The head of Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement said Friday that the group does not seek a broader conflict with Israel, but is nonetheless steeled for an all-out confrontation with its archenemy.
“We do not want war, but do not fear it,” Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech delivered via video-link to supporters in Lebanon.
His comments come two days after a flurry of Hezbollah anti-tank missiles struck an Israeli convoy, killing two Israeli soldiers and injuring seven others.
Israel, in response to the Hezbollah attack, had shelled Lebanese territory and was blamed for causing the death of a Spanish peacekeeper in a United Nations force.
The Hezbollah assault was widely viewed as retribution for a Jan. 18 Israeli air strike in southern Syria, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, that killed six Hezbollah members and an Iranian general.
The twin attacks represented the most serious confrontation between the two foes since the end of the 34-day war in 2006 that left a devastating toll in damage and death, especially on the Lebanese side. Many in both Lebanon and Israel have voiced fears that the latest spasm of violence could lead inexorably to a 2006-style conflagration.
So far, however, the two rivals appear to have edged away from escalation, likely with behind-the-scenes counsel from bigger powers, including the United States, Israel’s major ally, and Iran, Hezbollah’s long-time patron. Washington calls Hezbollah a terrorist group, a designation the group rejects.
Until now, observers say, Israel’s reaction indicates that its leadership views Hezbollah’s retaliation as proportionate. Hezbollah, which includes a paramilitary force and a political arm that is a major player in the Lebanese government, also seems satisfied that its cross-border strike this week evened the score in the regional calculus of payback.
At the moment, a major conflict does not appear to be in the interests of either Israel or Hezbollah -- though both want to seem to be talking tough.
Hezbollah is deeply mired in the conflict raging next door in Syria, where it has dispatched thousands of militiamen to fight alongside forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Another punishing war with Israel would stretch resources and likely sap domestic support in Lebanon, where opponents accuse Hezbollah of dragging the country into foreign conflicts.
Israel is only a few months away from last summer’s Gaza war, which resulted in heavy casualties on both sides, especially among Palestinian civilians, and sparked considerable international criticism of Israel. Hezbollah, with its stocks of long-range missiles, is much more formidable adversary than Hamas in Gaza. Israel is also preparing for national elections in March.
Still, analysts say, any misstep by either side could trigger a new cycle of escalation, especially given the volatile atmosphere and profound distrust prevalent in the region. On Friday, Hezbollah again made it clear that it would not back down.
Said Nasrallah: “It is our legitimate and legal right to confront any violation at any time and any place and in any way.”
Special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.