Former prime minister of Lebanon Saad Hariri joined a growing chorus against terror group Hezbollah over the weekend, calling on the organization to disarm and saying it was no longer needed.
Hariri’s statement came after a rare public speech by Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah Friday in which he called for the elimination of Israel.
“The idea … that Lebanon needs the weapons of the resistance [Hezbollah] in order to face the Israeli threat… is an idea that has expired, Hariri said in a television address later Friday, reported by AFP on Sunday.
Popular support for Hezbollah, which fought a three-week war with Israel in 2006, has waned in the face of the group’s continued backing of Syria’s President Bashar Assad in that country’s civil war. The group was also partially blacklisted by the European Union last month after being blamed for a bombing in Bulgaria that killed six people last year.
On Thursday, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman called for Hezbollah to fold into Lebanon’s national army, remarks that promptly drew rocket fire on the residential compound.
Hariri, who led Lebanon from 2009 to 2011 before fleeing to self-imposed exile in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, after citing security concerns, complained that Hezbollah was using its weapons “to instill fear into Lebanon’s political life.”
The son of slain Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005 in a bombing thought to have been carried out by Hezbollah, Saad Hariri criticized the group for its involvement in the Syrian civil war, which has bled into Lebanon.
The focus of the organizations activities “have been shifted from fighting the Israeli enemy to fighting the Syrian people,” Hariri said.
On Thursday, Suleiman gave a speech criticizing the involvement of Hezbollah in Syria’s conflict in supporting forces loyal to Assad.
Suleiman suggested Hezbollah’s weapons be folded into that of the national Lebanese army. The president said that “resistance weapons have trespassed the Lebanese border,” in a reference to Hezbollah. The Iranian-backed group has a formidable weapons arsenal that rivals that of the army.
That night, two rockets struck near the presidential compound in Baabda, southeast of the Lebanese capital, Beirut. It was the second time in two months that rockets have been fired in the area amid tensions related to the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Suleiman said Friday that the attack would not intimidate or make him change his convictions regardless of the party behind it.
“Repeated rocket messages, regardless of the sender or the target … cannot alter national principles or convictions that are expressed freely and sincerely,” the president said in the statement issued by his office. The statement did not say whom officials believed were behind Thursday night’s attack.
The rare criticism by Suleiman, a Maronite Catholic, angered Hezbollah and its allies. A pro-Hezbollah newspaper put a picture of Suleiman on its front page Friday with a bold-headlined single word: “Irhal,” Arabic for leave.
Nasrallah declared on Friday that “The elimination of Israel is not only a Palestinian interest… It is the interest of the entire Muslim world and the entire Arab world.”
Speaking days after the Arab League-backed resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Nasrallah said no Arab leader had the right to legitimize Israel, and that all of Palestine — “from the river to the sea” — belonged to the Palestinians, according to a report on Israel’s Army Radio. “No sheikh, prince, king, president or government has the right to relinquish a single grain of Palestinian sand,” he said.
Hezbollah’s open participation in the Syrian civil war is highly divisive in Lebanon, and has enraged Sunni Muslims there who sympathize with the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels fighting to topple Assad. Hezbollah fighters were instrumental in helping Assad’s forces achieve victory over the rebels in the strategic Syrian town of Qusair near the border with Lebanon in June.