the targeting of its weapons in preparation for a possible wider war.37

Conclusion: Prelude to An Unwanted War?

Since Hamas's surprise attacks on Israel on October 7, Hezbollah has sought to develop a strategy that will ensure its readiness for a potential all-out war with Israel. Cognizant of the need to navigate Lebanon's fragile internal political and economic situation, Hezbollah is strategically maneuvering on both the political and military fronts. On the political front, it seeks to maintain political support to keep its formidable arsenal and dominant control over much of Lebanon. Militarily, the group seeks a Sunni cover for its efforts against Israel, is coordinating operationally with other Islamist proxies of Iran's Axis of Resistance, and is preparing its trained fighters and powerful arsenal for the potential of a full war with Israel.

Hezbollah’s calibrated approach to the conflict in Gaza to date is driven by Lebanon's political paralysis and tail-spinning economy. For the people of Lebanon, the outbreak of a full-blown conflict with Israel is highly undesirable. If it were to happen, it would be a disaster for Lebanon, which is already teetering on the brink of political and economic collapse. Unfortunately, Hezbollah has shown a willingness to subordinate the interests of the Lebanese people to the strategic objectives of Iran, and Israel itself might adopt a more hawkish policy on its northern border in the coming weeks depending on broader regional dynamics and how the conflict in Gaza plays out. An escalation into full-blown conflict between Israel and Hezbollah therefore cannot be ruled out, whatever the cost to the Lebanese people.