BEIRUT — The leader of the Shiite Lebanese militant group Hezbollah warned Israel against pushing the region into war on Sunday as supporters and other Shiite Muslims marked the Ashoura holiday with rallies, prayers, and self-flagellation.
Hassan Nasrallah told observers in a televised speech that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was working with U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration to undermine the Iran nuclear deal and start a regional war. He warned Israel not to underestimate Hezbollah’s capabilities.
“The current Israeli government, presided over by Netanyahu is leading its people to death and destruction,” he warned. “I can confirm that they do not have an accurate idea of what is waiting for them if they embark on this stupid war.”
It was his final sermon to the customary ten days of speeches addressing religious and political matters that lead up to Ashoura.
The somber holiday marks the killing of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, the Imam Hussein, by a rival Muslim faction in Karbala, present day Iraq, in 680 A.D. Hussein and his descendants are seen by Shiites as the rightful heirs to the prophet; his death is attributed with cementing the schism between Shiite and Sunni Islam.
Thousands of families attended Hezbollah’s main rally under fair skies in south Beirut, waving richly colored banners to commemorate Hussein’s martyrdom, and Palestine, a leading cause in Hezbollah’s political program. Children were adorned with the customary green and yellow ribbons that mark Hezbollah rallies. Posters picturing Nasrallah and Iranian Ayatollahs Ali Khamenei and Ruhollah Khomeini featured prominently in the march.
Hezbollah’s empowering and militant ideology, modeled after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, found a receptive ear among Shiites, a traditionally marginalized community in Lebanon. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have guided, financed, and equipped Hezbollah since establishing the group around 1982.
But when Nasrallah did not appear at the rally in person — he usually speaks by video link, for his own security — attendees began to stream out, some carrying with them their posters of the secretary general and of relatives killed fighting in the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Under Nasrallah’s leadership, more than a thousand fighters, including some of Hezbollah’s most decorated veterans, have been killed fighting on the side of President Bashar Assad. Hezbollah’s participation has cost it some of its more diffuse, cross-sectarian support in Lebanon and further polarized a country already riven with political divisions. Nasrallah says the war in Syria is a “war on terror.”
Hezbollah has long prohibited self-flagellation at its Ashoura rally in Beirut, urging supporters to donate blood instead. In some communities, the devout cut their foreheads and flay their backs to repent for Hussein’s death.
There are no such restrictions in the southern Lebanese city of Nabatiyeh, known for its sanguinary Ashoura commemorations.
Men and women at mosques in central Nabatiyeh offered their brows to receive a razor’s nick and tapped their foreheads to keep the wounds from closing.
A girl of about five was seen hitting her head with a saber, as men slapped the pavement around her with swords and chanted a nickname for the Imam Ali, the father of Hussein.
Blood soaked through their white attire and trickled down the streets.
Associated Press cameraman Mohamad Anouti in Nabatiyeh, Lebanon contributed to this report.