Israel and Hizbullah: face-off in Lebanon

The Lebanon story continues rapidly to evolve. On Sunday morning, Israeli FM Silvan Shalom, on his way to Washington, told reporters that his government will be working hard to push for an immediate and complete Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and the “neutralization” of Hizbullah. In another report that I read yesterday, that I can’t now find, Shalom was described as having also said that once Syria is out of Lebanon it should be easy enough for Lebanon to make peace with Israel.
Shalom– like many people in the west– seemed to have gotten carried away by all the large and stirring images the western media have been carrying of the anti-Syrian demonstrations in Beirut this past couple of weeks… And he seems to have failed to notice that these demonstrators were notably not either (1) making any mention of the disarming or demobilization of Hizbullah, or (2) calling for peace with Israel.
Like many people in the west, Shalom seems not to have noticed, either, that on February 19, stuck right in the middle of a period of anti-Syrian demonstrations in Beirut that attracted, at an absolute maximum, some 50,000 participants, Hizbullah held its annual Ashoura Day observance in the southern suburbs… carrying large pictures of Hariri along with pics of favorite ayatollahs… and they attracted some hundreds of thousands of participants to that.
Since the western media, and the members of the western-oriented political elite in general chose not to make any mention of that large gathering in Beirut’s Dahiyeh (the extensive southern suburbs where elected Hizbullah municipal councils have now been in charge for quite some years)… Hizbullah leader Sayed Hassan Nasrallah yesterday decided it was time for Hizbullah to exit the suburbs and make its presence peacefully but massively felt in the heart of downtown Beirut.
I hate to say this to my friends in the Lebanese-leftist part of the anti-Syrian movement, but the political dynamics of what’s been happening have had some of the aspects of the street-demonstration contests last year over Hugo Chavez’s role in Venezuela… There in Caracas, a largely middle-class movement of anti-Chavezistas presented itself as a new “people power” movement and received wide and generally extremely sympathetic coverage in the western media, plus lots of support from the US government and US quasi-governmental “foundations”, etc… It took a while for Chavez’s more numerous and much more economically hard-pressed supporters to come out on the streets in their own counter-demonstrations.
Then, as I recall, once Chavez’s position there had been submitted to a nationwide referendum, its popular legitimacy was re-confirmed and the thin-ness of the “respresentivity” claimed by the western-backed “people power” leaders was revealed for all to see.
Hizbullah is a lot better organized than Hugo Chavez’s people. Plus, it can draw on a huge, continuing reservoir of goodwill from people in nearly all the communities inside Lebanon except for those in a portion of the decidedly-minority Christian community who hate and fear most brands of Islam. (I should note that this portion does not include the Patriarch of the Maronite church, or many of the Maronite political figures.)
How many times do outsiders need to hear this message: being anti-Syrian in Lebanon today is not the same as being anti-Hizbullah or being pro-Israel.
So I think Shalom and the Israeli government in general made a really stupid mis-step when they decided openly to throw their hat into the Lebanese political arena over the weekend.
That decision apparently came as a result of a significant debate within the Israeli political leadership. According to the ever-excellently-connected Ze’ev Schiff, writing on Friday in Ha’Aretz the two positions argued there were these:

    One, which originates in the security services, states that first the Hezbollah must be disarmed, and that is what will make it possible to impose democracy [sic!] in Lebanon. If they start in the opposite order, Hezbollah will be the strongest and best armed group in Lebanon, [this argument goes]. Those who hold this opinion should be told that the chances of disarming Hezbollah – which is supported by Iran – are less than the chances of Israel disarming the settlers.
    Those who are afraid of the Syrian army’s withdrawal from Lebanon assert that its presence there provides stability. This statement conceals the fear that Israel will lose the Syrian “address” in Lebanon. Damascus is seen by Israel as responsible for what happens in Lebanon and from Lebanese territory, including Hezbollah’s actions. On the basis of this assumption, Israel developed an entire security concept that will now have to be changed.
    Some cite as an example the consent of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1976 to the entry of the Syrian army into Lebanon to stop its civil war, in which the Palestinians were involved. The difference is that at the time, Washington supported the entry of the Syrian army into Lebanon, and convinced Israel to agree to the step, which was designed to weaken Arafat’s organization.
    …The second approach originates in the Foreign Ministry, and its main feature is complete support for the UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which mandates Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. Those adopting this approach rightly say that Israel must not oppose the democratic tendency that is penetrating the Arab world, a tendency that will reinforce Lebanon’s independence.
    …The conclusion is that despite the risks, Israel should support the democratic move in Lebanon, which requires Syrian withdrawal. The Lebanese people have matured, and with the assistance of others will be able to overcome the dangers of a new state of chaos in their country.

Well, it seemed the ideologues at the Foreign Ministry won.
I found it surprising that Ze’ev, an old friend whose wisdom I generally trust, had tipped his hand there in favor of the second option… (His positions usually march hand-in-hand with, and even help guide, some of the more responsible positions that emerge within the professional military structures in Israel.)
But I guess he, like so many other people, got all caught up with the currently powerful western trope that “democracy” in Lebanon will necessarily end up being hostile to Hizbullah and favorable to Israel.
Oh boy, how wrong can those people be? Why do people whose real knowledge of the political dynamics inside Lebanon is so low– like longtime Israeli fixer Uri Lubrani, whom I also saw quoted as an “expert” on Lebanon yesterday!– end up making such powerfully wrongheaded and destructive judgments?
(It was Lubrani’s “advice” to Begin and Sharon back in 1982 that helped persuade them that not only would the Shiites of South Lebanon welcome the invading Israeli forces with rice and flowers–which did happen in some villages–but also, that they’d be quite delighted to have the IDF stick around! Oh how wrong, how wrong, how wrong. 2,000 dead Israeli soldiers and scores of thousands of dead Lebanese, most of them civilians, later… Israel finally pulled its troops out of Lebanon 18 years later. Meanwhile, Hizbullah had been born– in direct response to that Israeli invasion and occupation… and yes, It is still extremely strong and extremely popular in most of Lebanon. Back home in Israel, Lubrani was never called to any kind of account for the literally lethal misjudgments he engaged in… and here he is being quoted as an “expert” yet again… )
So anyway, yesterday, the Israeli government threw its hat publicly into the Lebanese ring– and guess what, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah immediately responded.
In the Daily Star article about Nasrallah that I linked to near the top of this post, reporter Adnan al-Ghoul quoted him as saying that Tuesday’s demonstration would be:

    a rejection of “foreign intervention that runs contrary to freedom, sovereignty and independence.”
    He added it was also to “denounce the Resolution 1559, to show thanks, loyalty and appreciation to the Syrian leadership, people and army for its achievements in Lebanon.”

Ghoul wrote of Nasrallah:

    He added: “We will intervene in local politics by means of peaceful democratic rallies demonstrations and sit-ins.”
    Nasrallah also invited opposition groups, which have maintained protests to demand a Syrian pullout since Hariri’s death, to join the rally…
    Nasrallah said he “understood” the reasons behind Syria’s positive approach to UN Resolution 1559 but he strongly dismissed the demands embedded in the resolution for Hizbullah’s disarmament.
    He said: “All the articles of the resolution give free services to the Israeli enemy who should have been made accountable for their crimes and now find that they are being rewarded for those crimes.”
    He added: “The resistance will not give up its arms because Lebanon needs the resistance to defend it even if I am optimistic that Israel will soon withdraw from the Shebaa Farms.”

Ghoul also included some interesting quotes showing the concern bout Nasrallah’s announcment expressed by Amin Gemayyel, the man who as the Israelis were consolidating their military rule over most of Lebanon in September 1982 was “elected President of Lebanon” by the cowed and extremely pliant Lebanese “parliament”… (We could think of him as, effectively, the Iyad Allawi of 1982 Lebanon.)
Here’s Ghoul:

    Gemayel also expressed concern that Tuesday’s planned demonstrations would be violent.
    The atmosphere in Beirut has grown more tense after the euphoria that followed the government’s resignation last week…
    Nasrallah, however, insisted the rally would be “civilized, peaceful and well organized, displaying the Lebanese flag only.”
    He added it would take place at Riad Solh Square in a bid to avoid Martyrs’ Square, where thousands of anti-Syria and government protestors are still gathered, and the adjacent area where Hariri is buried out of respect for both.
    Nasrallah insisted that any [Syrian] withdrawal should be within the framework of the Taif Accord, which he said protected the resistance and good relations with Syria.
    He said: “I trust most of the opposition leaders and applaud their commitment to sovereignty and freedom. However, we should deny access to those few who seek foreign intervention.”
    Nasrallah added: “Sovereignty and freedom means to be masters of our own destiny. We are ready to unite with the opposition in the fight for true freedom and independence.”
    He added that in preserving civil peace the state institutions are a red line. “If we cross them, the country would return to square one in the history of the Lebanese crisis… It is our combined obligation to safeguard the legitimacy of the state and consolidate its institutions. Any reform or advancement in this arena should go through the constitutional channels.”

Yesterday, I read much of that news-conference statement Nasrallah made in its Arabic version. (Anyone who can read Arabic should make a point of stopping by that website, which belongs to the main Hizbullah weekly, Al-Intiqad. Today, I just learned there about a meeting that Nasrallah held this afternoon–Beirut time– with leftist Maronite pol Samir Frangieh and Wael Abu Faour of Walid Jumblatt’s “Popular Socialist Party”.)
Anyway, in the statement, Nasrallah warned repeatedly that the US and Israel were seeking to sow chaos and anarchy inside Lebanon, seeking to create and then use any pretext at all to “intervene” there– and therefore that all truly patriotic Lebanon should insist on continuing to solve thier political differences through peaceful means:

    We say that any security infraction is a conspiracy against Syria and against Lebanon. As for us, when we have disagreements or hold demonstrations it is necessary that we address our disagreements using civilized, democratic, and peaceful means, and it’s necessary we agree on that…
    Chaos is forbidden and [maintaining] civil peace is a red line, and any disagreement over policy or over governance or in the street must be addressed using democratic means, and we see in front of us that in the security and military and political institutions of the state, and in the consciousness of the parties and the citizens there is enough [strength] to underline that Lebanon is up to meeting this task…

Just one final authorial note here. Back in spring 2003–oh, how long ago that now seems!– in the terrible buildup to the US invasion of Iraq and the weeks immediately after it, much of my thinking and writing was concerned with trying to place before US and other readers the potential lessons–for the US in Iraq– to be drawn from the Israelis’ ghastly, destructive (and also self-destructive) post-1982 experience in Lebanon. See here, or here, or here.
I just find it deeply depressing that history seems to have circled back to the same old questions of Israel intervening–though thank God, only politically at this stage– in Lebanon, once again.
Actually, there is one crucial difference with 1982. Right now, I am about 99% sure that no-one in the Israeli policy elite wants to even think of putting troops back in on the ground in Lebanon. A well-rooted Hizbullah now exists there, and can exert its own form (highly asymetrical) deterrence and counter-“punishment” against Israeli power and might. Much stronger than anything any power present in lebanon in 1982–Lebanese or Palestinian–was ever capable of.
But I only say 99%, not 100%, because Israeli actions toward Lebanon have often not been governed by the calm light of reason… It has been known (gasp!) that Israeli Prime Ministers have launched large escalations inside Lebanon for purely internal (to Israel) politiocal reasons. Like, Shimon Peres’s extremely cynical 1996 bid for once in his life to get elected premier there, which came disguised in the form of a really nasty big assault on Lebanon.
(The assault failed. So did his re-election bid– significantly, that was because of the massive stay-home from the polls by Israel’s ethnic-Palestinian voters, who were totally disgusted by that little war.)
But now, in Israel, what do we have? A Prime Minister, Sharon, who seems to me to be fairly seriously committed to this course of withdrawing from Gaza, which is extremely unpopular among many of his long-time supporters…
Okay, imagine you’re an Israeli politican facing undertaking a very controversial political action– yes, even one that is supposedly “pro-peace”…. What are you tempted to do??
You got it! Launch a big and attention-grabbing escalation against Lebanon! It’s nearly always popular inside Israel! You don’t even necessarily have to send troops in on the ground!
Okay, make that “80%.”

7 thoughts on “Israel and Hizbullah: face-off in Lebanon”

  1. Isreal need do nothing about disarming Hizbullah. The U.S. will attempt to do it for them.
    I posted about this subject just a few days ago, but my post was EXTREMELY misunderstood. I never felt that the administration COULD ‘defeat’ Hizbullah, only that they THOUGHT they could! Don’t forget, this is an administration that creates their own reality on the ground.
    U.S. pressure on Syria is an attempt to get ‘international peace keeping’ troops in Lebenon. And then use those troops to ‘pacify’ Hizbullah.
    Do not confuse what YOU feel can be done with what the administration BELIEVES it can do.

  2. Thanks Helena for venturing into a an analytic territory few american commentators dare to explore. Your postings on Hizballah were well informed and for me they came out favorably in comparison with a series of articles on the evolution of Hizballah that Hazem Saggieyeh wrote around the same time in AlHayat. Now your comparison to Venzuela is right on the money. The pictures of hip young people waving the flag may play well in the media but they miss how fractured the Lebanese political, social and cultural landscape is. These pictures in particular misrepesent the position of large sections of the country: the North, East and the South of the country as well the Shiite poor in the Southern Suburbs of Beirut. These are sections that have not proportionaly benefited from the the Hariri era. I for one do believe that the opposition has crested without acquiring a mutli-sectarian critical mass necessary for a knockout victory. And despite its protestations significant parts of the opposition are clearly tied to US and Israeli power moves. In fact given the balance of power in the country I cannot forsee the opposition winning without direct intervention from outside powers. We are up for a very turbulent and probably violent period of Lebanese history.

  3. It is neither normal nor healthy for the various factions in a democracy to each have their own armies. Certainly this has not helped Lebanon in the past.
    Hezbollah, the Maronites and the Druze, among others, have armed bodies of men. It would be better if there only one national army and police force in Lebanon, like France, or any other civilized country.
    Hezbollah is not the only group that needs to be disarmed. But it is a major enemy of Israel, so the Israelis focus on it.

  4. Helena: The turbulence we are now passing through,which seems to be getting worse, is the price we are paying for the monumental of blunder of the authors of Security Council Resolution 1559 for putting the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon in the same basket as what to do with Hizballah. Even the most ardent opposition figures here now say Hizballah issue will be tackled later on in context of Taef Accord.
    Then, there the naivete of calls on Hizballah to join the “opposition”, which for Hizballah translates as “come and join those committed to implementation of American-sponsored UN resolution.” I didn’t know we had so many Lebanon experts worldwide.

  5. Helena,
    Thank you for drawing obvious parallels with Venezuela, it’s a much better fit than the American media’s fawning comparisons with Eastern Europe. I think Omar Encarnacin, who refers to the anti-Chavez demonstrators as leading a “Civil Society Coup,” is on a good track (see links to PDF attached):
    I do not see the current situation as progress, I see it as playing with fire.

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