To what extent is Hezbollah responsible for the current crisis in Lebanon?
By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
The Lebanese remain split over the issue of the armed presence of Hezbollah. Stuck in a stalemate, absent honest local dialogue, the situation of the country moves from bad to worse. What comes next?
On January 13, the outgoing army chief of Israel warned that if war with Hezbollah takes place, his country “will send Lebanon 50 years back in time”.
Has not Israel already sent Lebanon several decades back in time: displacement of Palestinian refugees, an occupation lasting 22 years, an invasion precipitating Sabra and Shatila massacre (in 1982), frequent penetration of Lebanon’s air space and repeated assaults on “suspect” residential communities and the airport?
On Jan 13 also, local news highlighted a remarkable announcement from Iran during a visit of its foreign minister to Lebanon. The FM of the Islamic Republic reported that Tehran’s relations with Riyadh are improving, and could ultimately lead to the restoration of diplomatic relations.
The first news item from Tel-Aviv is possibly an exaggerated threat, revealing Israeli exasperation and its full preparation for a possible regional war. And the Iranian announcement is somewhat of an inflated gesture of reassurance to a highly depressed Lebanese audience. It could also indicate that Iran is currently overstressed (persisting domestic unrest and growing external threats), and that Saudi Arabia no longer counts on Washington to guarantee its national security.
In Beirut, the political vacuum continues. The post of President of the Republic has been vacant for over three months: eleven separate parliamentary presidential election sessions have failed so far to overcome the impasse. The country has been run by a caretaker cabinet with a very restricted mandate.
A sudden and overwhelming change in demography adds fuel to the economic depression. A native population of six millions, hosts one million Syrian and over 200, 000 Palestinian refugees. Jobs are hard to come by, and salaries have lost most of their purchasing power – after the Lebanese currency lost 95 % of its 2019 value. Residents carry local currency in large paper bags on their way to the grocery. A 100 dollar banknote is exchanged (in the black market) for about 4,500, 000 Lebanese pounds.
Local banks are in a default mode. In a dollarized economy, banks are not willing to return deposits to customers in foreign currency. To reduce their liabilities to depositors, banks have invented an exploitative scheme. Depositors withdraw limited amounts from their dollar accounts at rates equivalent to a fraction of market value. Capital manipulation by the local banks has reduced the dollar accounts of depositors over the past three years by a significant margin. Real estate prices have plummeted and tourism is depressed. Emigration of doctors and other skilled labor continues in large numbers. The Lebanese diaspora is playing a major role in saving their home country from collapse by wiring remittances on a monthly basis.
There is no fear of a civil war at the present, but there are rising incidents of depositors holding bank employees as hostages in order to have access to their personal accounts.
In three years, a largely middle-income society has dropped to a level of poverty. But the crisis has roots beyond a few years. The Taif Agreement, a Saudi sponsored accord which terminated a fifteen-year long civil war in 1990, did pacify the warlords and calm the fighting, but this rushed deal did not respond to the fundamental issues underpinning the conflict. Historically, Lebanon has never had a popular government and a strong national army to deal with sharp cultural differences in an ethically mosaic society, to control sectarian leadership and maintain border security. Since its formation as a state in 1920, every ten to fifteen years Lebanon has fallen into a crisis of one sort or another. The October 2019 popular uprising was the start of the latest phase of unrest. Will 2023 bring relief or additional turmoil?
In the public discourse and the media there is obsessive talk about corruption; its worst manifestation being at the highest level of power. Local leaders are not motivated to discuss the root-causes of the crisis, out of fear of punitive consequences. On the significance of “productive dialogue” in the search for a resolution of the local conflict, read a sound commentary by Halim Shebaya.
While it may be therapeutic to dwell on shameless spread of illegal income and fortunes made by devious banking schemes, corruption is only one contributing factor to the crisis. To fully understand Lebanon, one has to examine its regional neighborhood closely.
There are two politically contrasting views on Lebanon’s political dynamics. One perspective blames the alliance of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran for most of Lebanon’s ongoing malaise. This thinking is highly appreciated in Washington and Tel Aviv. It argues that as long as Hezbollah is heavily armed, acting as a state-within-a-state, there is no chance for Lebanese society to build a fully sovereign state. With a categorical frame of mind, over the past three years, the United States has imposed severe economic sanctions on Hezbollah’s vast network in Lebanon. To what extent have such sanctions accelerated the rapid economic collapse of the country? It is hard to measure the exact impact of these sanctions; however, the timing of punitive measures does coincide with the start of rapid decline of the banking system.
The opposing perspective is focused on perception of Israel‘s record in the region. Proponents of this stance argue that Lebanon is not in a position to ever trust Israel’s policies toward its immediate neighbors. Supporters of the “Resistance” movement assert that Hezbollah’s forces are vital (auxiliary) to the Lebanese army. The ideologues of this defiant outlook consider Israel a “satellite” of the US and blame it for the displacement of Palestinian refugees (of the 1948 and 1967 War) in Lebanon. They add that Israel’s victory created a powerful and lasting momentum of national resistance in Lebanon, and elsewhere. Israel’s rapid territorial expansion in the Arab world led to the formation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in the Lebanese refugee camps.
We are reminded that national resistance is hard to quell: When the PLO was evicted by Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the Lebanese Shiite community took over the resistance strategy and developed it to integrate military defense with social services. During the 1980s the Shiite community, which faced the brunt of Israel’s brutality in south Lebanon, formed an armed national resistance of its own; the Party of God, Hezbollah in Arabic, was born. In 2000, Hezbollah succeeded to push Israel out of south Lebanon, by launching repeated guerilla attacks over a two-decade period. But Israel’s physical withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 -and from Gaza in 2005- did not alter its course of ongoing land and resource acquisition.
The dominant Shiite leadership and demography in Hezbollah has a dramatic historical context. When Israel occupied south Lebanon between 1978 and 2000 (where the Shiite community constituted a majority of the local population, and the Christians a minority) the Jewish state armed some militant factions of the local Christians to help in the administration of the affairs of the occupied zone. This (now dissolved) Christian militia was known as the South Lebanon Army. Facing a coalition of the Israeli armed forces and the so-called South Lebanon Army, the Shiite community felt that it must resort to armed resistance in order to survive.
Regrettably, the Western view of Hezbollah does not acknowledge the history and the raison d’etre of this political movement. Washington’s approach to Hezbollah seems to be more reflexive rather than reflective.
Indeed, Lebanon cannot enjoy full sovereignty, as it continues to host a powerful militia which operates beyond the framework of the national armed forces. But many believe, that the alternative to having a supplementary force maybe worse, given a worn out sectarian Lebanese political power-sharing, and given Lebanon’s porous national borders. A large segment of the population believe that before repatriating the Syrian and Palestinian refugees, it would be unrealistic to speak of building a reliable national defense strategy and building a democracy. Supporters of the Resistance assert that disarming Hezbollah, to preserve Lebanon’s sovereignty, would make sense, had the surrounding milieu of Lebanon been secure and friendly.
To many, it sounds logical that disarming Hezbollah would first require the resolution of the Syrian crisis, the forming of a genuine roadmap for Palestinian statehood – or at least basic human rights and finally the restoration of good relations between the Arab Gulf states and Iran. In fact, current conditions in the region are not conducive to the building of genuine sovereignties or democracies anywhere in the region. Lebanon for the next decade, could still aspire to resume the normal functions of statehood with conditional sovereignty and relative security.
Without dialogue with Hezbollah it would be difficult for Washington to envisage even a partial recovery for Lebanon. It is inconsistent that Washington sanctions Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, for its “aggressive intervention” in the region, while it watches its closest ally in the region, Israel, planning to annex the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel has already annexed the Syrian Golan Heights (in 1983) without facing any international response.
Many observers of the region are now wondering what is Tel-Aviv’s next dramatic move. And Israel’s own liberal segment of society is currently alarmed by the new policies of their extreme rightwing government.
Assuming that Iran and Israel could manage to avoid a highly dangerous military confrontation, Lebanon will survive its current crisis. No matter which side of the current political debate in Lebanon is right or wrong, attempts to resolving the country’s severe crisis through the application of extreme and punitive forms of pressure has not worked so far, and maybe counterproductive.
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