Hanin Ghaddar is the Friedmann Senior Fellow in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Linda and Tony Rubin Program on Arab Politics, where she focuses on Shia politics throughout the Levant. As a longtime journalist in Beirut, Hanin sheds light on a broad range of sensitive issues from the evolution of Hezbollah inside Lebanon’s fractured political system to Iran’s growing influence throughout the Middle East. She’s the author of the recently released book Hezbollah Land: Mapping Dahiya and Lebanon’s Shia Community and was a speaker in the 2023 Moment Institute Middle East Fellows (MIMEF) program. Here she is interviewed by Nadine Epstein, editor-in-chief of Moment and the cofounder of MIMEF.
All of us are deeply concerned about the prospect that Israel will face a two-front war with Hezbollah on its northern border. But before we go into that, I’d like you to tell us a little bit about your background and why you had to flee the country where you were born.
I’ve been here in the United States for seven years. Before that I was a journalist and the editor of NOW Lebanon, an online magazine based in Beirut. I covered Lebanon, but I really focused on Hezbollah, mainly because I grew up with this organization developing and growing around me. I’m from a Shia town called Al-Ghazieh in the south of Lebanon. I lived there until I moved to Beirut for college, for the American University of Beirut. Hezbollah became my experience. My writing was critical until Hezbollah started campaigns against me, culminating in a prison sentence from a military court because it’s one of the institutions controlled by Hezbollah. The sentence was dropped because of U.S. pressure, but it’s still dangerous for me to return. Hezbollah has been assassinating a lot of people since then. I don’t feel safe going back.
What is the relationship between the Lebanese government and Hezbollah?
Lebanon is becoming more and more a Hezbollah state. When Hezbollah started in the 1980s they branded themselves as the resistance movement, then grew from that into more of a state within the state, with their own financial system and social services. However, today I would say that Lebanon is now a small state within a Hezbollah state. Even though in 2018, the Lebanese managed, despite all the violations in the Parliamentary elections, to strip Hezbollah from its [parliamentary] majority. But that didn’t really translate into change because at the end of the day, bullets are stronger than ballots, and as long as Hezbollah has its arms pointed at the Lebanese as much as at their enemies, it’s difficult to make any changes.
Does the Lebanese government want to be at war with Israel?
The prime minister of Lebanon, Najib Mikati, has said that the Lebanese government cannot control Hezbollah’s decision to go to war or not. Basically, he declared officially that Lebanon is under Iran’s occupation. The Iranians are taking charge; they are the ones who are speaking on behalf of the Lebanese today.
The Iranians do not consider Hamas family, as they do Hezbollah.
Hezbollah, which is a proxy of Iran, is in the Lebanese government. They have ministers, they have allies. So really, there’s no Lebanese government that is separate from Hezbollah. But I would say a lot of people within the government, opposition figures in the Parliament, have already made statements saying that we do not want war for Lebanon. But at the end of the day, they aren’t the ones who decide.
The Lebanese people do not want to go to war. Many people in Lebanon are sympathetic to Gaza and to the Palestinians’ pain today. But very few are supportive of Hamas because the distinction is being made between Hamas and the Palestinians.
Could you differentiate a little bit for us between Hezbollah and Hamas?
It’s the relationship with Iran. Hezbollah’s relationship with Iran is much more organic. They were founded by Iran. They are totally funded by Iran. They’re part of the IRGC, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. They are the main arm of Iran’s Quds force in the region. They’re Shia, which is ideologically also connected to Iran. They’re not a proxy.
Hamas is a proxy of the IRGC for many reasons. One, they’re not Shia, they’re Sunni, so they are not really ideologically connected or sectarian connected. Two, they weren’t founded by the Iranian regime. Three, during the Syrian war from 2011 until 2017, Hamas allied itself with the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria against Assad, because at the end of the day, they are part of the Muslim Brotherhood. They are Islamic in that sense. Now that Assad remains in power, the Muslim Brotherhood in the region is weakened and Hamas has realized that they are better off supported by the Iranians. The Iranians give them more arms and money than anyone else. They have come back to the fold, but the Iranians have never forgiven them for siding with the Brotherhood against Assad. Lastly, the Iranians do not consider Hamas family, as they do Hezbollah.
How was Iran involved in helping Hamas with some of the information for planning the attack against Israel?
In April, the Iranians and Hezbollah and Hamas as well as the al-Qassam Brigades in Lebanon and the other Palestinian factions in the Iranian orbit set up something called the Joint Operation Room in Beirut. The last time such an operation room was put in place was during the 2006 war in Lebanon. Immediately after the Joint Operation Room was set up, there were escalations along the borders by both Palestinian factions and Hezbollah and the whole thing culminated in the October 7 attack by Hamas. There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence, if you want, to indicate that there is coordination.
Iran—and Hezbollah—can reap a lot of rewards from this war without having to pay a huge price. This is their calculation today. They don’t need to escalate further but to play a very calculated game along the border, showing that they are part of the war. This, of course, can change any minute because of miscalculations, shifts in strategies, and if, for example, Iran realizes that these gains aren’t translating politically. So eventually this might become a regional war, but not yet.
The Iranians and Hezbollah are Shia and the Palestinians are Sunni. How does this play into the situation in Lebanon, where about 60 percent of the population is Muslim, split almost equally between Shia and Sunni?
Since starting Hezbollah in Lebanon, the whole narrative of the Iranians has been to free Palestine, free Jerusalem. But there’s always this saying in Lebanon that these guys support the Palestinian cause, but they’re not like the Palestinian people, meaning that they are taking advantage of sympathy for the Palestinians. They are using and abusing and pretending to support the Palestinian cause, but they don’t really care about the Palestinians. And the wars Hezbollah has pursued in Lebanon have cost the country and the Lebanese a lot, mostly the Shia Lebanese who live in the south, and they don’t care.
Is the large Palestinian community in Lebanon deeply connected with Hezbollah?
No, the community isn’t. The Palestinian factions in Lebanon are divided. There’s Fatah and there’s also Hamas. And recently there’s been a lot of effort in Lebanon by Hezbollah to take over the Palestinian decision-making because they want to weaken Hamas. But the Palestinian people are never part of these decisions.
What is the average Lebanese person who is not a Hezbollah supporter thinking right now?
They do not want war, obviously. They understand that Lebanon is already in a very bad situation financially, economically, politically, security-wise. There are clashes in the street and high rates of crime. No one can afford a war right now, and no one in Lebanon wants this. No one, even Hezbollah supporters. They understand the price for it. Hezbollah understands that this is something that they have to take into consideration.
In 2006, when Hezbollah entered the [Lebanon] war, they had guarantees from Iran that they were going to get compensation, that they would be able to restock their weapons and that the Gulf states would rush with money to help Lebanon reconstruct. And Lebanon was doing okay in 2006. Today things are very different. Hezbollah doesn’t have any guarantees of any kind, nothing. They only have their weapons, especially the precision missiles that they have developed in the past few years. They can translate them into political victories and gains by entering the war, meaning that they will have to use their weapons. But if they do this, they will lose them.
The threat of their weapons is more important today than using the weapons. Once they lose them, they lose them. Iran can make them new weapons, new missiles, but not precision missiles. And those are really the strong cards that Iran and Hezbollah have today, the precision missiles that can really hurt Israel.
So there’s no guarantee that Iran’s going to replace these weapons?
They will eventually; they have facilities all over the place producing weapons. But producing precision missile weapons is going to take a very long time.
So you don’t think that there’s going to be a huge missile barrage into Israel at this point?
They are trying to leverage the gains that they have today.
This is happening because Iran was feeling that it was isolated from the whole new Middle East normalization train with its economic prospects for the Gulf and Israel and Europe and Asia. This train was telling Iran as well as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen: “The countries that you control are no longer bargaining chips that you can pressure us with. You know what? Take them. We are no longer interested. The new Middle East is going somewhere else. You have the old Middle East. We have the new Middle East.”
They realized that they did not hold bargaining chips anymore, and that they needed to show that they did. This is how they gain edge and leverage. “You think we don’t have bargaining chips, but we do. You think that we don’t have a pressure tool, but we do.”
However, this is a very sensitive, risky situation where anything might change, any small escalation, because every day they’re pushing the limits. And at one point there might be a preemptive attack by Israel.
And at one point the Iranians may just say, “You know what? Go for it. Because no one is listening to us. No one is considering our gains as valid.” So everything might change tomorrow. I’m analyzing what happened so far, I cannot predict tomorrow.
What can be done to stem the expansion of Hezbollah in Lebanon and along the border?
Listen, I don’t think, after what happened, we can go back to the old strategies of deterrence and security versus change. Everything has changed. So even if Hezbollah doesn’t go for a full-scale war tomorrow or during this war even, there’s still a danger.
Hezbollah is escalating, and they might escalate even more tomorrow. They might not use all their weapons, but they might do something else. They might do another kind of infiltration, who knows? So the danger is there. They are Iran’s proxies and partners and members—this is Iran’s arm in the region. So the solution is not in Lebanon. The solution is going back to Iran and dealing with the origin of the threat and the overall strategy toward all their regional situations in the region, their status and power.
If we are looking for a long-term resolution, long-term stability in the region, not just for Israel, there’s no escape from looking at Iran and dealing with the Iranian threat inside Lebanon.
What fallout do you envision from the planned Israeli invasion of Gaza?
At the end of the day, I don’t think Hezbollah has made the decision [to go all in], yet because of the fact that their leader, Hassan Nasrallah, hasn’t said a word yet; that means that they haven’t really made this decision. Once we know that he’s going to speak, then we will have to pay a lot of attention because he is not going to come out and say anything that has already been said. This is a very decisive moment for him.
Tell us a little about Hassan Nasrallah.
Let me tell you the Hezbollah succession story here very quickly. Imad Mughniyeh was Hezbollah’s first military commander, and he was excellent. The Iranians trusted him a hundred percent. He even participated in the decision-making at a very high level until he was killed in 2008 in Damascus by a joint U.S.-Israeli operation. Afterwards, Mustafa Badreddine replaced him. Mustafa Badreddine did not fill these shoes, at least when it comes to the Iranians. There weren’t really any big battles to test him, until the Syrian war broke out and the Iranians sent Hezbollah to Syria. Then Qasem Soleimani came and decided that he wanted to be the hands-on commander. And when Mustafa Badreddine challenged him, he killed him. Now Hezbollah doesn’t have a military leader. They have some people on the ground that are good enough, but they’re not Imad Mughniyeh or Qasem Soleimani. Hassan Nasrallah was there throughout all these succession processes, but he was never really on the ground. He’s not the military commander. He’s not the guy who leads the battle. He’s the guy who speaks, the guy who coordinates on political issues. He’s the guy who understands the situation very well, who knows how to deal with the domestic, regional political dynamics. So Hezbollah has a leadership issue.
As you describe it, it sounds like Lebanon’s not a functioning state.
Hezbollah has been a machine of assassinations in Lebanon since the beginning. They started by killing all the leaders and thinkers of the leftist resistance, the Lebanese national resistance that was there before them to liberate Lebanon; not to liberate Jerusalem, to liberate Lebanon from the Israeli occupation [1985-2000], which was valid for many Lebanese because once your land is occupied, of course you have to resist.
But when Hezbollah came and decided that it would be the resistance, and not only free Lebanon but also Jerusalem, they killed the Lebanese resistance leaders and then they moved onto others. There was another wave of assassinations in 2005 after Prime Minister Rafiq al-iHariri’s assassination, which we know that they were behind. The assassinations have never stopped since then.
Do you feel like Lebanon is in danger of exploding?
It’s already exploded in terms of the socioeconomic situation. There’s nothing left. There’s no money in the central bank. There’s no state, there are no services. The government doesn’t give anything anymore. Without the U.S. assistance to the Lebanese army, there would be no army. So there’s no state. What’s keeping Lebanon going today is not the state. It’s the diaspora money that is coming in.
If Hezbollah decides to enter the war, it could destroy Lebanon. Again, let me say, what Hezbollah is doing today is not entering the war. Entering the war means that there will be thousands of Hezbollah rockets fired at Israel every day. A thousand rockets a day probably. With precision missiles, with infiltrations, with drones, with a lot of things. Once they decide to enter the war, we will know it.
I want to bring us back to your childhood. What was it like in Al-Ghazieh, your hometown in south Lebanon? And what was it like to grow up with Hezbollah?
I was born in 1974. Hezbollah started in 1982. In 1982, when they decided to launch themselves, it was clear that they were an Islamic movement first. Everybody realized that they were there to do resistance work, but the concern was more like they’re very, very Islamist. They were much more aggressive when it came to freedoms back then. They realized later that they couldn’t do this if they wanted public support, they needed to focus on the resistance rather than on the Islamic state. So they have become less aggressive religiously throughout the years. But back then, they were very religious. They would try to force every woman to put on the veil. It was very aggressive.
Then they became more political: Okay, you don’t want to wear the veil, that’s fine with us. You don’t want to be religious. That’s fine with us, you can say whatever you want. You can dance on the tables naked if you want, as long as you are not critical of the resistance. That was the red line.
Of course, they’d rather have an Islamic state in Lebanon, but they’re pragmatic and they realize that it’s not easy to do that. I go through all these shifts and crossroads in the book that I published recently, Hezbollahland: Mapping Dahiya and Lebanon’s Shia Community.
Investigative journalism about Hezbollah’s operations and status, about Iranians’ presence in Syria—that’s a big no, forget it.
In summary, Hezbollah started as a very popular movement. It was very difficult to be critical of them, because people didn’t understand why you were critical; “The resistance, what’s wrong with you? They’re liberating the land.” There were a number of phases before 2000, but 2000 [Israeli withdrawal and collapse of South Lebanon Army] was their peak with the liberation and the celebrations. People said, “The Israelis are out, Hezbollah’s great.” It was downhill from there for them in terms of popular support.
In 2006 [the Israel-Hezbollah War], people didn’t feel the same because of the destruction and the fact that Hezbollah started it and its leader said, “I did not know that this was going to happen.” No one took him seriously. But still, people celebrated the “divine” victory. But then again, Syria happened and people started asking questions, even before May 7, 2008. That was the first time Hezbollah pointed their guns against the Lebanese people, and that raised eyebrows.
And then the big, big, big shift in terms of not just the Lebanese, but the Shia community as well, was the 2019 protests when Hezbollah decided that they were going to protect the corrupt political elite against the protesters and against justice. They protected corruption against the genuine change demanded by the street, culminating in the Beirut port explosion. And they have threatened everyone who is trying to find the truth about the Beirut port explosion, including the judge and staff who are investigating it.
This led to widespread criticism and dislike and anger toward Hezbollah. Their image as a resistance group shattered completely as they became more of a drug cartel or militia or gang that protects corruption. And now one of the gains that they’re trying to take advantage of is revitalizing, re-energizing the resistance narrative whereby they say, “See, we’re still supporting the resistance.”
It’s a dilemma for them because if they go into war, the resistance narrative will become so much more vibrant. But they will lose the advantage that they have in weaponry. If they don’t go to war, they will maintain their advantage, but they will not be able to take advantage of their resistance narrative.
Is Hezbollah mostly unwelcome in Lebanon at this point?
People don’t like them at all. If you’re a Shia and you say something critical, they will come after you and they will kill you if you become too much of a danger to them. People are very afraid. Hezbollah are assassinating dissidents. There’s a real fear among the silent majority of the Shia population, but they’re silent because if they start speaking out, it becomes very dangerous for them. It’s like North Korea in the south for the Shia. Those who are speaking on behalf of Hezbollah are allowed to speak because they’re supportive.
Which brings us back to journalism. Lebanon was a country where many international journalists were based. It had a cosmopolitan civil society and a very diverse population, Sunni, Shiites, Christians, and an active press. What is happening to journalists in Lebanon today?
There are journalists, the media is still there but it’s shrinking. Compared to many places in the Arab world, we’re great. That being said, journalists are allowed to discuss anything but Hezbollah. You are free to talk about their opponents and allies. But when it comes to Hezbollah and the Iranian occupation of Lebanon, this is where you are crossing a red line. I’m not saying that people don’t go on TV and criticize Hezbollah. Many do, and that’s fine by them. But it becomes very dangerous for you when you start hurting them with real evidence or information, or with popular opinion.
Investigative journalism about Hezbollah’s operations, about Hezbollah status, about Iranians’ presence in Syria—that’s a big no, forget it. When you become a danger, they go after you. The moment my friend and fellow journalist Lokman Slim became a danger, they started threatening him. And in 2021 when he started showing evidence of them being responsible for the Beirut port explosion and going on TV talking about it, they killed him.
I’m so sorry you lost your friend.
I’ve lost many.
One last question. Should we be worried about the Syrian section of the Israeli border?
While the Lebanese front is boiling, we should not ignore what’s happening on the Syria-Israel front, the Golan. There has been a lot of activity there by the Iranians bringing in hundreds and hundreds of Syrian proxies along the border. Iran’s proxy groups in Syria have the same access to precision missiles. We shouldn’t ignore a scenario where there’ll be a multi-front against Israel. Iran might use the Golan front to spare Hezbollah’s advantage in Lebanon.
This interview was conducted on October 17, 2023, and edited for clarity and space. The eponymous MomentLive! Program with Hanin Ghaddar and Nadine Epstein is available here. Access Moment‘s ongoing coverage of the Hamas-Israel war here.