On October 1, 2017, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah delivered a speech in honor of Ashura (the foremost holiday on the Shi’ite calendar, commemorating the Battle of Karbala, a town in Iraq, where Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein died along with many of his followers). Part of the speech was devoted to the issue of Israel, and Nasrallah used it to send messages of deterrence against initiating war.
Nasrallah’s speeches in general, and specifically his Ashura speeches, have served him through the years as an opportunity to issue messages of deterrence to Israel with a view to weakening its national fortitude, alarming its residents and encouraging Hezbollah. However, this time the tone was noticeably harsher and, in fact, the speech stands as a climactic summation of all Nasrallah’s threats against Israel over the past 11 years.
Nasrallah started by briefly describing Israel’s threats of war against Lebanon.
Then, he called directly on the Jewish People and on the citizens of Israel to, respectively, sever their ties with Zionism and leave the country.
According to Nasrallah, this would be an appropriate response to the deeds of the current Israeli government and its leader, who he claims are leading the way to catastrophe as they miscalculate the ferocity of the next war and therefore threaten, as mentioned, to initiate it.
In this speech, Nasrallah chose to use an aggressive technique in the context of the battle for the public’s mind, a sort of attempt at “searing the consciousness” of Israel’s citizens and of Jews in general. The particular expression, “searing the consciousness,” was used by Nasrallah himself as early as 2009, in a speech explaining that Hezbollah is waging campaigns in the sphere of consciousness not only among its “own” Lebanese target population but also among the “enemy” – the same enemy who employs that very expression, according to Nasrallah. It is important to note that this campaign is proceeding through a variety of avenues and with plentiful investment of resources from Hezbollah.
As mentioned, the October 1 speech reflects an escalation in Hezbollah’s deterrence messages to Israel while upgrading messages that appeared in previous speeches. As the first of his tactics for this purpose, Nasrallah used a direct call to the Israeli people, together with open incitement against their elected leadership, while wisely exploiting the political and social polarization of Israeli society. He well understands that polarization, saying that “you know the existing fractures.” It should be noted that in his speeches over the years, Nasrallah has addressed the Israeli people directly on a number of occasions; but this time he attempts to distinguish clearly between the administration and the general public.
A second tactic Nasrallah employs for “searing the consciousness” is his invocation of the pressure of time and the atmosphere of war, creating a feeling very similar to that of July 2006 and using a variety of claims closely recalling that month’s well-remembered speech of his from the first days of war. Those claims take resonance from the authentic feelings of many Israelis regarding the current security situation, and that which existed before the July 2006 war. Among them: Israel’s leadership is incompetent and Israel’s citizens will pay the price; the initiative for escalation is Israel’s responsibility (a point that Nasrallah emphasized six times during the speech); and most interestingly, “times have changed.”
On the last point, even this writer can agree with him. The Hezbollah of 2017 differs completely from the Hezbollah of 2006. It is not just another terrorist organization but a well-trained terrorist army.
By these tactics and claims, Nasrallah has created the impression that this is “the eleventh hour,” “the last minute” for preventing war or alternatively for fleeing Israel.
As a third tactic for “searing the consciousness,” Nasrallah presents Hezbollah’s threat to Israel, and details Hezbollah’s capabilities, together with a claim that Israel’s leadership is misleading the nation, whether deliberately (by “lies”) or because it truly misjudges the situation (“illusions”). As he does so, Nasrallah hints that foreign fighters will join the war (“who will participate in it and who will intervene”), further to remarks in his speech of June 23, 2017, regarding the arrival of “tens of thousands, and even hundreds of thousands, of jihad warriors” from Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan to help in the fighting.
AT THE same time, Nasrallah emphasizes that in war Israel will stand alone against its enemies, with no outside assistance. He may be reacting to media reports in mid-September 2017 regarding an arrangement for permanent stationing of American troops on Israeli soil.
In addition, Nasrallah hints at opening war on several fronts: “To what expanses will it spread, and where will the battlefields be.” This is further to Israel’s fears of a Hezbollah presence striking roots in southern Syria. Moreover, Nasrallah’s speech stresses the ferocity expected immediately upon the war’s commencement and the fact that the war will be felt throughout Israel.
“They may not even have time to leave Palestine for elsewhere, and nowhere will be safe for them in occupied Palestine.”
It should be noted that the revelation of Hezbollah’s capabilities is in fact one of a variety of Islamic motifs that Nasrallah uses in his speeches to create deterrence. Additional Islamic motifs that he uses are the principles of blood vengeance (that is to say, meeting all violence with greater violence) and of leaving an opening for repentance – which is embodied in Nasrallah’s advice to the Israelis, “You must not permit a regime of fools to lead you into an adventure that may put an end to everything, and to that entire entity.”
Why did Nasrallah decide to deliver such an aggressive speech at this particular time? To begin with, the speech was delivered some two weeks after the end of the “Or Hadagan” military exercise, which was particularly expansive, lasting two weeks, and in which the IDF practiced for fighting Hezbollah in Lebanon. During that exercise, Israel uncharacteristically published a great deal of information about the IDF’s capabilities, the scenarios that were practiced, and various messages of deterrence to Hezbollah. All this was against the background of an anti-Hezbollah campaign waged by Israel in the international arena over the preceding months. The campaign yielded certain fruits in the form of additional American congressional sanctions against Hezbollah and a strengthened UNIFIL mandate. Hezbollah sources even admitted that Nasrallah was speaking in light of “mounting Israeli threats of war against Lebanon,” and Nasrallah himself mentioned the IDF exercise.
In the background, according to Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, is the “life-or-death” battle Hezbollah is still waging in Syria and the vicinity, which obliges Hezbollah to do all it can in order to avoid war with Israel at this time. Nasrallah himself drew a parallel, in his speech, that links the battle of Karbala, the battles that Hezbollah fights against Sunni elements in Syria, and the resistance to Israel. This parallel between the resistance to Israel and Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria is very widespread in the discourse among Hezbollah’s supporters in Lebanon.
However, Nasrallah does not see present events in Syria in an exclusively local context, and he speaks of foreign involvement in the Middle East as well: “The Jews, who were brought here from all over the world, must know that they have served as fuel for Anglo-Western colonialist warfare against the Arab and Muslim peoples in this region. Today, they are serving as fuel for American projects and policies that aim to harm the region’s peoples.” It may be assumed that the phrasing was inspired by propaganda from Hezbollah’s Iranian patron, which presents Israel as the Little Satan and the USA as the Great Satan.
To conclude on a personal note: Nasrallah, as in his speech last year, calls on the Jews “who assumed they would find a land of milk and honey in occupied Palestine to leave there and return to the countries they came from.” In his speech last year he termed Israelis “invaders,” and this year he pressed the point further and warned the Israelis to leave quickly “before they become fuel for some war.”
My grandmother was born in Beirut. My father was born in Damascus.
My family fled those places because persecution was endangering the Jewish community. The year was 1946, before the State of Israel was founded. Would Nasrallah accept me with open arms and return property to me that was left in Damascus and in Lebanon? Would he guarantee my safety there?
Sarit Zehavi is a lieutenant colonel in the IDF reserves, served for 15 years in the military specializing in intelligence and holds an MA in Middle East Studies from Ben-Gurion University. She is the founder and CEO of ALMA, an organization specializing in research and analysis of Israel’s security challenges on the northern border.