Hezbollah, Lebanon’s enemy within, remains untouchable despite port catastrophe
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AnalysisLebanese know all too well that their country has collapsed

Hezbollah, Lebanon’s enemy within, remains untouchable despite port catastrophe

The terror group is in a sensitive position given its role in weakening the country — but while protestors fume, they cannot and dare not muster truly meaningful opposition

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

A Hezbollah supporter chants slogans as he holds his group's flag during a protest against US interference in Lebanon's affairs, near the U.S. embassy in Aukar, northeast of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, July 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
A Hezbollah supporter chants slogans as he holds his group's flag during a protest against US interference in Lebanon's affairs, near the U.S. embassy in Aukar, northeast of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, July 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Dawla Fashla, a failed state. This is how one Lebanese citizen described his country in a recent tweet, a description which actually flatters the remains of Israel’s neighbor to the north. The Tel Aviv municipality’s decision to light up city hall in the colors of the Lebanese flag seems almost amusing in light of how meaningless this flag is today — and not just because of the terrible explosion in Beirut port which has so far claimed the lives of over 175 people.

The August 4 blast has unquestionably exacerbated the country’s crisis, but the rifts, fractures, corruption, and of course Hezbollah, were there long before. This latest tragedy demonstrates the extent to which the State of Lebanon has for all practical purposes ceased to exist.

Lebanon is currently comprised of a medley of organizations, militias, and ethnic groups struggling to survive, while the big yellow flag of Hezbollah flies above all their heads. There is no real government, certainly not the one headed by Hezbollah-affiliated Hassan Diab, which quit this week.

Yet this also held true for the previous government, headed by the Shiite organization’s rival, Saad El-Din Al-Hariri. Both merely provided a façade of government to the country which, in effect, is ruled by a guerrilla army. President Michel Aoun is in office courtesy of Hezbollah. So too are the chief of staff and all other important state officials. The Lebanese army itself is comprised mainly of Shiites, meaning that Hezbollah holds immense sway over it.

Lebanese army soldiers stand guard following the massive explosion in Beirut’s port, August 6, 2020. (AP/Hussein Malla, File)

The negligence at the Beirut port, where thousands of tons of dangerous material were stored while authorities turned a blind eye and failed to take action, only made the despair of most Lebanese (with the possible exception of the Shiites) more urgent and palpable.

Such despair can no longer be ignored, not even by those enjoying Beirut’s sparkling night life, the beaches, and what remains of the Paris of the Middle East.

The Lebanese understand better than any foreigner that the state has fallen apart before their eyes because of a corrupt Lebanese elite, and chiefly because of Hezbollah.

Hezbollah ambulances enter the site of the explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut to help in the rescue effort, in Beirut, Lebanon, August 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

The sins and weaknesses of Hezbollah

And yet, the gap between this despair and a real outcry against Hezbollah remains vast. An example of this slightly ironic situation can be seen in many articles in the Lebanese media. One journalist in the (anti-Hezbollah) An-Nahar newspaper outdid himself in an article titled “The Enemy Within,” by repeatedly attacking the ruling political elite while carefully refraining from any mention of Hezbollah.

This, despite it being the organization that rules the country and runs not only its wars but also its emergency health system, the army, and every other significant institution.

A cardboard cutout of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group, is hung in a noose by Lebanese protesters in downtown Beirut on August 8, 2020 (AFP)

And yet, Hezbollah now finds itself in a sensitive position. On the one hand, there is no doubt that it has reached its lowest point in Lebanese public opinion since Hassan Nasrallah was appointed head of the organization in 1992.

On the other hand, no entity within Lebanon can pose a threat to it, and with all due respect to Lebanese public opinion, at the end of the day the organization’s AK-47s and rockets can ensure there will be little protest on the streets. Hezbollah is both weak and very strong.

There are a number of prime reasons for its current weakness: Firstly, the Lebanese view Hezbollah as responsible for creating the problem of Syrian refugees, almost all of whom are Sunni. These refugees escaped from the war that Hezbollah waged together with Syrian leader Bashar Assad against Islamic State, fleeing from cities such as Aleppo, Hama, and the suburbs of Damascus.

They found refuge in the neighboring country and are now an enormous burden on an economy which was completely crushed to begin with. This financially bankrupt state of nearly 6 million citizens has been joined in recent years by almost a million refugees.

Syrian refugees look from the windows of a building under construction which they have been using as shelter in the city of Sidon in southern Lebanon, on March 17, 2020. (Mahmoud ZAYYAT / AFP)

One can only imagine what these numbers are doing to the economy of a failed state, and the Lebanese government is beyond even attempting to cope with the financial burden they pose.

Moreover, the presence of these refugees is reawakening Lebanon’s ever-present ethnic tensions. The Sunni ethnic group, which until the Syrian civil war had been smaller than the Shiite population, has been joined by one million fellow believers. It isn’t hard to guess the feelings of the other ethnic groups.

Hezbollah’s second sin is the role it played in weakening the Lebanese economy and driving away foreign investors. The various sanctions imposed by the United States on Syria and Hezbollah dramatically affected Lebanon and its banking system. The United States’ recently passed Caesar Act has exacerbated the sanctions and heightened the reluctance of foreign investors to embark on a Lebanese adventure.

Added to the mix is the fact that the number of tourists had decreased even before the coronavirus pandemic, due to Hezbollah’s deep crisis with Sunni Arab countries. The drop in the number of visitors from the Gulf States generated a crisis in the tourist field.

And then on top of all that came COVID-19.

Workers disinfect the Wavel camp for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley, on April 22, 2020, after the UN announced the first confirmed case of coronavirus there. (AFP)

Hezbollah’s image has taken a severe blow. Criticism is being voiced within the Shiite population — among clerics, but mainly among the young. Recent demonstrations have proven once again that anti-Hezbollah sentiment exists among young Shiites, who want a secular country that is not dependent on Iran.

The organization has also suffered military blows with no real ability to retaliate, and this too has damaged its image. This was the case after the mysterious UAV attack in Beirut last year said to be carried out by Israel, and when Israel exposed Hezbollah’s tunnel project — on which many millions of dollars had been spent — all without any real response against the Jewish state.

Possibly the most acute problem Hezbollah is facing is financial. The organization previously relied on nearly $1 billion of Iranian support annually.

According to various reports, it now has to make do with a quarter of that amount because of Iran’s severe financial crisis, which has caused it to reduce its foreign aid to its Middle Eastern allies.

Hezbollah can no longer freely hand out funds to buy loyalty, while its financial burden remains unchanged. Some 2,000 Hezbollah soldiers were killed in the war in Syria, and their families must be paid. An additional 10,000 of the organization’s fighters were wounded and require care and compensation.

Supporters of the Lebanese Shiite terrorist movement Hezbollah perform a salute as they stand behind motorcycles carrying the group’s flags in the southern Lebanese district of Marjayoun on the border with Israel on May 25, 2020. (Mahmoud ZAYYAT / AFP)

At the end of the day, when the Lebanese man on the street reviews the events in Syria since 2011, he realizes that Hezbollah has fought alongside Iran, a Shiite regional power that is very far from Lebanon. After all of Hezbollah’s statements that its goal is the Muqawama – resistance against the Zionist enemy – it is suddenly apparent that the war in Syria was not intended to hurt Zionists, but instead was to serve Tehran.

The untouchable force

It is hard to be certain that the Port of Beirut explosion is completely unrelated to Hezbollah. Regardless, it has damaged the organization’s ability to maneuver against Israel and inflict serious injury on it. Hezbollah’s legitimacy has taken a blow and it will now need to focus on the rehabilitation of Lebanon, and especially Beirut. Yet we should bear in mind that this is Hezbollah, and it may attempt to strike just to prove its fearlessness.

University students who volunteered to help clean damaged homes and give other assistance, pass in front of a building that was damaged by last week’s explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, August 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Another thing to bear in mind is that Hezbollah is first and foremost a guerrilla army, and that currently there is no other internal force that can threaten it.

There are of course other militias in Lebanon – almost every ethnic group has its own private army: the Phalangists with their anti-tank missiles and machine guns are still fighting for the Christians; the Palestinians in the refugee camps have enormous caches of weapons, and they even have regional and brigade commanders; the Druze are the third armed ethnic group.

Yet none of these groups can challenge or threaten the fourth armed ethnic group, the Shiites, headed by Hezbollah.

Another fact can be ascertained by examining the photos of the Lebanese demonstrators. For the most part they are young men and women, mainly Sunni and Christian, but also some Shiites.

Anti-government protesters near the Lebanese parliament building, a week after the massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, August 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Young, attractive, and perhaps naive, they are reminiscent of Israel’s left-wing demonstrators. Nasrallah is watching these demonstrations and allowing them to let off steam — up to a point.

Then he will give one of his famous speeches to deliver a warning of what will happen if the demonstrators resort to force. He is allowing them to express their rage, knowing that their resistance will eventually die down. Why? Because these are the rules in Lebanon and this is how the state has proceeded for dozens of years. The demonstrators can enjoy themselves breaking into government offices — but they can’t touch Hezbollah.

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