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What is Hezbollah and what does Lebanon have to do with the Israel-Hamas war?

Israel targets Hezbollah leaders in Lebanon
Why Israel is targeting Hezbollah leaders in Lebanon 03:43

As the Israeli military and the militant group Hezbollah exchange fire over the border separating southern Lebanon and northern Israel, there are fears the raging war between Israel and Hamas could ignite a wider regional conflict. 

Below is a look at what's going on, the background to the long-simmering tension between Israel and Hezbollah, and what the risks are for the region and the world.

What is happening now along the Lebanon-Israel border?

Israel has acknowledged assassinating Hezbollah's most senior military commander in the south of Lebanon, with Foreign Minister Israel Katz offering an unusual public confirmation in a TV interview. Several other high-profile figures from the group have also been killed. 

Almost daily since the Israel-Hamas war began on Oct. 7, Hezbollah rockets have struck Israeli positions, including military posts, in northern Israel. Israel has also hit targets in southern Lebanon, and tens of thousands of people from border communities in both countries have been evacuated.

Part of the Southern District of Israel, political map, with the Gaza Strip
A map shows Israel, the Palestinian territories and surrounding countries. Getty/iStockphoto

What is Hezbollah?

Modern-day Lebanon was founded in 1920 under a sectarian system that saw official government positions shared out among a number of recognized religious sects in the country.

The militant group Hezbollah was formed in 1982 as a Shiite Muslim political and military force with the support of Iran and Syria after an Israeli invasion of Lebanon. It operates within the Lebanese government as a political party, but also outside of it, providing services to its Shiite followers and maintaining its own paramilitary force. 

What to know about Hezbollah as militant group exchanges fire with Israel 07:40

While not a recognized military, Hezbollah's top leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said last year that the group had some 100,000 fighters at its disposal, and it's believed to be a better equipped, larger fighting force than Lebanon's state military.

Like its smaller, similarly Iran-backed Hamas allies, Hezbollah has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States government for almost two decades, and several of its leaders, including Nasrallah, are listed as global terrorists. 

What does Lebanon have to do with the Israel-Hamas war?

Lebanon is a country of about 5.3 million people just to the north of Israel. The two nations have fought multiple wars.

When the state of Israel was established in 1948, more than 100,000 Palestinian refugees fled to Lebanon. The United Nations aid agency for Palestinians says there are currently between 200,000 and 250,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, many of whom have been left impoverished due to "decades of structural discrimination related to employment opportunities and denial of the right to own property."

After Israel responded to Hamas' Oct. 7 terror attack by launching the war in Gaza to dismantle the group, Hezbollah started attacking targets in northern Israel in support of Hamas and the Palestinian people. 

Hezbollah has said it did not know the Oct. 7 attack was coming ahead of time, and it is not believed to coordinate extensively with Hamas.

Iran's "resistance front" and the prospect of a wider war

Iran supports both Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as the Houthi rebel movement in Yemen that has been attacking ships in the Red Sea, severely impacting maritime trade through the vital shipping passage. 

All of the Iran-backed groups have said their actions are in support of the Palestinian people, and none of them acknowledge any orchestration or coordination with Iran, which denies any role in the attacks.

"There is, as Iran calls it, a resistance front, that everybody will support Hamas [in its fight against Israel], that it will be not only supported with arms but also with money, and will be supported diplomatically," Sima Shine, head of the Iran program at the Institute for National Security Studies, told CBS News. 

Shine said Hezbollah likely would not want to engage in a war directly with Israel right now, in part due to the chaotic domestic political situation in Lebanon — a state she describes as "really on the verge of bankruptcy."

"The anti-Hezbollah motivation within Lebanon, and the fear of escalating the situation in Lebanon into a more difficult economic situation… I think this is also a very important reason" for the group to try to avert a full-scale war, Shine said.

Hezbollah holds so much power within Lebanon that the nation's wider government likely has little scope to decide whether a full war with Israel is fought or not. That decision lies ultimately with Hezbollah's leaders — and their sponsors in Iran.

According to a statement by Israel's government, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told visiting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday, Jan. 9, that "an increase in the pressure placed on Iran is critical and may prevent regional escalation in additional arenas."

Amid the ongoing clashes with Israel's military, Hezbollah's leaders have continued to frame their attacks as responses to Israel's actions and say publicly that they are not looking for a wider war.

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