On the Ground

Thousands gather for Hezbollah leader’s first speech on Israel-Hamas war – and hear little but threats

Many across Lebanon had been fearful of the escalation the address could bring, reports Abbie Cheeseman from Beirut

Friday 03 November 2023 19:59 GMT
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<p>Hezbollah supporters in Beirut</p>

Hezbollah supporters in Beirut

Having been silent for almost a month of Israeli bombardment on Gaza, much of the Arab world was awaiting to hear what Hassan Nasrallah, the chief of Lebanon's Hezbollah, would say. His long silence had positioned him as the one man who could announce regional war.

The world was bracing itself. Supporters and fierce opponents alike would be glued to their TV screens. Streets across Beirut emptied, some packed bags fearing that he would declare open war and the bombardment on Lebanon could immediately start.

In the Hezbollah stronghold of Dahieh, in the southern suburbs of Beirut, thousands of his most ardent supporters packed an outdoor arena to see his speech live-streamed. Nasrallah himself has been in hiding for years.

The streets were gridlocked and Hezbollah war chants blasted out of speakers. The build-up of suspense had been nauseating for many in Beirut. The night before a Hezbollah-affiliated news channel released a teaser video with clips of Nasrallah in which a “launch” button was pushed. The most significant escalation of its attacks on Israel started around the same time, with 19 simultaneous launches.

But in the end, the long-awaited speech towed the line, making it even more clear that Hezbollah will not lightly drag Lebanon into war. Regional war is possible and they are ready to fight, he said, but it is not happening now.

“Some say I’m going to announce that we have entered the battle,” Nasrallah said. “We already entered the battle on 8 October.”

Echoing comments from Iranian officials, he said that Hamas’ attack on 7 October that killed 1,400 people inside Israel and led to the near-continuous bombing of Gaza by the Israeli military, were “purely Palestinian” and “the great secrecy made this operation greatly successful,” as he distanced his group from involvement.

For the first hour of his speech, during which he spoke of his 52 fallen soldiers and the heinous complicity of the West, his supporters in the crowd were silent and motionless. Their eyes trained on the screen, hanging on his every word. The silence only broke when he stopped to sip water, or wipe his sweaty brow, as they stood to chant “All hail Nasrallah!” and “peace be upon Mohammed”.

Then the threats began. “All options are open” on the Lebanese front, he boomed, “and we can resort to them at any time.” Electricity charged through the crowd. Men climbed on their chairs as they waved Palestinian and Hezbollah flags, punching the air the entire crowd yelled “All hail Nasrallah!” Separated by the press pack, women on their other side followed suit.

"To the Americans, I say: Threats against us are of no use. Your fleets in the Mediterranean do not scare us and have never scared us. We have prepared a response to the fleets with which you threaten us,” he said, in a standard threat to the US.

Boys no older than five, wearing full Hezbollah camo and some with toy guns were hoisted onto their fathers’ shoulders.

Supporters of Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah gather to watch his address in Beirut

An escalation from Hezbollah depends on two things, Nasrallah said: “the development of the situation in Gaza” and “the behavior of the [Israel] towards Lebanon.”

In all, his speech confirmed what analysts researching his party have been saying all along: unless the capabilities of Hamas is significantly depleted by Israeli forces, Hezbollah will continue fighting on its southern border without doing anything significant enough to fully enter the war – such as using it’s long-range missiles to attack deep within Israel.

“Once you cut through all of the rhetoric, and all of the fire and brimstone, it was essentially a fairly rational speech,” said Nicholas Blanford, an expert on Hezbollah with the Atlantic Council. “I think it confirms really that the Iranians and Hezbollah are not seeking a regional war, but obviously he didn’t give any assurances to Israel on that front… The threats to the Americans were more a crowd-pleasing aspect than anything.”

“It wasn’t the high-pitched escalation that many expected,” said Mohanad Hage Ali from the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut. It was “very cautious”, he said, but “in tandem with the step-by-step escalation that Hezbollah has been engaged in” on its southern border and drew some red lines. “It goes with the beat of what is happening in Gaza.”

Some critics blasted the speech as weak, at a time when his influence had skyrocketed.

Outside of the event, some despondently thought the speech appeared weak, but refused to speak out against Nasrallah. A video quickly surfaced, claiming to be filmed inside the West Bank, of someone throwing their shoe at their TV screen as Nasrallah spoke.

Posts mocking him quickly flooded social media. “That speech could have been an email,” read one post on X, formerly known as Twitter, pointing to how pointless the built-up suspense had been.

For Nasrallah’s hardcore supporters a bad word cannot be said about their charismatic leader, whose words they consider as the highest form of poetry, even for those who wanted him to declare all-out war in support of Palestine.

“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.”

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