Saturday, July 17, 2010

Coincidence rarely explains events in southern Lebanon


by Michael Young


The recent tension in southern Lebanon between villagers and the United Nations force, Unifil, was no coincidence. Hizbollah, which tightly controls the south, saw an opportunity to send several messages, while issuing a warning to the international peacekeepers that their freedom to manoeuvre was limited.


The ostensible cause of the confrontations was ambiguity in interpreting UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the summer 2006 war between Hizbollah and Israel. The resolution grants Unifil the right to take "all necessary action" to implement UN conditions in the south and to "assist" the Lebanese army. However, Shiite villagers, pushed by Hizbollah, have reinterpreted this mandate, saying the force can only carry out inspections in the presence of the Lebanese army. When Unifil did not do so, the inhabitants of two villages blocked patrols and assaulted troops.


Initially, the Lebanese army and government failed to back up the UN. The angry response of states contributing soldiers to Unifil led to a meeting of the Security Council last week. Lebanon backtracked, vowing to continue co-operating with the UN. However, the incidents in the south confirmed once again that Hizbollah has substantial control over the Lebanese army, particularly the army's intelligence services.


Complicating matters, Hizbollah's commander in southern Lebanon, Sheikh Nabil Qawouq, said on Sunday that the army had discovered that Israel had asked Unifil to search particular houses in the south. There was no evidence whatsoever for the charge, but it did widen the rift between Unifil and villagers, while making it seem that the Lebanese army opposed the international force.


Behind the façade of hostility to the UN, Hizbollah has more intricate calculations. The party's freedom to act both politically and militarily is essential to its role as an extension of Iran on the Israeli border. Hizbollah's weapons serve many purposes. They are a deterrent against an Israeli or American attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, but also an instrument of retaliation if one occurs. They also allow the party to dominate Lebanon's Shiites, who view the weapons as a means of self-defence and an assertion of communal supremacy.


Most important, the weapons allow Hizbollah to impose "resistance" as a national priority on its reluctant partners in the state, which in turn justifies the party retaining its weapons.


At a broader level, the quarrel with Unifil may also be seen as an Iranian reply to the recent passage of Security Council sanctions against Tehran. The point was a simple one: UN forces are vulnerable in Lebanon. However, if the south allows Hizbollah to open many advantageous doors on behalf of its regional allies, Iran as well as Syria, the party has two domestic preoccupations that the standoff with Unifil highlighted.


The first is that Hizbollah, to protect itself, needs to prepare the ground psychologically for a possible war with Israel. Despite the support the party enjoys among Shiites, the community does not relish seeing its villages and livelihood destroyed yet again. Despite the official rhetoric favouring "resistance", this is a result of Hizbollah and Syrian intimidation, not enthusiasm by other religious groups for Hizbollah's aims. Simply put, Lebanon is not ready for a war with Israel, one that will be far worse than the conflict of 2006.


There is also Hizbollah's uncertainty about indictments coming out, perhaps later this year, from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up to prosecute those behind the assassination in 2005 of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. While the UN-mandated investigation of Mr Hariri's murder has been riddled with flaws, notably the reluctance of the second investigator, Serge Brammertz, to pursue Syria's role in the crime, there are signs that low-level Hizbollah operatives are likely to be accused of participation. No date has been set for indictments, and they may not be announced this year, but Hizbollah is taking pre-emptive precautions.


Both the party and Syria have made it plain to the prime minister, Saad Hariri, what they expect him to do. They want the Lebanese government to declare the trial process "politicised", and therefore illegitimate. Hizbollah has warned that if its members are indicted, the consequences may be dire for domestic peace. In other words, unless Mr Hariri protects Hizbollah from the tribunal, the party may hit out against him and the party's domestic foes.


In this light, the harassment of Unifil might be interpreted, among other things, as a warning shot directed at Mr Hariri and Lebanese state institutions, all greatly discredited by the incidents.


Understandably, however, Hizbollah sees real problems with pursuing a strategy of internal destabilisation. If the party's priority is to ensure that Lebanon rallies around Hizbollah in any new war against Israel, then provoking domestic dissension is hardly an ideal way of going about this.


Moreover, Hizbollah's browbeating may just strengthen Mr Hariri's resolve, since he is deeply averse to whitewashing those involved in his father's killing. The paradox is that Hizbollah, in its efforts to maintain its military capacity, which requires that the tribunal be neutralised, may undermine the already volatile, sceptical consensus around the resistance.


These are not minor issues for the party. Hizbollah has worked hard to weaken the Lebanese state and armed forces to its own advantage. But, ultimately, a war with Israel, particularly one on Iran's behalf, will be a national war generating national dissatisfaction. The party will find it much tougher in that context to enforce unanimity, especially if it stands accused of having killed Rafiq Hariri.


What happened in southern Lebanon recently was a sign that Hizbollah is preparing for choppy seas ahead.



Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.

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


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