ICCT's Senior Program Manager Kacper Rekawek sat down with The Washington Institute's Dr. Matthew Levitt to discuss how Hezbollah may impact the current conflict in Israel and Palestine.
Kacper Rekawek (KW): Thanks for speaking with us today. In historical terms can you give us a snapshot of the history of Iran and Hezbollah?
Matthew Levitt (ML): Iran has sponsored both Hamas and Hezbollah from the inception of each group. Hamas was founded in late 1987 and Iran has been funding, arming, and supporting it ever since. Iran actually sent some 1,500 Quds Force Pazdaran operatives to the Bekka Valley in 1982, just a few years after the Iranian Revolution, to help create Hezbollah. So the Iranians actually created Hezbollah, and then armed it and funded it. Now, there are other Iranian proxy groups. But Hezbollah is the first among equals, and it is by far the best trained, the most battlefield experienced, the best armed and, and most dangerous with 150 to 200,000 various types of rockets, at least 300 or so of which are very sophisticated GPS guided, heavy munition long distance rockets.
Hamas, on the on the other hand, is much smaller. It gets a lot less money from Iran. Hamas gets around $100 million USD a year, Hezbollah gets around $700 million to $1 billion a year. Hamas has rockets but nothing like Hezbollah has. But they are both part of what Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran refer to as, in their words, the Axis of Resistance. You can include the Assad regime in there too.
KW: When do you think Hamas started planning for the events of October 7?
ML: I think that when we look back at the horrific attack on October 7, once the dust is settled, I think we're going to be able to see that the planning for this probably started after the 2021 rocket war that Hamas started. I think Hamas probably looked at that and said, ‘this isn't working for us’. Hamas is not about fighting for a two-state solution. They're not fighting because there's no Palestinian state. They're fighting because there might be a two-state solution. They're against a two-state solution. They are seeking to destroy Israel, and create an Islamist state that’s not secular, an Islamist Palestinian state in all of what it considers historic Palestine - Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.
I think they decided in 2020 ‘This didn't work for us. We weren't able to inflict so much damage on the Israelis. They kick the stuffing out of us in return.’ And they started planning something different for the past couple of years. You can Google it, don't take my word for it. Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran have been meeting in Beirut, holding what they call a ‘Joint Operations Room.’ I think this might explain something that I've not been able to explain until now, which is why in the last rocket war, which was between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is another group that participated in the October 7 attack but is smaller still than even Hamas, why Hamas didn't get involved in that. Why they sat it out. Maybe the answer is that they had already begun to plan this, they had something bigger coming.
KW: Do you think that Hamas has ever prioritized their governance project?
ML: Ultimately, Hamas decided that the governance project in the Gaza Strip was not so important as to preclude them from being able to really try and carry out their true bottom-line goal - destroying Israel. I think that many people first think that Hamas is somewhat more moderate because they were elected in 2006. I mean, they took the Gaza Strip by force of arms in 2007. Guns targeting fellow Palestinians. The Israelis had already moved out. But you know, they have social welfare activity, and they are a movement that includes terrorism, but is more than just terrorism.
But I think those people were proven wrong, as were the people who thought that when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, if it wasn't more moderate before, it would either become more moderate, or if it kept its hardline ideology, it would at least become less mobilised because it would be co-opted by governance, by collecting garbage and paying teacher’s salaries. October 7 has put that to bed.
KW: Is this the impression you believe we have that we leave them be because they do governance? Is this their end solution? That was very much the impression we got in Herzliya few years ago. The word Iran was mentioned many times from the conference floors, but not so much Hamas or Palestine.
ML: There are two separate issues here. One is the Israeli position, and one is the position of some of the international community. It took a long time, for example, for the European Union to expand their designation, which was originally just the al-Qassam Brigades, to all of Hamas. As if there was any real distinction between the wings of Hamas, which even Hamas leaders say is a myth.
But the fact is, that for many years, the Israeli policy was one of calm. They said, ‘Listen, we don't want to go in and re-occupy the West Bank. Going in to push out Hamas would be a huge operation and cost many lives. Sometimes you can't resolve conflicts. It's not about conflict resolution. It’s about conflict management. So, we're going to manage this conflict.’
The belief was that Hamas could be managed, it could be deterred. And yes, every 24 or 36 months you'd have a rocket war, and Hamas would kidnap somebody from time to time. But it wasn't like the Second Intifada. There weren't suicide bombings going off every day. They knew that if they fired rockets at Israel, there'd be rockets fired back. It wasn't a good situation. But it was manageable.
Part two of that was the way to keep it that way, which was to make sure that there was sufficient economic opportunity in the Gaza Strip. The week before the October 7 attack the government of Netanyahu, who's quite far to the right, approved additional numbers of Palestinians from Gaza who would be allowed to work in Israel. By the way, that whole concept is out the window now, because it's now clear that one of the ways Hamas collected such granular intelligence was from people who were working in these communities.
The idea of providing enough salaries, and buying enough calm, it failed. Europe was in favour of it, the United States was in favour of it. Israel was in favour of it. Across administrations the calculus failed, and Hamas carried off an intelligence coup, with very close held operational security. They played a long game and lulled Israel, and by extension, the international community, into thinking that they really were deterred. And they were not.
KM: So where does Hezbollah comes into this?
Hezbollah is another situation in the North. The whole issue right now is trying to make sure that Hezbollah doesn't get involved in a big way in this conflict, especially once Israel is on the ground in Gaza. Hezbollah is absolutely committed to Israel's destruction, and they have all kinds of capabilities, but they understand that unlike their last war with Israel in 2006, the Israeli response is going to be much more severe. Nobody in Lebanon other than hardcore Hezbollah people want a war with Israel.
Hezbollah is both part of the government in Lebanon, and apart from the government in Lebanon, so it's not held responsible for anything the government fails to do. It also doesn't ask the government when it makes decisions of life and death, war and peace, that everyone else in Lebanon doesn't get a say in. You actually have the Prime Minister in Lebanon, the caretaker Prime Minister saying, ‘Yeah, I can't promise anything. Hezbollah doesn't ask my permission.’
Iran, for its sake, also wants Israel destroyed, but it doesn't want Hezbollah to get hit really hard. It doesn't want Hezbollah to lose those rockets. Iran wants Hezbollah to have rockets for lots of reasons, not least of which is to deter Israel or anybody else from hitting their nuclear program. In the event that someone does hit their nuclear program, those missiles are a second-strike capability. So, it's not that Iran or Hezbollah have gone soft on their commitment to destroy Israel. It's just a cold calculus.
KM: So Iran is not intent on expanding this war now as some people seem to be saying?
ML: I think Iran is trying to thread the needle here. Other Iranian Shia proxies in Syria and Iraq are all already engaged in horizontal escalation. Vertical escalation would be more escalated fighting between Israel and Hamas, or Hezbollah, and Israel. Horizontal escalation is where it expands to other parties. We've already had other Iranian proxies firing rockets and suicide drones at US forces in Iraq and Syria. So we're seeing this escalation.
Look, I believe at the end of the day here, Iran has a history of fighting to the last Arab, and they will deploy their Iraqi, and Yemeni, and Lebanese, and Syrian, and Palestinian proxies, and provide them funds and guns, but they will not put their own people at risk. They tried to get a little bit more involved in Syria and Israel started targeting them. At one point the Iranians even flew an attack drone from Syria into Israel, then Israeli shot it down, and then started hitting the bases where IRGC and Shia militants were firing drones from. I think Iran is going to fight to the last Arab again.
KM: What can the West – the US, Europe – do now in this situation? What’s the best response?
ML: I fully understand why the international community was so laser-focused first on al-Qaeda after 9/11, and then its offshoots, and ultimately, the Islamic State, which took over this massive territory and carried out attacks in Europe and around the world. But somehow, Iran, because it's a state, people got uncomfortable dealing with a state that is creating terrorist proxies. Even as we’ve seen its assassination and abduction plots around the world, carrying out its own acts of terrorism, somehow there was a discomfort with dealing with Lebanese Hezbollah or Hamas, especially if a militant or terrorist organisation was in the government, if they had representatives in the parliament.
At the end of the day, we have failed to do enough on Iranian-sponsored terrorism. We should be looking at this not in terms of what the ideology is, or what sect is promoting violence. I don't care if it’s Shia terrorism, or Sunni terrorism, or Jewish terrorism, or white supremacist terrorism - terrorism is the issue. By virtue of failing to address this for decades now, not only has Iran become emboldened, it has successfully built up very capable proxies.
At the end of the day, the runt of the litter of Iran’s threat network, the smallest and least capable of Iran's proxies – Hamas – carried out not only one of the worst acts of international terrorism ever on record, in terms of number of people killed, wounded, kidnapped, and the number of foreigners who are victims, but they have also has taken the region to what hopefully will only be the precipice of regional war. If Hamas can do this, just think for a moment what Hezbollah could do, what the Iraqi militias, the Hashd al-Sha’bi could do. Imagine what they could do if they really went into this conflict, or the next one if they were more coordinated.
This happened because we allowed it to. I think we're all going to have to revisit this in a very, very serious way - the Europeans, Americans, US, academics, and the Israelis also. As we said earlier, their policy was ‘look, we got entrenched adversaries, that we are really left to take on and overwhelm. We can't solve the problem, we can just manage it.’ I guarantee you, the Israeli approach to Gaza will never be the same. The Israeli approach to Hamas will never be the same. And the Israeli approach to Hezbollah is very likely going to change in a big way too.
KM: Thank you for this Matt.