In August 2006, a crowd of several thousand, echoing cries of “Death to Israel,” proudly waved the yellow banners of Hezbollah. Interestingly, the scene did not unfold in the southern suburbs of Beirut but rather more than 550 kilometers away, in the megalopolis of Cairo.
During the war against Israel that same year, Hezbollah stood out as a rare source of pride. Fueled by pro-Palestinian sentiment and decades of military setbacks against Israel, Hezbollah became a symbol of long-awaited revenge.
However, as Hezbollah solidified its role as the arm of Shiite Iran, seeking influence in the Arab-Muslim world, it gradually lost its standing as the symbol of vengeance against Israel in the eyes of millions of [Sunni-majority] Arabs.
According to a Washington Institute poll conducted in November 2020, only 2 percent of Egyptians, 3 percent of Jordanians, and 5 percent of Qataris held a favorable view of Hezbollah.
Fast forward 17 years from the July 2006 conflict, and hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah have resumed.
Hezbollah has designated southern Lebanon as a “support front” for Hamas after Operation Al-Aqsa Flood.
The question arises: could this be an opportunity for Hezbollah to rehabilitate its image in the Arab world? As things stand now, this is no easy feat.
‘Unanimous support for Palestine’
“In 2006, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah was regarded as a prominent Arab leader,” said a Sunni figure who is closely aligned with the Shiite opposition camp on condition of anonymity.
“He [Nasrallah] was even likened to the former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser,” the source added, acknowledging Nasser’s status, whether right or wrong, as the hero of Arab nationalism and the struggle against Israel.
“It was a golden age for Hezbollah,” agreed Nicholas Blanford, a researcher at the Atlantic Council who focuses on Hezbollah. “However, in 2011, its response to the Arab Spring, particularly in Syria, would significantly impact its standing and popularity.”
Hezbollah ended up joining the war in Syria alongside the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad against the Syrian opposition, which had the support of most Sunnis, including Hamas in the Palestinian refugee camps.
The harsh suppression of the Syrian revolution and the forced displacement of half the country’s population, replaced by fighters from Iran and Afghanistan, have been viewed by Sunni Arabs as a source of humiliation.
This sentiment was exacerbated by the fact that, in Iraq and Yemen, the political elite of the Sunni community has also suffered significant weakening at the hands of Shiite groups supported by Iran and Hezbollah.
Will Hezbollah’s military support of Hamas in the ongoing conflict help it improve its image in the Arab world?
Interestingly, Al Jazeera published an article a few days ago on the history of Hezbollah.
No mention was made of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian war, even though this conflict profoundly transformed the movement politically and militarily.
“In general, Palestine is almost unanimously recognized in the Arab world, and allows us to go beyond denominational divisions,” said researcher Joseph Daher, who has written books on Hezbollah and Syria.
“In this context, the fact that the party has lost more than 80 of its fighters since Oct. 7 allows it to claim to have made sacrifices, however limited, for the Palestinian cause,” Daher added.
These “martyrs” include Abbas Raad, son of the head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc.
“This has allowed the party to enhance its popularity somewhat,” Blanford said.
‘They find it hard to forget’
Hezbollah’s intervention against Israel has also facilitated (albeit temporarily) its rally of Lebanese Sunni groups like Jamaa Islamiya, which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that is popular in several Arab countries.
“The Brotherhood and even the Salafists, have shown themselves ready to go beyond their opposition to Hezbollah because Israel is the real enemy,” said a Salafist sheikh, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
An Israeli strike hit a vehicle in southern Lebanon last week, targeting five individuals involved in border fighting on the side of Hezbollah.
This included Khalil Hamid al-Kharaz, a senior Hamas military officer in Lebanon, as well as Seyfullah Bilal Ozturk and Yakup Erdal, two Turkish citizens who had come to support the Palestinian group, and Ahmad Awad and Khaled Minaoui, two Lebanese from Tripoli.
Tripoli, a predominantly Sunni city in the north, is known for its steadfast opposition to Hezbollah and the influence of Iran—a stance that remains unchanged, even though the Sunni camp now shares a common objective with Nasrallah’s party.
In places like Tripoli, and Tarik Jdideh in Beirut, posters of Hamas’ enigmatic spokesman Abou Obeida are strewn about. There is no images of Nasrallah in these areas.
“In public opinion, Hamas, which is more popular in the Arab street, is the big winner,” said the aforementioned Sunni source.
This is especially true since Hezbollah’s actions are not unanimously welcomed by the Arab public.
“For many, its action on behalf of the Palestinians is extremely measured in relation to its military means and capabilities, and more in line with Iranian geopolitical interests,” said Daher.
Indeed, Hezbollah seems to content itself with sporadic strikes against Israel and aims to avoid escalating the confrontation into a costly open war for Lebanon, and particularly for Iran.
“It’s obvious that Tehran doesn’t want to be pushed by Hamas into a regional conflict,” said Blanford.
This restraint undermines the “resistance leader” image that Hezbollah has been striving to build for years.
While Nasrallah has made two much-anticipated speeches since the start of the conflict, his words have fallen short of the expectations of the war-mongers.
Instead of announcing an escalation or a decisive operation, as he did in 2006, Nasrallah simply defended his (in)action, making it clear that he had no intention of escalating South Lebanon any time soon.
This stance earned him criticism from Israel’s most radical opponents on social networks, particularly among Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, and Jordanians.
All the more so as many of them know that Hezbollah is not one to shy away from the use of weapons.
“These people find it hard to forget what Hezbollah has done, particularly in Syria,” said the Sunni figure. “The party and the regime it has supported have shown violence far superior to that which they use against Israel.”
Blanford echoed the sheikh’s sentiments. “After all they’ve done, I can’t see Hezbollah ever regaining its 2006 popularity levels.”
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.