Hizbullah faces up to new challenges in Lebanese domestic politics

Developing Just Leadership

Abbas Fadl Murtada

Shawwal 09, 1427 2006-11-01

Occupied Arab World

by Abbas Fadl Murtada (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 9, Shawwal, 1427)

The guns of Israel’s war of aggression had hardly fallen silent in August when Hizbullah, which emerged victorious after its fighters fought the most powerful military machine in the Middle East to a standstill, found itself in a number of domestic political battles. Some of the bones of contention are related to post-war reconstruction and the future makeup of the Lebanese cabinet; other issues are enmeshed with US-led efforts to disarm Hizbullah and put an end to its role as a resistance movement. Although arms are not deployed in such political battles, their outcome might well be as important as the military confrontation with Israel.

Israel’s weaponry still killing, maiming in Lebanon

Over two months after the end of Israel’s 34-day assault onLebanon, Lebanese civilians are still suffering the after-effects of the illegal and experimental weapons that it used. Dozens of children like 6-year-old Abbas Abbas (right) have been killed or maimed by unexploded cluster bombs, which are designed to scatter over a wide area and cause maximum damage for weeks or months. Abbas was injured in Blida when a cluster bomblet exploded close to where he was playing on August 26. Israel is known to have fired thousands of such bombs in the final three days of the war, when a ceasefire was pending. These could only have been intended to cause problems to returning civilians after the war, rather than having any immediately military purpose.

Last month, Israel was also forced to admit having used phosphorus bombs, which are rstricted under the third protocol of the Geneva conventions because of the appalling burns that they cause. Israel initially denied having used such bombs, which it also used during its invasion of Lebanon in 1982, but was forced to admit it when presented with evidence from Lebanese and international medical groups.

The Independent of London also revealed on October 28 that Israelhad used a previously unknown uranium-based weapon during the war. Soil samples taken from the sites of Israeli missile strikes were found to contain “elevated radiation signatures”. One possible explanation put forward is the use of “a small experimental nuclear device”. Another is that Israel used enriched uranium, (possibly nuclear waste) instead of depleted uranium, in its bombs. Enriched uranium is far more radioactive than depleted uranium.

The implications of these possibilities are extremely serious. USforces used depleted uranium in Iraq in 1991, resulting in subsequent increases in cancer rates and birth defects. The effects of Israel’s use of enriched uranium in Lebanon may not be known for years.

Even during the war, when expressions of “national unity” in the face of aggression dominated most of the rhetoric of Lebanon’s leaders, there were repeated signs of rifts between Hizbullah and its Lebanese adversaries. Immediately after Hizbullah’s operation on July 12, which resulted in the capture of two Israeli soldiers, the Lebanese government tried to distance itself from the Islamic resistance movement. Prime minister Fouad al-Siniora and other government officials repeatedly denied any knowledge of, or responsibility for, the attack. Sa’ad al-Hariri, son of the slain former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri and head of the Tayyar al-Mustaqbal (“future current”), was among a number of Lebanese officials who declared that, when the aggression is over, those who took Lebanon to war, that is Hizbullah, would be held accountable for their actions. For his part, Walid Jumblatt, leader of the predominantly Druze Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) and a close ally of Hariri, accused Hizbullah of deliberately igniting the war to serve the interests of a Syrian-Iranian axis.

Sa’ad al-Hariri is the nominal head of the so-called Alliance of March 14th Forces, which enjoys a parliamentary majority of 72 out of a total of 128 seats. The coalition came into being after the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in a massive truck bomb on February 14, 2005. The assassination sparked a groundswell of anti-Syrian protest and galvanized intense international pressure for the withdrawal of Syrian troops and intelligence services from Lebanon. The alliance, named after the date of the largest anti-Syrian protest held in 2005, is comprised of Hariri’s Future Current with Jumblatt’s PSP and several other Christian groups and politicians, the vast majority of whom are critics and opponents of Hizbullah. Originally, it included General Michel Aoun’s al-Tayyar al-Watani al-Hurr (“the free patriotic current”). But Aoun, a Maronite Christian and a former military commander of the Lebanese army, and also a former prime minister, soon parted company with the alliance, amid severe mutual public recriminations, accusations and mudslinging. Aoun has a reputation as a staunch opponent of Syria. He returned toLebanon in 2005 after having spent fourteen years in exile in France after an abortive war that he led in 1989-1990, trying to expel Syrian troops from Lebanon.

With the post-war deployment of some 15,000 Lebanese army troops in southern Lebanon, aided by an international peacekeeping force, a long-running debate over the future role of the resistance and the disarmament of Hizbullah flared up again. UN security council resolution 1701, which ended hostilities, underscored the “importance of the extension of the control of the Government of Lebanon over all Lebanese territory” and the need for the “disarmament of all armed groups” – a veiled reference to Hizbullah. But it left this task to the Lebanese government. The fact that the government simply cannot disarm Hizbullah has not been lost on the leaders of the resistance movement. “If Israel, with all its military might, could not disarm Hizbullah, then no one should think about disarming it,” Nawwaf al-Musawi, head of the party’s foreign relations department, said recently.

The disarmament of Hizbullah became the subject of intense debate in Lebanon after Hariri’s assassination. After the Syrian withdrawal at the end of April 2005, pressure intensified on Hizbullah to disarm and assimilate its combatant units into the centralized military structure of the state. Yet the resistance movement was adamant that it would retain its weapons until after the liberation of the Sheba’ah Farms and the release of all Lebanese prisoners from Israeli jails, and even then disarm only on the condition that a credible alternative strategy is found for defending the country from Israeli aggression and violations of Lebanese sovereignty. Disarmament of Hizbullah was among a host of issues discussed in a series of talks between leaders from across the Lebanese political spectrum started in March. Other issues brought to the table in these rounds of talks, collectively known as the Lebanese National Dialogue, included the normalization of bilateral relations with Syria, the disarmament of Palestinian military groups active in the country, and the replacement of pro-Syria president Emile Lahoud. But the recent war has disrupted the National Dialogue and the talks are unlikely to resume in the near future, leaving these contentious issues unresolved.

Political differences degenerated into a war of words after the massive rally on September 22 that Hizbullah organised to celebrate its “divine victory” over Israel. In a passionate speech at the rally, Hizbullah secretary-general Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah criticizedSiniora’s government as lacking the ability to “protect, unite and reconstruct Lebanon” and called for a “national unity government”that would bring General Aoun’s Free Patriots, as well as other parties not represented in the cabinet, into the government. He also emphasised that Hizbullah would only engage in a dialogue over disarmament after “we build a strong and just state that is capable of protecting the nation and the citizens.” The next day Nasrallah and parliament speaker Nabih Berry, also the head of the predominantly Shi’a Amal Movement, issued a joint statement defending the right of Hizbullah to keep its weapons “until Israelcompletely withdraws from occupied Lebanese territory, the release of prisoners from the enemy’s prisons and a halt to continuous breaches to Lebanon’s sovereignty.”

Constituent groups of the March 14th Alliance were quick to denounce Hizbullah’s call for a national unity government. Circles associated with Hariri and Siniora sought to close all possible discussion of the issue by arguing that the process of changing the government starts with removing president Lahoud from office, because the constitution mandates the formation of a new cabinet upon the election of a new president. A harsh and abrasive response came from Druze leader Jumblatt. “When you distance yourself from the Syrian leadership,” he addressed Hizbullah in statements to the press, “I will possibly hold a dialogue with you.” For his part, Samir Geagea, the leader of the Christian political group Lebanese Forces, which is notorious for having obtained Israeli support throughout the years of the civil war, demanded that Hizbullah should disarm, and accused it of acting as a state within the state. “They demand a strong state, but how can a strong state be built with a statelet within its midst?” Geagea asked in a speech he delivered on September 24 at a memorial mass for the “martyrs of the Lebanese Forces” held at the Marian Shrine in Harissa, one of the most holy places for Maronite Christians in Lebanon.

The war and its devastating effects have also cast the issue of reconstruction into sharp focus. Hizbullah launched its reconstruction campaign immediately after the cessation of hostilities on August 14. The party handed out $12,000 to families that had lost homes in the hard-hit areas in the southern villages and the southern suburbs of Beirut to cover rent on new housing for one year, as well as furniture costs. This should enable thousands of families to secure decent housing while work on rebuilding and repairing their damaged and destroyed properties is underway. This move thrust reconstruction to a centre stage in the war-ravaged country. There are indications that the government wanted to use reconstruction as a pressure card in its growing political battle with Hizbullah. However, the party’s speedy, robust, efficient and transparent relief and reconstruction campaign not only undermined this scheme, but also exposed the government for what it actually is – a slow and cumbersome edifice of bureaucracy that is rife with corruption, misuse of resources, and red tape.

It was only on October 15, two month after the cessation of hostilities, and following an avalanche of criticisms directed at his government’s poor performance, that Siniora announced compensation for homeowners whose property was destroyed by the Israeli war machine. But the government’s compensation programme has been criticized on a number of counts. The grants will be paid in two instalments, with no clear date set for the payment of the second instalment. Compensation for homeowners in the southern suburbs of Beirut was arbitrarily set at 80 million Lebanese liras (around $53,000), whereas those whose property was destroyed elsewhere would receive 50 million Lebanese liras plus 10 million Lebanese liras for furniture costs (around $40,000 in total). The government will compensate only homeowners who have deeds for their properties, which excludes the thousands of affected homeowners who have no proper documentation for their properties. And government grants will not fully cover homeowners still financing the purchase of their homes. The government’s compensation scheme also left businesses out of the pool of potential beneficiaries, promising to move at an unspecified later date to take measures to compensate businesses.

The widening political rifts in Lebanon have given rise to fears that the country is lurching towards the precipice of civil war. Many observers have warned that the failure to ease the current heightened polarisation in the country will push the Lebanese political system to break down, leading to sectarian civil war similar to the one which ravaged the country between 1975 and 1990. But there are numerous factors mitigating the possibility of rekindling communal civil strife in Lebanon. For one thing, Hizbullah’s leadership has been very keen to couch the debate over the various contentious issues in supra-communal, national political vocabulary, rather than in sectarian rhetoric. For another, Hizbullah has been making great efforts to reach out to non-Shi’a leaders and communities. In addition, Hizbullah leaders have long been adamant that the party’s arsenal, and its military achievements in the battlefield againstIsrael, will never be employed to score points in the many domestic political crises gripping the country. For Hizbullah, the resistance is above political polarisation and sectarian schisms. Many other leaders, including anti-Hizbullah ones, have also shown reluctance to escalate tensions to the extent of internecine strife. Painful memories of the destruction and bloodshed brought about by the civil war serve as reminder for Lebanese politicians of the importance of warding off the possibility of inter-communal strife.

More importantly, the current political alignments in the country transcend sectarian divides. Whereas the Shi’as, who with an estimated 35 percent of the population form the largest community in Lebanon, overwhelmingly support Hizbullah, the loyalties of Maronite Christians, who make up the largest Christian sect in the country with an estimated 20-25 percent of the population, are divided between forces aligned with Hizbullah and others opposed to it. Chief among pro-Hizbullah Maronites are General Aoun’s Free Patriotic Current, which commands a 21-member bloc in parliament; former interior minister Sulayman Franjieh’s al-Maradah Current; and the country’s pro-Syria president Lahoud. The Sunnis, wiho are approximately 20 percent of the population, overwhelmingly support Hariri’s Future Current. But many influential Sunni leaders, such as former prime minister Omar Karami and Osama Sa’ad, head of the Arab nationalist Popular Nasserite Organization, are supportive of Hizbullah and want to maintain special relations with Syria. The same applies to the Druze community, which, with an estimated 10-12 percent of the population, overwhelmingly supports Jumblatt. A number of prominent Druze leaders, such as Talah Arslan, head of the Lebanese Democratic Party, and former minister of the environment Wi’am Wahhab, head of the Lebanese Unification Party, have come out strongly in support of Hizbullah. While such political alignments are potentially changing and fluid, as well as often short-term, patterns of alliances exerting shifting pressures on the political system, the fact remains that the resulting alignments do not coincide with the various sects and communities within Lebanon. Clearly, a process of ebb and flow in such issue-oriented alliances transcends parochial communal interests and, as such, helps obviate the possibility that sectarian tensions will get out of control.

These controversial issues will probably come to a head this month (November). Hizbullah and its allies have deliberately tried to calm things down during Ramadan. Throughout the holy month, Beirut was rife with expectations that after Eid the Hizbullah-led opposition would stage a wave of large-scale demonstrations with the aim of bringing down an increasingly unpopular government, riddled with nepotism and incompetence. A recent poll published by the Beirut Centre for Research and Information found that 70 percent of the population supports the formation of a national unity government. The campaign to bring Siniora’s government down would be accompanied or followed by a push for early parliamentary elections that would redraw the makeup of parliament in a way that reflects more accurately the popular weight of various political groups. The current parliamentary majority enjoyed by the March 14th Forces is increasingly seen as a “fictitious majority” (“akthariyyah wahmiyyah”).

If successful, Hizbullah and its allies will bring about a change in Lebanese politics that might ultimately contribute to bridging the many divides in a schismatic country and building a more powerful state.

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