Hezbollah: What is it and who is its leader?

Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah appears on a screen as he addresses his supporters during a ceremony to honour fighters killed in the recent escalation with Israel, in Beirut's southern suburbs, Lebanon November 3, 2023. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses supporters on 3 November. (Reuters)

The leader of Hezbollah has given his first public address since the start of the most recent escalation of the Israel-Hamas war on 7 October.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said the brutal incursion - which killed around 1,400 Israeli civilians and soldiers - launched by the Hamas militant group against Israel as "100% Palestinian".

Hezbollah, like Hamas, is an Islamist militant group opposed to Israel. It has traded fire with Israeli troops on Israel's northern border in the weeks following 7 October

The speech is significant because Nasrallah’s rhetoric may give an insight into how its role in the conflict might evolve.

Read: Follow our live coverage of the Israel-Hamas war

It comes as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) warned of the risk of a regional spillover.

The UAE, an ally of Israel, views Islamist organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah as an existential threat to the Middle East. Noura Al Kaabi, its foreign affairs minister, said on Friday: “We cannot ignore the wider context and the necessity to turn down the regional temperature that is approaching a boiling point.”

Here, Yahoo News UK explains the relevance of Hezbollah in the context of the war.

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What is Hezbollah and where does it operate?

Hezbollah is described by the Counter Extremism Project, an organisation which works to combat extremist groups and ideologies, as an “Iranian-sponsored, internationally sanctioned terrorist group with an anti-Israel and anti-US agenda".

It is based in Lebanon, "but has carried out terrorist and criminal operations around the world.” It has claimed it has 100,000 fighters.

Like its ally Hamas, it is deemed a terrorist organisation by the UK government, which notes its commitment to "armed resistance to the state of Israel".

Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters through a screen during a religious ceremony to mark Ashura in Beirut's southern suburbs, Lebanon July 29, 2023. REUTERS/Aziz Taher
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses supporters through a screen in Beirut in June. (Reuters)

Hezbollah has significant power in Lebanon - where the south of the country borders Israel's north - and has been labelled by the Council on Foreign Relations as “a state within a state”.

It entered Lebanese politics in 2005 and now has ministers in government and lawmakers in parliament. Lebanese parties opposed to Hezbollah say it has undermined the state and accuse it of unilaterally dragging the country into armed conflicts.

Who is its leader?

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah assumed leadership of Hezbollah in 1992. He is one of the most prominent figures in the Arab world.

Recognised even by critics as a skilled orator, his speeches have long been followed by friends and enemies alike. He is deemed a terrorist by adversaries including the US.

Under his leadership, the Counter Extremism Project says, "Hezbollah has assumed many state functions in Lebanon’s Shiite-majority south" including welfare, schools and housing.

What has been its stance in the war so far?

Though Nasrallah has stayed out of the public eye since the onset of the conflict on 7 October, Hezbollah has been fighting Israeli forces along the border, where 55 of its fighters have been killed.

This is the deadliest escalation since it fought a war with Israel in 2006.

TOPSHOT - An Israeli army soldier sits by a machine gun deployed on a tripod at a position in the upper Galilee region of northern Israel near the border with Lebanon on October 28, 2023 amid increasing cross-border tensions between Hezbollah and Israel as fighting continues in the south with Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. Since Palestinian militant group Hamas carried out an unprecedented attack on Israel from the Gaza Strip on October 7, Lebanon's southern border has seen tit-for-tat exchanges between Israel and the Iran-backed Hezbollah, a Hamas ally. (Photo by Jalaa MAREY / AFP) (Photo by JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images)
An Israeli soldier sits by a machine gun near the border with Lebanon on 28 October, amid cross-border tensions with Hezbollah. (AFP via Getty Images)

On Thursday, Hezbollah mounted its biggest attack in more than three weeks of fighting, saying it launched 19 simultaneous strikes on Israeli army positions and used explosive drones for the first time. Israel responded with air strikes and tank and artillery fire.

Amid the Hamas conflict in the south, Israels Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned Hezbollah against opening a second war front in the north, saying Israel would respond with strikes of "unimaginable" magnitude.

Why does Iran back it?

Hezbollah’s very existence is tied to Iran.

Iran's Revolutionary Guards founded Hezbollah in 1982, in the middle of Lebanon's civil war between 1975 and 1990, to expand its influence in the region.

That backing continues to this day, with the US estimating Iran allocates hundreds of millions of dollars every year to Hezbollah.

The Counter Extremism Project also says Iran has transferred, through Syria, “mass quantities of weapons, fighters, and other supplies”.