The head of Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah has warned “all scenarios are open” including a wider Middle East war, as he threatened the US “will pay a heavy price” if it does not stop the onslaught on Gaza.
Hassan Nasrallah stopped short of declaring a fully fledged war – which was widely feared ahead of his speech – but postured that a regional conflict was a “likely possibility” if Israel, supported by the US, continues bombing the besieged strip.
Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and designated a terrorist organisation by a number of Western states, is facing growing pressure from within its own ranks, including affiliated Palestinian armed groups, to escalate as Israel pushes deeper into Gaza and the death toll soars. But an all-out war between Hezbollah and Israel would be devastating for both sides and could draw in Syria, Iran and Yemen on one side, and the US on the other.
“I reiterate all scenarios are open. All options are laid out and we can adopt any of them at any point of time,” Nasrallah told his supporters, who intermittently erupted into chants at the gathering in Beirut, the Lebanese capital.
He then addressed Washington directly, ordering the US to stop the war or “pay a price for the crimes committed by Israel”. The speech coincided with a visit to Israel by US secretary of state Antony Blinken, who is unsuccessfully lobbying Israel to commit to humanitarian pauses to allow delivery to the worst-hit parts of Gaza.
“To the Americans directing your threats at us in Lebanon, your naval fleets cannot and will not cause us to fear. We have prepared for them with whatever it takes,” Nasrallah continued.
“Israel your servant, you the Americans, are capable of ending the aggression on Gaza because it is you that started it. If you wish to steer away from a regional war you must hurriedly act to end the war on Gaza.”
Nasrallah was making his first public comments since Israel began bombing Gaza, in retaliation for the deadly attack in the south of the country by Hamas on 7 October. More than 1,400 Israelis were killed in the unprecedented attack. Since then, Israel’s bombardment in Gaza has killed over 9,000 people, the vast majority women and children. The punishing siege threatens countless more lives.
In the Hezbollah stronghold of Dahieh, in the southern suburbs of Beirut, thousands of Nasrallah’s most ardent supporters packed an outdoor arena to see his speech live-streamed. Nasrallah himself, a designated terrorist by the US, has been in hiding for years.
Since Israel started bombing Gaza, Israel and Hezbollah – which is part of Iran’s so-called “axis of resistance” – have been engaged in the fiercest cross-border fighting since the last war in 2006.
On the eve of the speech, Hezbollah launched what appeared to be its biggest barrage of attacks yet, with its forces claiming to have fired 19 simultaneous strikes on Israeli army positions, using explosive drones for the first time.
Israeli military officials said that the strikes stretched across the length of the border and followed a surge in anti-tank, rocket and drone fire as well as the deployment of surface-to-air missiles on their aircraft. The Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen – also among the “axis of resistance” – launched a second long-range drone at Israel.
Officials are concerned that Hezbollah – which has an arsenal of 150,000 rockets and missiles including precision long-range missiles – could open a second devastating front for Israel and trigger a wider regional war.
Unlike Hamas, Hezbollah is battle-hardened by over a decade of fighting in Syria and according to the Israelis may have as many 20,000 active fighters alongside tens of thousands in reserve.
Fearing the worst, Washington has already deployed several aircraft carriers to the region, while Israel’s three air-defence systems – Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and Arrow – are now operational.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spoke at a press conference at the same time as Nasrallah, issued a pointed warning: “I tell our enemies to the north, don’t test us, you will pay dearly.” Earlier on Friday, the military had warned Hezbollah “not to sacrifice your future for Hamas”.
But it appeared that Nasrallah – while threatening Israel and the US with the worst-case scenario – signalled that he did not want the worst to happen.
In his speech, Nasrallah repeatedly emphasised that the battles in Gaza were “a Palestinian cause” and a “Palestinian triumph” and that the 7 October attack “was 100 per cent Palestinian in terms of decision and execution”.
He also praised what the current levels of attacks on Israel from southern Lebanon have already achieved – perhaps indicating they do not need to be escalated.
“Our operations on the border line forced the Israeli army to concentrate their [forces] on the borders which they were supposed to deploy to Gaza,” said Nasrallah.
“They have forced Israel to amass one third of its entire army on our border line. Half of Israel’s naval capability is now anchored off Haifa. One-quarter of the air force is dedicated to Lebanon. Half of their air defence is deployed around Lebanon.”
He concluded by admitting they have not “reached a knock-out victory”.
“We still need time to be more realistic,” said Nasrallah. “We are winning victory by points not knockout victory. This is what happened in 2000, 2006 in Lebanon…. Fortitude, patience, bravery. This is what we have.”
Outside of the event, some despondently thought the speech appeared weak, but refused to speak out against Nasrallah. A video quickly surfaced, claiming to have been filmed inside the West Bank, of someone throwing their shoe at their TV screen as Nasrallah spoke.
But his hardcore support were clear. “Be it death or salvation, we are with Nasrallah in whatever he decides,” said Ali Hijazi, a supporter in his 20s.
“We are eager to go to war and we will happily die for the cause,” said Em Mahdi, a woman in her 50s, as she left the event. “We fear nothing.”