Who are Hezbollah and could they get involved in the Israeli-Hamas conflict?

Hezbollah fighters rise their group flags. Credit: AP

Hostilities between Hamas and Israel have so far been concentrated in central Gaza and the southern city of Khan Younis, but the militant group Hezbollah could pose a threat from the north.

Hezbollah is a Shia Muslim militia organisation based in Lebanon, which sits on Israel's northern border.

They have been the sworn enermy of Israel for decades and the group has often come into conflict with the Israeli Defence Force (IDF).

Since the outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, Hezbollah has traded blows with the IDF nearly every day.

Supporters of Hezbollah raise their fists as the group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, delivers a speech via video link. Credit: AP

More than 50 Hezbollah fighters and 10 militants with allied groups, as well as more than a dozen civilians, including a Reuters journalist, have been killed on the Lebanese side.

The prospect of invasion has led to Israel ordering the evacuation of 42 villages close to its border with Lebanon.

More than 150,000 people have fled to safer parts of the country. Lebanon has also evacuated citizens from its southern border.

Opening a new front in the country’s north could change the tide of the war, with Hezbollah’s military calibre far superior to that of Hamas.

Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah declared they had "already entered the battle on October 8" and claimed his forces were tying down the Israeli military.

Credit: ITV News

Who are Hezbollah?

Hezbollah is a radical Islamic militant and political force based in Lebanon. It has been designated a terrorist group by many Western countries.

They were founded in 1982 after the Lebanon War which saw Israel occupy much of the south of Lebanon.

The group specifically set out to copy the model set out by Ayatollah Khomeini's Iranian Revolution in 1979. Like Hamas, Hezbollah, are backed by the regime in Tehran.

Since then it has been an anti-Israel anti-western organisation that has fought in both the Lebanon Civil War and regularly against the IDF.

It has become a powerful force in the region with a large military that some say outnumbers Lebanon's own forces.

Hezbollah was one of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's backers during the civil war, with many of its militias proving to be some of the regime's best fighters.

This, combined with the fact it has become a legitimate part of Lebanese politics, has led to accusations that Hezbollah is a state within a state.

It currently holds 15 seats in the parliament and is part of the seven-party caretaker government.

Lebanese soldiers stand on a hill that overlooks an Israeli town as a man waves the Palestinian and Hezbollah flags. Credit: AP

The country is now bitterly divided between Hezbollah and its allies and opponents, paralysing the political system.

Hezbollah's rise to power in Lebanon has weakened the country's standing with international partners.

The Gulf states, who are largely anti-Iran, have backed away from it and Western supporters have become frustrated with the rampant corruption and mismanagement.

What is its relationship with Hamas?

Both Hezbollah and Hamas are backed by Iran, who provide them with training, funding and military equipment.

The two groups have become closer in recent years with many Hamas leaders now living in Beirut.

On January 2, an apparent Israeli drone strike hit an apartment in a building in a Shiite district of Beirut, killing Saleh Arouri, who was a founder of Hamas' military wing and had headed up the group's presence in the West Bank.

Hezbollah supporters carry the coffins of the two fighters who were killed by Israeli shelling. Credit: AP

Although they often support each other in their sparring with Israel, the two groups do have differences.

Hezbollah is not a Palestinian organisation and is Shia Muslim. Whereas Hamas and the vast majority of Palestinians are Sunni Muslims.

What has Hezbollah done during the recent conflict?

Hezbollah has launched near-daily rocket attacks from Lebanon into Israeli territory since the beginning of the conflict.

It has also allowed Hamas and other militant groups to carry out strikes from southern Lebanon.

Several militants and Israeli soldiers have been killed as a result of the fighting. But so far it does not seem Hezbollah is planning a full-scale military attack on Israel.

In a speech in November, Nasrallah said Hezbollah is prepared for all options, he declared, “and we can resort to them at any time.”

The fighting would “not be limited” to the scale seen so far, he added.

There has been significant diplomatic pressure placed on Hezbollah and Lebanon to ensure the fight between Hamas and Israel does not spread to new fronts.

However, the strike in Hezbollah's southern Beirut stronghold on January 2 could cause the low-intensity fighting along the Lebanon border to boil over into all-out war.

Much depends on how Hassan Nasrallah - who has led Hezbollah since an Israeli strike killed his predecessor in 1992 - chooses to respond.

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