Hezbollah leader set to weigh in on Middle East war

Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters via a screen during a rally marking Prophet Mohammed's birthday, in Beirut suburbs
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BEIRUT (Reuters) -Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah will on Friday make his first public comments since the Palestinian group Hamas and Israel went to war, a speech that will be scrutinised for clues on how the group's role in the conflict might evolve.

A formidable military force backed by Iran, Hezbollah has been engaging Israeli forces along the border, where 55 of its fighters have been killed in the deadliest escalation since it fought a war with Israel in 2006.

On the eve of the speech, Hezbollah mounted what appeared to be its biggest attack yet in more than three weeks of fighting, saying it launched 19 simultaneous strikes on Israeli army positions and using explosive drones for the first time.

Israel responded with air strikes along with tank and artillery fire as the fighting on the border escalated.

However, with the clashes so far mostly contained to the frontier, Hezbollah has still only drawn on a fraction of the firepower with which Nasrallah has been threatening Israel for years.

Many people in Lebanon are anxiously awaiting the 3 p.m. (1300 GMT) speech, rattled for weeks by fear of a catastrophic conflict. Some say they are not making plans beyond Friday, believing his remarks will signal the chances of escalation.

The speech is also being anticipated more widely. Nasrallah is a leading voice in a regional military alliance established by Iran to counter the United States and Israel.

Known as the "Axis of Resistance" it includes Shi'ite Muslim Iraqi militias which have been firing at U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq, and Yemen's Houthis, who have waded into the conflict by firing drones at Israel.

Wearing the black turban of a sayyed, or a descendent of the Prophet Mohammad, and Shi'ite clerical robes, Nasrallah is one of the most prominent figures in the Arab world.

Recognised even by critics as a skilled orator, his speeches have long been followed closely by friend and foe alike. He is deemed a terrorist by adversaries including the United States.

His fiery speeches during the 2006 war elevated his profile, including one in which he announced Hezbollah had struck an Israeli naval vessel with an anti-ship missile, urging viewers to "look to the sea".


While Nasrallah has stayed out of the public eye since Oct. 7, other Hezbollah officials have indicated the group's combat readiness. But they have not set any red lines in the conflict with Israel.

Asked on Oct. 22 why he had yet to speak, Hezbollah politician Hassan Fadlallah said Nasrallah was following the situation in Gaza "moment by moment and hour by hour" and overseeing the battle in Lebanon. Not speaking in public was "part of his management of the battle", he said.

The speech will be broadcast to coincide with rallies called by Hezbollah to honour fallen fighters.

Mutual threats of destruction have deterred Israel and Hezbollah from waging war across the Lebanese-Israeli frontier since 2006. Syria has meanwhile served as an arena for their conflict.

Sources familiar with Hezbollah's thinking say the group's attacks so far have been measured to avoid a big escalation, while keeping Israeli forces busy at the border.

Lebanon can ill afford another war with Israel. Many Lebanese are still reeling from the impact of a catastrophic financial collapse four years ago.

Israel has said it has no interest in a conflict on its northern frontier with Lebanon.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned Hezbollah against opening a second war front with Israel, saying that doing so would bring Israeli counter-strikes of "unimaginable" magnitude that would wreak devastation upon Lebanon.

(Writing by Tom Perry; editing by Angus MacSwan, William Maclean)