IT was way back in 1997 that I found myself sitting opposite the man who founded the Lebanese Shia Islamist political party and militant group, Hezbollah.

For weeks as a young ­journalist based in Beirut, I had been trying to gain an interview with the elusive Lebanese cleric Shaykh Subhi al-Tufayli who served as Hezbollah’s first secretary-general from 1989 to 1991.   

By then Tufayli was on the cusp of ­being expelled from the organisation he ­founded but still found himself an ­influential and controversial figure in Lebanese politics having been behind the movement that became known as the ­“Revolt of the Hungry”.  

In essence, Tufayli’s movement was in support of the poorer sections of ­society and directed its wrath towards the ­Lebanese government’s ­service-oriented economic policies. Over time the ­Revolt of the Hungry morphed into an ­insurrectional movement based in ­Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley.

It was from there that Tufayli called for “public mutiny and civil disobedience” and his movement became increasingly difficult for the Lebanese government to manage. So much so that he ­eventually was forced to flee, mostly likely to Syria, but not before I had managed to interview him. 

I mention all this because in the two and a half hours I spent listening to Tufayli in an office in Hezbollah’s heartland in the southern suburbs of Beirut, I believed at the time he had said things of real ­significance only to realise when playing back the recording of the interview that it was a masterclass in obfuscation.  

I had the same feeling on Friday as I listened to the much-hyped ­televised speech of Tufayli’s contemporary ­counterpart, Hassan Nasrallah (below left), the ­current leader of Hezbollah.  

The National: Hassan Nasrallah, left, is the leader of Hezbollah (AP)

To say that many across the Middle East and beyond had been waiting with bated breath to hear whether Nasrallah would declare all-out war on Israel in ­support of Hamas in Gaza, would be an ­understatement.   

Such was the tension in Lebanon in ­advance of the speech that some ­Lebanese stocked up on food and fuel while ­others packed bags in case they needed to rush to the airport. All were ­waiting on ­Nasrallah, a man with no formal ­position in ­government, deciding whether ­Lebanon went to war. Even ­Lebanon’s prime minister, Najib Mikati, admitted the decision was out of his hands.  

Speaking at considerable length the first impression was that Nasrallah – just like Tufayli back in 1997 – in this carefully calibrated speech, was conducting an ­exercise in appearing to say much when actually saying little. But on a second and more considered listen of ­Nasrallah’s first speech since the Israel-Hamas war ­erupted on October 7, it quickly ­became clear that there were a number of ­significant takes from the address.  

Amidst the bluster and bombast, ­Nasrallah had three main messages. The first was that he had had no prior ­knowledge of the Hamas attack on ­Israel that resulted in the killing of 1400 ­Israelis. It was, Nasrallah insisted, “100% ­Palestinian” and said it was kept secret from Hezbollah, other Palestinian ­factions and their common patron Iran.  

Nasrallah’s second message was to call for a ceasefire in Gaza – and urge other people to make it happen while ­simultaneously urging other Arab and Muslim states to bring whatever pressure to bear that they could such as imposing an oil-and-gas embargo on Israel.   

In the third key component of ­Nasrallah’s speech, he also detailed how Hezbollah through its attacks on the Lebanon-Israel border was forcing Israel to commit forces in the north thus aiding Hamas in Gaza in the south.   

Overall, Middle East analysts ­concluded that Nasrallah’s address seemed aimed at inciting the group’s followers without ­explicitly calling for an escalation. The Hezbollah leader is doubtless aware that among the Lebanese, there is little desire for a full-fledged war with Israel.  

Any all-out war between Hezbollah and Israel, last seen in 2006, would be immensely damaging for both sides and could draw in the US and Iran. It would test Israel’s ability to wage war on ­multiple fronts for the first time in 50 years, and it would destabilise Lebanon further after years of economic crisis.

A poll published by al-Akhbar, a ­newspaper sympathetic to Hezbollah, found that 68% of Lebanese people did not ­support all-out war and even among ­Lebanese Shias, the main base of ­Hezbollah’s support, opinions were mixed – 51% were in favour of war while 49% opposed it.  

“Nasrallah did two things – he explained how his strategy has been effective, and also said that the group’s approach could change depending on what happens in Gaza and what Israel does in ­Lebanon,” observed Rym Momtaz, a consultant ­research fellow at the International ­Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).   

Speaking to the Financial Times, Momtaz echoed the views of other ­Middle East watchers who believe that while ­Nasrallah was careful not to proclaim all-out war, “he still left room for things to escalate should he need to”.  

“Your threats on our region don’t work,” Nasrallah said, warning the US that a wider war could break out if it did not rein in its ally Israel.   

“You Americans know very well that if war breaks out in the region … the ones who will pay the utmost price are your ­interests, your soldiers and your fleets.”  

Despite such fiery rhetoric though, all in Nasrallah’s speech suggested that for the moment at least he and ­Hezbollah will preserve the status quo even if the ­continuing threat of wider war still ­cannot be dismissed.   

But while many – for now at least – across the region have breathed a sigh of relief over Hezbollah’s apparent ­restraint, others have been ­expressing their ­growing concern regarding the ­forcible ­displacement of Palestinians and a ­dramatic escalation of Israeli settler ­violence in the West Bank.   

For while much of the world’s ­attention has been focused on Israel’s relentless bombing campaign and ground offensive in Gaza, in the West Bank where millions of Palestinians live, more than a hundred have been killed as ­Israeli settlers – often with the support of the army – have kicked Palestinian families off their land.  

Under a legal phrase that describes such a process as creating a “coercive environment”, Palestinian communities have been under threat and pressure of military and settler violence for years ­already, but lately that has intensified.  

“Wait for the Great Nakba”, goes the warning of forced mass displacement that settlers have been spreading across the West Bank as intimidation and violence reach levels not seen in decades.  

In some areas near the ­Palestinian town of Nablus, it’s not uncommon – ­according to eyewitness reports cited by the Financial Times – to see walls with plastered posters depicting a picture of a lion and quoting Talmudic scripture that ­Israelis have long used to justify ­pre-emptive ­killing: “Rise Up and Kill First.”  

This year was already the deadliest in at least 15 years for West Bank ­residents, with some 200 Palestinians and 26 ­Israelis killed, according to UN data. But just in the three weeks since ­Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, another 121 West Bank Palestinians have been killed.­ Meanwhile, 1512 Palestinians have been arrested according to prison data given to Hamoked, an Israeli human rights organisation and more than 700 are being held without charges.  

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OHCA), settler violence has gone from an already high average of three incidents per day in 2023 to seven a day now. ­Access restrictions, typically imposed by the ­Israeli authorities, have also intensified throughout the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.   

These are particularly severe in areas near Israeli settlements and in the ­so-called “Seam Zone”, the Palestinian area isolated by Israel’s 440-mile ­separation barrier in the West Bank.  

According to B’Tselem – the Jerusalem-based non-profit organisation whose ­stated goals are to document human rights ­violations in the ­Israeli-occupied ­Palestinian territories – in the last three weeks, 858 Palestinians from 32 ­communities – including 13 whole communities – have been forcibly ­displaced and the numbers increase every day.  

Settler-related violence is becoming harder to stem with the ongoing Gaza war and the augmented power of far-right ­politicians, Israeli security experts say.  

“There’s a great danger (from) extreme right activists in the West Bank,” said Lior Akerman, a former officer in Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service who was quoted recently by Reuters news agency.  

Settlers are using the deployment of ­soldiers to Gaza and northern Israel, where troops are fighting Lebanese ­Hezbollah, to wage unimpeded attacks, he said. “The army is now even busier, which allows (settlers) to operate freely.  

“They also receive support from ­representatives of the government ... which makes it difficult for security ­organisations,” he added.  

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin ­Netanyahu (below), had already appointed a number of extreme right-wing ministers as part of his cabinet last year to secure another term.   

The National: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Just last Wednesday, The Times of Israel reported that ultra-nationalist member of the Knesset (MK) and radical settlement activist Tzvi Sukkot was appointed to serve as the chair of the Knesset Subcommittee for Judea and Samaria, aka the West Bank, under the permanent Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee.  

Sukkot’s extremist activities have not stopped since he became an MK and he was arrested at least three times for ­violence against Palestinians. So ­radical were his views that the Israeli army ­rejected him as “unsuitable” for military service.  

Israeli Opposition MKs condemned Sukkot’s appointment, with Labor leader MK Merav Michaeli calling him “one of the most dangerous people in Israel, a racist, pyromaniac, terror supporter, Shin Bet target”.  

AS the war escalates in Gaza as does settler violence in the West Bank, and some analysts are now questioning whether Israel’s approach to the two territories is linked.  

In a recent interview with The New Yorker, Hagai El-Ad, an Israeli ­activist and the former executive director of B’Tselem,  was unequivocal in his assessment of what is going on.  

“Some readers might think that there is a distinction between potentially ‘bad ­settlers’ and the Israeli state. The ­question is to what extent is the state ­effective in handling these ‘bad ­settlers’?” El-Ad said.  

“This is the wrong way of thinking about it. The uprooting of Palestinian communities all over the West Bank is not a project of the settlers, the bad ones, the good ones, or the other ones. It is a state project,” El-Ad insisted.  

“All of these policies have been in place in a variety of ways. There are legal mechanisms that the state has been using to take land from Palestinians and settle Jewish communities on it instead … but that is the way things have been ­unfolding in the West Bank for more than half a ­century already.”   

In a latest sign of such mechanisms, Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s far-right ­finance minister, a settler himself who has described the Palestinian people as “an invention,” has initiated moves to stop the transfer of about $500 ­million to the Palestinian Authority (PA), which ­administers the West Bank, meaning a further economic hit to an already ­struggling area.   

Israel collects the money from ­customs and other taxes on behalf of the PA, which uses the funds to pay salaries and run its limited administration. 

Smotrich’s actions have led some ­Israeli commentators to accuse him of ­“warmongering in the West Bank”.    

Having responsibility for handing Smotrich and other ultranationalist settlers such authority, ultimately of course leads back to Netanyahu himself.  

As a result, many both inside Israel and beyond, now believe Netanyahu’s ­political days are numbered and that the writing was already on the wall long before the current war with Hamas .   

These past days, Politico magazine even cited two senior US officials as saying that the Biden administration believes that Netanyahu has limited time left in office.  

“There’s going to have to be a ­reckoning within Israeli society about what ­happened,” said one official who, like ­others, Politico says was granted ­anonymity to detail private conversations. “Ultimately, the buck stops on the prime minister’s desk.”  

While Israelis continue to rally to the flag following the deadliest attack on their country in its 75-year history, there is no disguising the ­considerable ­disgruntlement and anger with ­Netanyahu. While events in Gaza remain the focus of attention, all eyes now are also on other shifting lines of ­confrontation across the region and scores that ­remain to be settled.