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LEBANON: Hezbollah Treads a Narrowing Path

Analysis by Mona Alami

BEIRUT, Mar 29 2011 (IPS) - In spite of its recent successes, Hezbollah seems to be experiencing increasing difficulty in harmonising the interests of its Shiite constituency and those of its Iranian patrons as it delves into the chaos of Lebanese politics.

“Hezbollah is in a period of consolidation and preparing for the next war with Israel,” says Nicholas Blanford, correspondent for Jane’s Defence Weekly who has just completed a book on Hezbollah’s military wing that will be published this summer.

Taking root in the Shiite community residing in South Lebanon, the Party of God has been able in recent years to constantly reinvent itself. The organisation began as a militant group notorious for its acts of war and terrorism, including the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, which resulted in the deaths of over 60 people.

After the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, it morphed into a military movement dedicated to fighting the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon until 2000, when the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) withdrew from the territory. Today, Hezbollah has transformed once again, this time into an active Lebanese political party.

Over the years, the faction has learned to steer Lebanese politics in its favour, often with the use of force. “However, Hezbollah’s ideological goals — namely the liberation of Jerusalem and the establishment of an Islamic state — have never changed. Nevertheless, Hezbollah understands the Lebanese reality that makes the latter very difficult,” argues Blanford.

It is an opinion shared by political analyst Joseph Alagha. “The party has stressed that it ideologically defends the establishment of an Islamic state, but it has learnt that such a political programme is not practical because of the confessional and sectarian nature of Lebanon and the opposition they will face from the majority of Lebanese, both Christian and Muslim,” he underlines.

Ever the pragmatic player, Hezbollah has chosen, at least for now, to shelve its political ideology and practice a more ‘down to earth’ approach that would go over better with the Lebanese population and, more importantly, its Christian allies.

Other than its religious ideology, Hezbollah has also had to contend with the legitimacy of its arms after Israel’s withdrawal. Since 2000, Hezbollah has sidestepped the issue by declaring that Israel is still occupying Lebanese land in the Shebaa Farms and, therefore, their weapons are still a necessity.

The liberation of Shebaa has come under fire, however, as its ownership is still being questioned. Hezbollah claims that it is Lebanese land, while Israel says that it is Syrian. During the stalemate, the debate over the ‘armed resistance’ remained on the backburner, until the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005.

“Another cornerstone in the history of Hezbollah is certainly built around Syria’s pull out from Lebanon,” says researcher Kassem Kassir, a Lebanese expert on Islamic movements.

Up until 2005, Hezbollah had found in Syria an amenable ally that would protect and justify its use of weapons. But the end of the occupation brought the debate back to the forefront, as the militant group is the only party in Lebanon still armed.

“Hezbollah had to turn to a defensive approach both on the internal and external fronts that would allow for the protection of its resistance programme,” adds Kassir.

This new balance of power did not garner the support of the Lebanese population as a whole, with many, who had previously endorsed Hezbollah’s resistance, calling for its integration into the Lebanese army. The situation also led to clear cut divisions between the Hezbollah-led ‘March 8’ and Sunni-led ‘March 14’ movements as well as sectarian tensions.

The situation between the two groups grew tenser in 2006, when Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed three others in an ambush, instigating a month long war that killed over 1,200 Lebanese civilians.

“Both Iran and Hezbollah knew that the 2006 war came at a huge cost,” underlines Blanford.

In the wake of the hostilities with Israel, Iran’s money poured into Lebanon to quell any dissent within the Shiite community. But its plans to gain even greater political power in Lebanon did not end there.

The party was able to buttress itself internally in 2007 by organising an 18 month long sit-in in Beirut’s downtown area, demanding a ‘consensual president’ and guaranteed veto power in the new government after the ‘March 14’ movement won the majority of votes in the elections.

They took their demands to the next level in May 2008, when they deployed armed gunmen on the streets of Beirut and in certain mountain villages to protest the government’s crackdown on Hezbollah’s illegal telecom network. Fierce gun battles in the country further deepened the rift between the Shiites and other communities.

“Hezbollah operates essentially around two poles: its obedience to Iran’s Wilayat al fakih and its obligation to its Shiite constituency,” says Blanford. The theory of Wilayat al faqih, promoted by Ayatollah Khomeini as one of the basis of the Iranian Constitution, states that religious jurists should lead Islamic governments. In recent years, it has become clearer that Hezbollah is facing more challenges in bringing together both interests and aligning the poles side by side.

In addition, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, has not shied away from making fiery statements against pro-Western Arab countries, such as Egypt and more recently Bahrain, where a protest organized by the Shiite population was violently repressed.

Harsh criticism of the Gulf country in particular had significant local repercussions. Last week, various reports claimed that Bahrain has stopped providing Shiite Lebanese with visas due to Nasrallah’s recent discourse. This move comes after the UAE’s expulsion of hundreds of Lebanese Shiites in 2009 for similar reasons.

The path Hezbollah is currently treading on seems to be one that is increasingly narrowing. And if a conflict between Israel and Iran ever breaks out, as many have argued, the intervention in a war that is not its own, will certainly significantly damage the party’s stature with its community.

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