BEIRUT (AP) — Celebratory gunshots rang out over Beirut as thousands packed into a square in the southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital on Friday to watch a televised speech by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the militant Lebanese Hezbollah group.
Nasrallah taunted Israel in his remarks, which were broadcast via a video-link. It was his first address to supporters since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, sparked by the Palestinian militants’ deadly Oct. 7 incursion into southern Israel.
The speech came a day after the most significant escalation in clashes between Hezbollah and Israeli forces on the Israel-Lebanon border since the war started — and on the same day as a visit to Israel by the top U.S. diplomat. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to urge protections for civilians in the fighting with Hamas, as Israeli troops tightened their encirclement of Gaza City.
In his lengthy remarks, Nasrallah praised the Hamas attack four weeks ago in which the militants attacked farming villages, towns and military posts in southern Israel. More than 1,400 people were killed in Israel in the attack.
“This great, large-scale operation was purely the result of Palestinian planning and implementation,” Nasrallah said, suggesting his militia had no part in the attack. “The great secrecy made this operation greatly successful.”
He also said that Oct. 7 had come as “proof that Israel is weaker than a spider’s web” and that one month into the war, it allegedly “has not been able to make any achievement.”
Nasrallah also criticized the strong U.S. backing of Israel in its bombardment of Gaza that has killed more than 9,000 people, mostly civilians. While U.S. officials in recent days have pushed more publicly for protecting civilians in Gaza, they have yet to call for a cease-fire.
The Hezbollah leader said President Joe Biden had made a “fake argument that Hamas cut off children’s heads (without) evidence, but stayed silent for the thousands of children in Gaza who were decapitated and their limbs were torn apart” by Israeli bombing.
Nasrallah’s speech had been widely anticipated throughout the region as a sign of whether the Israel-Hamas conflict would spiral into a regional war.
Hamas leaders have been pushing — sometimes publicly — for Hezbollah to widen its involvement. Nasrallah met last week in Beirut with senior Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri and with Ziad Nakhaleh of the allied group Islamic Jihad.
However, Hezbollah officials have avoided publicly setting a specific red line, saying vaguely that they would join the war if they see that Hamas is on the verge of defeat.
Since the beginning of the war, Hezbollah, an ally of Hamas, had taken calculated steps to keep Israel’s military busy on its border with Lebanon, but not to the extent of igniting an all-out war.
The Israeli military said seven of their soldiers and one civilian had been killed on the northern border as of Friday. More than 50 Hezbollah fighters and 10 militants with allied groups, as well as 10 civilians, including a Reuters journalist, have been killed on the Lebanese side of the border.
Israel considers the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group its most serious immediate threat, estimating that Hezbollah has around 150,000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel, as well as drones and surface-to-air and surface-to-sea missiles.
But a full-on conflict would also be costly for Hezbollah, which fought a 34-day war with Israel in 2006 that ended with a draw — but not before Israeli bombing reduced swaths of southern Lebanon, the eastern Bekaa Valley and Beirut’s southern suburbs to rubble.
A new all-out war would also displace hundreds of thousands of Hezbollah’s supporters and cause wide damage at a time when Lebanon is in the throes of a historic four-year economic meltdown.