The State Department says Hizballah is a terrorist group. So do the Israelis who in the past few days have responded to rocket attacks and infiltrations by the Iranian-supported militia by bombing their positions on the Blue Line. The UN - that’s right, the United Nations – has gone so far as to blame Hizballah for the border trouble, saying that the clashes “were initiated by Hezbollah from the Lebanese side, and which quickly spread along the entire Blue Line.” (HT: John Bolton).
But in Lebanon, a country struggling to build a democracy despite enormous problems, Hizballah is a power center. Holding 23 seats in the 128 seat Lebanese Parliament along with another 23 seats held by supporters of a Hizballah-Amal alliance in the southern part of the country, Hizballah is seen as a protector, a bulwark against “Israeli aggression.” They are also seen as a benevolent social services organization because of their work in building hospitals, clinics, schools, and food banks throughout the south of the country.
During the Syrian occupation, Hizballah and the Shi’ite Amal militia were the only groups allowed to carry arms. They cooperated with Syrian intelligence, acting as proxies in Syria’s low intensity conflict with the Israelis. And lately, they have emerged as a stumbling block to the formation of a government that would unify all the factions and give the “Cedar Revolution” a chance to succeed.
The reason is UN Resolution 1559 that stipulates all sectarian militias be disarmed. Hizballah has refused saying they are the “resistance” to Israeli “aggression” and have earned the right to defend Lebanon as they see fit.
This position is complicating the delicate dance going on between the various factions who came together in the spring and summer to form an unbeatable electoral block that has succeeded in kicking out the Syrians and beginning the process of reforming the constitution. The fact is, there is very little trust between the Future Movement, which is what the broad based coalition of Christians, Shi’ites, Druze, Armenians, and Maronites call themselves and the so-called “Party of God” that receives tens of millions of dollars from Iran:
Those who question Hizbullah’s loyalty to Lebanon must show their credentials first, Hizbullah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Friday in his toughest response yet to critics who believe the resistance acts upon Syrian and Iranian orders. Nasrallah was speaking to a mass rally in Beirut’s southern suburbs, gathered for a funeral procession for the three resistance fighters killed during Monday’s clashes with Israeli troops.
“While encouraging dialog and discussion,” the cleric stressed “the resistance will not tolerate being named a traitor or an agent for foreign countries.”
Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated former Prime Minister, along with the Lebanese Premier Fouad Siniora not only don’t trust Hizballah, but worry about international support if the terrorist group refuses to lay down its arms or incorporate itself into the Lebanese regular army:
Political sources close to these complex relations said Hizbullah believes Hariri’s commitment to the resistance is shaky. A few days ago Hizbullah asked him for a straightforward clarification about his stand toward the resistance. Hariri’s assertion from Curacao Wednesday that the resistance helped free an important part of Lebanese territory and that its disarmament could be achieved only through internal dialog were primarily a response to this message, aimed at appeasing Hizbullah’s worries.
But even these words did not fully convince the resistance, which found them in contradiction with what it has been hearing from Premier Fouad Siniora, particularly his insistence Lebanon cannot confront the international community by refusing to comply with UN Security Resolution 1559.
And herein lies the big trap for America. As much as the PLO, Hizballah has integrated itself into Lebanese society. In the southern part of the country, their writ is law. The central government is tolerated only so far as they support the “resistance.”
And why not? Ordinary people in that part of Lebanon have literally been under the gun for more than a quarter of a century. Clashes between the Israelis and Hizballah (as well as the PLO and Amal) are a regular occurrence. Hizballah is welcomed as both protector and nanny since most of what passes for social programs are administered by representatives of the group. Support for Syria’s occupation was also strongest here for many of the same reasons.
Trying to “disarm” Hizballah and make them work in some kind of constitutional framework is a sticky matter indeed. All depends on the commitment of Hizbullah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah to the democratic process. But is Nasrallah a free agent? Or is he simply a tool of the radicals in Tehran?
One thing is certain; Hizballah favors the destruction of the state of Israel. This, above all else, complicates both its internal relations with some Lebanese factions like the Free Patriotic Movement headed up by General Michael Aoun and some of the more secular oriented groups like Hariri’s Future Movement as well as relations with the EU and the US. The Administration has said that it would welcome a disarmed Hizballah into the Lebanese government although how this can be reconciled with their designation as a terrorist group isn’t clear.
Can any government formed with Hizballah have normal relations with Israel? And a larger question; can there be democracy in any Middle Eastern Country that doesn’t accept Israel’s right to exist?
As long as Israel is out there being portrayed as the bogeyman, demagogues will be able to use the democratic process to come to power and threaten the Jewish state. The resulting reaction by Israel to protect itself will only confirm the worst fears of people who are being led by men whose anti-Israel, anti-western bias generates such hatred. Until it becomes a political liability to use the rhetoric of hate against Israel, there will be men willing to seek power based on that hate.
Real freedom for the people of Lebanon is still an uphill struggle. Immense problems remain regarding a new constitution that would rid itself of the so-called “confessional” system that apportions seats in parliament and political offices based on religion. The problem of disarming Hizballah is almost a sideshow to the real drama being played out between the various actors who represent the parties, the religions, the clans, and the warlords who to this day have yet to figure out how to live together in peace.
Here’s hoping that both the people of Lebanon and the world exhibit patience with this process. We’re going to need it.