Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 30 April 2024



Hezbollah Stumbles Into a War of Attrition


David Daoud


Hezbollah fighters raise their flags during a funeral in Southern Lebanon, April 17. Photo: Mohammed Zaatari/Associated Press

Hezbollah, Iran’s most formidable proxy, barely lifted a finger when its patron fired more than 300 missiles and drones at Israel in the early hours of April 14. The Lebanese group fired a few dozen rockets but claimed it was in retaliation not for Israel’s killing Iranian Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi on April 1—Tehran’s point man in Lebanon and Syria—but for other airstrikes in southern Lebanon. The relative inaction was deliberate.

Hezbollah began attacking northern Israel on Oct. 8 to support Hamas, whose rampage killed some 1,200 Israelis and was soon to provoke an armed response. Yet by attacking Israel, Hezbollah embroiled itself in a war of attrition that it neither envisioned nor wanted. The fighting, according to the group’s tally, has cost it nearly 300 men, exposed its arsenal in Lebanon to Israeli attacks, and displaced thousands of its supporters.

The terror group is now stuck between its bellicose rhetoric and its fear of a popular backlash if it provokes a more intense confrontation with Israel. Though Hezbollah has vowed to fight until a cease-fire in Gaza, its response to Zahedi’s death shows it is looking for a way out of the clashes that are harming it more than its adversary.


Zahedi was a pivotal figure in the decadeslong relationship between Tehran and Hezbollah. A general in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, he was charged with building the regime’s proxies in the Levant. Zahedi served alongside Hezbollah during critical moments in its history, including the years before Israel’s May 2000 withdrawal from south Lebanon, the Syrian civil war, and the current skirmishes with Israel. These efforts reportedly earned him the honor of being the only non-Lebanese member of Hezbollah’s Shura Council, its supreme decision-making body.

Hezbollah has vowed that Zahedi’s death will be avenged but insisted that vengeance belongs to Iran alone. “Be absolutely certain,” thundered Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in April, “Iranian retaliation for the attack on the consulate is coming, inevitably, upon Israel. This strike is coming and inevitable.” With each insistence, Mr. Nasrallah seemed to be emphasizing: The attacks will come from Iran—not us.

Hezbollah’s hesitation is owing in part to the poverty and chaos that have engulfed Lebanon in recent years. The country’s economy imploded in 2019 and hasn’t fully recovered. Lebanese citizens, including Hezbollah’s supporters, struggle to get food, electricity and other necessities.

While Hezbollah boasts significant military capabilities, it is nevertheless constrained for fear of public reprisal. The group has pulled its punches since October 2019, even as Israel has periodically crossed its red lines, either by killing fighters in Syria or by striking inside Lebanon. Its leaders are wary of the Lebanese street, whose financial miseries would only worsen if Hezbollah’s fighting provoked a conflagration with Israel. To conceal this predicament from its political base, Hezbollah exaggerates its successes and Israel’s weaknesses.


The group entered the fray on Oct. 8, likely hoping Israel’s preoccupation with Gaza and Western opposition to a simultaneous war in Lebanon would blunt the Israel Defense Forces’ retaliation. This would allow Hezbollah’s forces to project strength without incurring a proportionate cost. Tellingly, Hezbollah leaders have said repeatedly they don’t want a wider war with Israel but that they are ready for one.

Israel, for its part, hasn’t appreciated this rare opportunity to dictate advantageous rules of the game on its northern border. Though it is the stronger party, Jerusalem has allowed Hezbollah to define the terms of conflict to the terrorists’ benefit. Hezbollah fought the most intense phase of the Syrian civil war between 2011 and 2017 while casting only a wary gaze southward. It then embarked on recouping its losses in blood and treasure with relative ease. The group’s arsenal inside Lebanon has ballooned, and its political and social power has become nearly uncontestable.

Israel’s restraint has seemed to confirm Hezbollah’s larger argument about the Jewish state—that the “Zionist entity” is “weaker than a spider’s web” deterred by the resistance’s ability to destroy it. The group has thus been able to expand popular support, the cornerstone of its strength and durability.

The Israelis for years have been content to manage Hezbollah, willing to delay the limited confrontation necessary to gain the upper hand and avoid the international community’s opprobrium. Yet Oct. 7 demonstrated the lethal risk of trying to manage an opponent that is simultaneously planning to launch an attack at the right moment.

Notwithstanding its hesitations, Hezbollah has no intention of ending its pursuit of Israel’s destruction. By coupling a Gaza cease-fire with one in Lebanon, the group is essentially asking to be spared until its domestic situation, and those of its patron and allies, is more stable and its capabilities more lethal—ideally under an Iranian nuclear umbrella.

Israel therefore must press its advantage and exploit Hezbollah’s mistake of launching a war of attrition. Whatever happens in Gaza, Jerusalem must continue to hit the group and its assets, especially in Lebanon. If Israel accepts a cease-fire with Hezbollah, the group will continue to build its war machine until it is ready to use it to imperil the Jewish state once more.

Mr. Daoud is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Wonder Land: In 1986, Sen. Joe Biden mocked as ‘reckless’ Ronald Reagan's 'Strategic Defense Initiative,' a program to counter the ballistic missile threat. Israel ran with it, creating the 'Iron Dome' missile-defense system—the hero of Iran’s April 13 bombardment. Images: Bloomberg News/C-Span/Bettmann Archive Composite: Mark Kelly


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Appeared in the April 30, 2024, print edition as 'Hezbollah Stumbles Into a War of Attrition'.

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