Friday, January 23, 2009

Nasrallah's Defeat in the 2006 War - Assessing Hezbollah's Influence Part II

by Eyal Zisser

2nd part of 2

Nasrallah's War on Beirut

On November 9, 2006, the Amal and Hezbollah ministers serving in the government of Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora submitted their resignations in protest over the refusal of the Cedar Revolution coalition to submit to the demands of the Shi'i organizations to establish a national unity government in which the Shi'i representation would be increased and in which Michel Aoun, Hezbollah's loyal ally, would also be given representation.[26] On the face of it, these looked like innocent, and even legitimate, demands aimed at advancing dialogue and understanding between the various Lebanese communities and wielders of power. However, if these demands were met and Nasrallah's representatives and allies received a third of the portfolios in the Lebanese government, then they would acquire veto power over any resolution the Lebanese government tried to adopt.[27]

During the two years that followed, Lebanon found itself mired in a crisis that paralyzed the entire political system. The trauma of the lengthy civil war that ended with the 1989 Ta'if agreement continues to play an important role in the public's consciousness. It impelled both Nasrallah and his opponents to act with restraint so as not to be perceived as responsible for the decline of the state into a new civil war, which would surely lead to a loss of support from their followers.

Lebanese president Emile Lahoud's term of office ended on November 24, 2007, and for many weeks afterwards, Lebanese politicians could not agree on Lahoud's successor. Matters were complicated by the speaker of the parliament, Nabih Berri, who exploited his authority to prevent parliament from convening to elect a president.[28]

During the first months of 2008, all efforts to resolve the crisis and bring about the election of a new president failed. In the meantime, tensions between the rivals increased to the breaking point. Hezbollah-aligned unions declared a strike while the government adopted a resolution to dismiss Wafiq Shuqayr, Beirut airport's chief security officer, known for his close relations with Hezbollah, and to close down Hezbollah's independent communication network.[29]

Hezbollah considered the Siniora government's decision an unacceptable challenge, or as Nasrallah put it, as a declaration of war against the movement.[30] Hezbollah thus decided to break the stalemate in Lebanon and to try to force on its enemies a solution to the crisis that would strengthen its own standing.

On May 8, 2008, Hezbollah supporters took over the Sunni suburbs of West Beirut. Alongside the occupation of West Beirut, Hezbollah men took over the West Beirut offices of the Al-Mustaqbal party led by Said al-Din al-Hariri and shut down its television and radio stations in addition to setting fire to the building housing the party's newspaper, Al-Mustaqbal, which belongs to the media empire run by the Hariri family. In addition, Hezbollah, in a show of force, surrounded the residencies of Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Druze community.[31]

This was an impressive demonstration of the military might of Hezbollah, but most Lebanese already acknowledged the military superiority of Hezbollah over all its rivals, including the Lebanese army. Hezbollah's move was calculated and cautious: In order to signal that they did not wish the destruction of the Lebanese political system, Hezbollah supporters did not appear in uniform as organized forces and avoided attacking government buildings or clashing with the Lebanese army.[32] Indeed, in a matter of two days Hezbollah evacuated their positions and left the streets of West Beirut, enabling the Lebanese army to deploy its forces there.[33]

But Hezbollah's impressive victory over its rivals was pyrrhic. The challenge facing Hezbollah is not and never has been the occupation of West Beirut. Its challenge is to win the hearts of the Lebanese people, especially those who are not part of the Shi'i community. Those Lebanese who regarded Hezbollah with mistrust and resentment now regard it with hatred. Fouad Siniora discovered that in his weakness there is much strength and that his unwillingness to fight Hezbollah militarily won him the support and empathy of many in Lebanon and in the Arab world at large.[34] Many Lebanese noted that while Hezbollah had refrained from firing a single bullet at Israel since the end of the 2006 war, it had turned its weapons on Lebanese in West Beirut, an event more in the interest of the Iranian government than that of the Lebanese people, regardless of sectarian preference or political outlook.[35]

The May 2008 violence, which cost the lives of more than one hundred Lebanese, shows that no one in Lebanon has an interest in a renewed civil war. It was only a few days before an Arab reconciliatory effort began, which led to an all-Lebanese summit in Doha, Qatar. On May 23, 2008, the summit produced the Doha agreement, which enabled the election of Michel Suleiman as Lebanese president two days later. Other parts of the agreement dealt with the establishment of a unity government, in which the opposition headed by Hezbollah would have one third of the seats and thus the power to veto all government decisions, and understandings regarding the election law for the forthcoming 2009 parliamentary elections.[36] The total break has thus been delayed until the next time.

Lebanon has weathered the struggle over the identity of the president and is now facing the struggle over the composition of the government. But it also must face the yet-to-come struggle over the parliamentary elections scheduled for spring 2009. Altogether, these flash points should be viewed as a prelude to the much more significant struggle over who is to rule Lebanon and what Hezbollah's role in Lebanon will be.



As time passes, the severity of the blow suffered by Lebanon and its people from the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war becomes clear. The war resulted in a political crisis in Lebanon that continues to threaten to deteriorate into civil war, this time between the Shi'i community and the country's other groups. True, the war did not engender this crisis; its roots lie in deep, long-term problems that have been unfolding in Lebanon for some time. However, there is no doubt that the war intensified existing tensions, exposed wounds that had scabbed over only with great difficulty, and created new political and social resentments.

Precisely because the Shi'a will become the majority in Lebanon within a few years, the power struggle between Hezbollah and the Amal movement for primacy among the Shi'a is of the utmost importance. Surveys conducted in Lebanon shortly after the end of the war indicate support of up to 65-70 percent among Shi'a for Hezbollah under Nasrallah's leadership. However, the same surveys also show that the organization's hard-core supporters comprise no more than 25-30 percent of the community.[37] This means that most of the members of the Shi'i community are not necessarily in Nasrallah's pocket, and they might transfer their allegiance from Hezbollah to Amal if Amal can offer them the same hope that Hezbollah once embodied. The Amal movement believes in the integration of the Shi'a into Lebanese life[38] while Hezbollah represents a radical outlook imported from Iran. Though the economic aid that Iran provides Hezbollah has allowed the organization to become a leading force within the Lebanese Shi'i community, an internal Shi'i conflict between Amal and Hezbollah has by no means been averted.

Thus, in several respects, Hezbollah and its leader find themselves in deep trouble, fighting a rearguard action in order to maintain themselves and regain the status they enjoyed on the eve of the 2006 war. However, no one should think that the organization or its supporters are going to disappear. They will continue to be a permanent factor in the Lebanese equation. The challenges presently facing the organization are not simple, nor are the challenges facing Nasrallah. For him, Hezbollah is his life's work, yet he has gotten the organization into deep trouble by his badly calculated gambles. Once a gambler, always a gambler; it is likely that Nasrallah will take risks again and, again, make big mistakes.

Still, the real challenge seems to be the one confronting the Lebanese state: How will the government, along with the various Lebanese communities, deal with the Shi'i community? Will they work to enable that community to live in dignity and integrate more fully and justly into the Lebanese system?

Hezbollah will remain the most powerful force in Lebanon. But it is weaker and more vulnerable than many Israeli or Western officials admit. Since the 2006 war, Hezbollah has become more aware of its limits and weakness. It is more careful, calculating, and prepared to gamble on the demographical changes that will eventually give it victory in the internal struggle for control of Lebanon. For the time being, it is keeping the border with Israel quiet and prefers to play its winning card—a sophisticated propaganda machine—that has given Hezbollah a victorious image time and again in the past.

Where does this all take Lebanon? The answer to this question depends on the other Lebanese actors, some of whom, like Michel Aoun, are cooperating with Hezbollah for short term tactical gains, and on regional and international actors, who have failed until now to confront Hezbollah and to use its weakness to the advantage of Lebanon and the Lebanese.

Western officials do have a winning card to play, however. By revealing the organization's weakness and its failures, they can begin to neutralize Hezbollah's propaganda machine and begin to puncture inflated Arab and Lebanese perceptions of Hezbollah, the first steps necessary to neutralizing the threat it poses to Lebanon and to regional stability.

Eyal Zisser is director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


[1] Al-Manar television (Beirut), Feb. 13, 2008; Al-Jazeera television (Doha), Feb. 13, 14, 2008.
[2] Al-Nahar (Beirut), Nov. 9, 2006. For more on Hezbollah's role in Lebanon, see Ahmad Nizar Hamzeh, In the Path of Hezbollah (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2004), pp. 44-79; Judith Palmer Harik, Hezbollah, The Changing Face of Terrorism (London: I. B. Tauris, 2004), pp. 43-110; Hala Jaber, Hezbollah, Born with a Vengeance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), pp. 145-68; Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, Hizbullah, Politics and Religion (London: Pluto Press, 2002), pp. 16-33; Na'im Qasim, Hezbollah, Al-Minhaj, at-Tajruba, al-Mustaqbal (Beirut: Dar al-Hadi, 2002), pp. 298-321.
[3] Hasan Nasrallah, interview in Al-Ra'y al-'Amm (Kuwait), Dec. 27, 2004; Al-Manar, Jan. 4, 2004.
[4] Asharq al-Awsat (London), Aug. 22, 2006, May 11, 2008; Al-'Arabiya television (Dubai), May 7, 2008.
[5] Ha'aretz (Tel Aviv), Jan. 12, 2008, Asharq al-Awsat, Jan. 13, 2008.
[6] Al-Manar, Feb. 6, 2008.
[7] Al-'Arabiya, May 16, July 21, 2008; Al-Mustaqbal (Beirut), July 12, Aug. 18, 2008.
[8] Ha'aretz, May 26, 2000; Yedi'ot Aharonot (Tel Aviv), Oct. 8, 2000.
[9] Daniel Sobelman, New Rules of the Game, Israel and Hezbollah after the Withdrawal from Lebanon (Tel Aviv: The Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, 2003), pp. 57-74.
[10] Al-Manar, Aug. 27, 2006.
[11] Reuters, Sept. 12, 2006; Al-Hayat (London), Sept. 13, 2006; "Country Report—Lebanon," The Economist Intelligence Unit, no. 4 (2006), pp. 3-6.
[12] MSNBC, Sept. 22, 2006.
[13] Yedi'ot Aharonot, July 15, Aug. 6, 2006.
[14] Al-Manar, July 14, 2008; Ha'aretz, July 16, 2008.
[15] Al-Manar, Aug. 27, 2006.
[16] See Hasan Nasrallah's remarks on Nasser, Al-Mustaqbal television (Beirut), Aug. 13, 2005; Al-Jazeera, Sept. 22, 2006, July 12, 2007.
[17] Hamzeh, In the Path of Hezbollah, pp. 44-79.
[18] Yedi'ot Aharonot, July 14, 2007; "Country Report—Lebanon," The Economist Intelligence Unit, no. 4 (2006), pp. 3-8; Yoram Schweitzer, "Divine Victory and Earthly Failures: Was the War Really a Victory for Hizbollah," in Shlomo Brom and Meir Eliran, eds., The Second Lebanon War: Strategic Perspectives (Tel Aviv: Institute for National Security Studies, 2007), pp. 123-34.
[19] Al-Manar, Aug. 27, 2006.
[20] Amos Harel and Avi Issascharoff, Korey Akavish, Sipura shel Mmilchemet Levanon (Tel Aviv: Yedi'ot Aharonot, 2008), pp. 179-81.
[21] Lebanese National News Agency, Aug. 19, Dec. 17, 2006; Yedi'ot Aharonot, Aug. 15, 2007.
[22] Harel and Issascharoff, Korey Akavish, Sipura shel Mmilchemet Levanon, pp. 443-5.
[23] See, for example, "Evaluation of 24 Days of Zionists' Invasion of Lebanon," Fars News Agency (Tehran), Aug. 6, 2006.
Al-Mustaqbal, June 30, 2006.
[25] Al-Manar, July 1, 2008.
[26] Al-Nahar, Nov. 9, 10, 15, 2005; Al-Mustaqbal, Nov. 17, 2006.
[27] Lebanese National News Agency, Feb. 5, 6, Nov. 9, 2006; Reuters, Nov. 13, 2006; Al-Manar, Nov. 15, 20, 2006.
[28] Al-Mustaqbal, Nov. 24, 27, 2007; As-Safir (Beirut), Nov. 27, 2007; Reuters, Dec. 12, 13, 2007.
[29] Lebanese National News Agency, Aug. 6, 7, 2008.
Al-Manar, May 7, 2008.
[31] Al-Jazeera, May 8, 9, 2008.
[32] Al-Jazeera, May 8, 2008; Al-Nahar, May 9, 2008.
[33] Al-Manar, May 9, 10, 2008; Al-Nahar, May 10, 11, 2008.
[34] Asharq al-Awsat, May 10, 2008; Al-Ahram (Cairo), May 9, 10, 2008.
[35] Al-Jazeera, May 8, 2008; Asharq al-Awsat, May 9, 2008.
[36] Al-Nahar, May 23, 25, 27, 2008.
[37] Al-Akhbar (Beirut), Sept. 20, 2006; Al-Nahar, June 11, 2008.
[38] Augustus Richard Norton, Amal and the Shi'a: Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987), pp. 71-83; idem, Hezbollah (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), pp. 32, 42-6, 110-11.



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