The Lebanese never learn.
For years, Hizbullah convinced many Lebanese that it would not turn its weapons against them. Shiites, Sunnis, Druze, and Christians all bought into that myth. Some believed wholeheartedly that Hizbullah would remain focused on Israel, while others saw no other choice but to acquiesce to realities on the ground. After all, the Lebanese had seemingly tired of conflict after decades of war and political bickering - and confronting Hizbullah would risk returning the country to a past that haunts almost every family in Lebanon.
Whether Hizbullah was genuine, or was simply catering to the fanciful views of others, does not matter. External motives - namely, acting as a forward base of Iran, protecting convergent Syrian-Iranian interests in Lebanon, and confronting Israel – drive Hizbullah’s actions. This is not to say that the party’s domestic goals, like increasing the Shiite voice in Lebanon’s system or providing social services and utilities, are irrelevant or even secondary; but only to stress that these goals are part of a broader project.
In that vein, the much-lauded “Lebanonization” of Hizbullah was driven by a Syrian regime intent on directing Lebanese political theater and an Iranian regime willing to accept that Lebanon’s demographic balance would not allow for a junior Islamic Republic on the Mediterranean. But make no mistake: the confrontation with Israel and with Israel’s Western backers remains the party’s foremost concern.
Importantly, this means that Hizbullah’s internal actions must be understood within its broader vision for Lebanon and the region. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Syrian tutelage and Israeli occupation contributed, albeit differently, to relative consensus in support of Hizbullah. Benefiting from Syrian control over Lebanese politics and Israel’s inflammatory presence, Hizbullah found it relatively easy to consolidate support within Lebanon.
After Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Hizbullah put its head down and began to fortify South Lebanon. Back in Beirut, a class of politicians – now scattered among various factions - depended on Syria for their continued relevance, and thus did not challenge Damascus on matters of importance, including the security sector and Hizbullah’s special status.
In 2005, as is well-known by now, assassins took the life of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. The killing was the straw that broke the camel’s back (or, perhaps, the snowflake that broke the Cedar tree). A colossal uprising drove Syria out of Lebanon, and sent Hizbullah scrambling to preserve its special prerogatives.
After months of dodging discussions on its arsenal, Hizbullah conducted a border raid and kidnapped two Israeli soldiers. The “Party of God” probably did this to orchestrate another prisoner exchange, further solidify its credibility, and demonstrate its utility in post-Syria Lebanon. But Hizbullah had miscalculated.
No longer content with the “tit-for-tat” game it had played with Hizbullah since the mid-1990s, and notwithstanding Hizbullah’s proclamation of a “Divine Victory,” Israel simply pummeled Lebanon for more than a month, killing thousands of civilians and causing billions of dollars in direct damage.
Hizbullah fighters, as Israeli troops repeatedly acknowledged, fought valiantly. But to what end? Despite their prowess in the South Lebanon’s villages and nature reserves, Hizbullah fighters could only watch (alongside millions of other Lebanese) as the Israeli air force wrought destruction from the skies.
Since the July War of 2006, Lebanon has unraveled. Israel’s brutish response may have failed to achieve its publicly declared objectives, but it exposed Lebanon’s latent divisions and has since forced Hizbullah to work hard to protect its rear in Lebanon.
First, Hizbullah had to restore its nerve center and launch a massive rebuilding project to help Shiites return to their homes (never mind the billions collected by the Lebanese government in an international donor’s conference). Second, Hizbullah had to maintain its aura of resistance while alleviating Shiite fears of another war and dealing with increasingly assertive opposition to its weapons. Third, to protect either Syria or itself, Hizbullah had to paralyze Lebanon’s institutions to stave off the formation of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. In doing so, the party found itself further mired in Lebanon’s complex political web.
Finally, after years of burdening the Lebanese with the consequences of its arsenal, Hizbullah directly used its weapons against them in 2008. In response to a government attempt to curb its illegal use of a party-owned telecom network, gunmen affiliated with Hizbullah and its allies took to the streets of Beirut and the Chouf Mountains, kicking off three weeks of unrest that ended with the Doha Accord, an agreement to basically “punt on” Lebanon’s disputes until parliamentary elections in 2009. After those elections yielded yet another majority for the March 14 coalition, Hizbullah and its allies managed to force through an uneasy coalition government anyway.
If U.N. prosecutors indict members of Hizbullah, and if the Tribunal’s trial chamber finds them guilty, Hizbullah will feel threatened in its ability to confront Israel and provide Iran with a strong presence in the Levant. That said, an indictment may not trigger a war or coup in 2011; indeed, the entire effort to try those responsible for a string of political assassinations in Lebanon may fizzle harmlessly if a political solution is somehow cooked up. Alternatively, Iran and Syria may prevail on Hizbullah to swallow the pill, pin the killing on “rogues” or party members that are no longer alive, and live to fight another day. In another possible scenario, Hizbullah’s patrons may decide to wait it out for another few months or years.
At this point, however, this is all speculation. If the Lebanese do not accept trading justice for peace, Hizbullah will add this latest “offense” to its already-raging fire of memory. Maybe not in 2011, but someday, somehow, Hizbullah will settle scores.
Hizbullah has offered its guarantees before; rather, it has offered the safety of silence. Having spoken up in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008, the Lebanese were met with a crisis at every turn. It’s time to get real.
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