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LEBANON: Internal Conflict in Chilling Rise

Analysis by Mona Alami

BEIRUT, Feb 11 2008 (IPS) - The year 2000 heralded the end of Israel’s occupation of Lebanon, with the exception of the much disputed enclave of the Shebaa Farms, located at the country’s southern western tip between Israel and Syria. Since then, concern over Hezbollah’s new role has been in the political spotlight, leading to a continuous rise in tensions, especially following the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

“Hezbollah is a national actor with a transnational ideology,” says Patrick Haeni from the think tank International Crisis Group. “Hezbollah believes in using its experience as a resistance movement against Israel as a successful management model for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”

The doctrine of Hezbollah, or the Party of God, is built on two pillars: moukawama (resistance against Israel) and moumanaa (immunisation against Western influence). As a consequence of the July 2006 war with Israel, however, Hezbollah faced a serious setback to its mission of ‘resistance’. The presence of the United Nation Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has made military missions more difficult for the Party of God, with troops stationed in South Lebanon – traditionally a Hezbollah stronghold – to act as a buffer between the militant group and Israel.

With confessional feelings on the rise, southerners increasingly fear they may be left with no place to go in the event of a conflict with Israel. “Some members of the Shia community have also expressed that little has been done in terms of safeguarding their security, such as building underground shelters and food storage facilities,” says Haeni.

With Hezbollah indirectly denied its resistance role, it has been focusing its current activities on mumanaa and working to reduce what it sees as growing western, particularly U.S., influence on Lebanon’s political scene. To solidify and strengthen its role in government, the group has been pushing hard to acquire a third plus one number of seats in Lebanon’s parliament.

One route Hezbollah has used to achieve its goals is through a series of joint protests along with Amal – a Shia party led by House Speaker Nabih Berri – and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) headed by General Michel Aoun.

For the past two years, the coalition of the three parties has comprised the main opposition to the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. In December 2006, the opposition, under the leadership of Hezbollah, set up an ongoing tent city in downtown Beirut, demanding resignation of the Siniora government and greater participation in the Lebanese government.

The lingering stalemate has culminated in recent months with a power vacuum at the head of state. Despite opposition and loyalists officially agreeing on a consensual candidate for the next Lebanese president, namely head of the Lebanese army General Michel Sleiman, the bickering over governmental seats has left the position vacant since former president Emile Lahoud left office on Nov. 23, 2007.

According to Ibrahim Moussawi, editor-in-chief of Hezbollah owned al-Intiqad magazine, the group has not surrendered its ‘resistance’ activities, with both its moukawama and moumanaa efforts still equally pursued. He argues that Lebanon can only be built on a consensual government, which is why the party is demanding one-third plus one of the seats in the cabinet and, thus, veto power within government.

“We are ready to grant the loyalists the same right in the next government following the 2009 parliamentary election, which we will most likely win,” he adds.

In order to persevere in its mission of increased government representation, however, Hezbollah needs the continued support of Aoun and his FPM. Although an unusual partnership – Aoun was a staunch supporter of UN Resolution 1559 calling for disbandment of all Lebanese military movements – it seems their ‘memorandum of understanding’ is, for now, firmly in place.

“The alliance of Aoun and Hezbollah seems very solid. It adopts the rationale that minorities will unite for combined greater power,” explains Haeni. However, can this unlikely alliance stand the test of a vote in cabinet with a consensual government? “It would be interesting to see if Hezbollah can guarantee FPM votes in the long term, given the diversity of their agendas,” he adds.

Along with its political agenda, Hezbollah must also deal with mounting Shia-Sunni tensions, which recently sparked violent outbreaks in Beirut. On Jan. 27, 2007, Shia protestors waged demonstrations against electricity shortages plaguing the country in an area of Beirut known as the ‘Green Line’ during the civil war because of its bordering Christian and Muslim neighbourhoods. Now known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ the rally quickly turned violent, pitting protestors against the army and ending in the death of eight demonstrators.

According to Haeni, Hezbollah’s best interest is to avoid any possible Shia-Sunni confrontations. “The movement is most likely very unhappy with the current turn of events and the rise of confessional feelings around the country. The violent outcome of Bloody Sunday was probably not expected by Hezbollah, as this particular region is not in the party’s complete control,” adds Haeni.

Nonetheless, antagonism among Lebanon’s various religious communities has been further fuelled by media hype on both sides of the divide, in the wake of the internal investigation into the incident.

“What is quite worrying is the reaction of political leaders on both ends of the spectrum following the unrest,” says Haeni. “After the events of Jan. 23 and 25, 2006 (when clashes between loyalists and the opposition ended in three deaths), all leaders called for calm, while this time, politicians have been voicing further accusations.”

According to Moussawi, however, the threat of future intense fighting has been contained. “I think the agreement linking the FPM with Hezbollah has efficiently circumvented the wave of violence. It will undoubtedly pave the way for other national understandings,” he says.

With two visions of Lebanon heading for collision, a cold war seems to be taking place in Lebanon. Players on all political sides seem to be fully engaged in a downward spiral of violence, with micro-wars looming in the future. As an integral political Lebanese actor, one question Hezbollah should ponder is what its mission would be if it gets trapped in the alleyways of civil war.

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