Iran seen uniting Lebanon proxies against Israel, but Hezbollah turns inward

Iran seen uniting Lebanon proxies against Israel, but Hezbollah turns inward

Shiite terror group, fearing rival parties, seen spending more time on domestic Lebanese issues ahead of parliamentary elections than preparing for war with Israel

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.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah delivers a televised speech during a ceremony held by the terror group in Beirut commemorating its killed leaders on February 16, 2018. (AFP Photo/Joseph Eid)
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah delivers a televised speech during a ceremony held by the terror group in Beirut commemorating its killed leaders on February 16, 2018. (AFP Photo/Joseph Eid)

Ten days ago, the head of the powerful Iraqi Shiite militia Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba arrived in the Beirut suburb of Dahieh, a stronghold of Hezbollah, and visited the grave of Imad Mughniyeh, the former global operations chief of the Lebanese terror group, to mark 10 years since Mughniyeh was killed in a car bomb.

The attendance of the Iraqi movement’s secretary-general, Akram al-Kaabi’s, at the event commemorating a terrorist thought to be responsible for many bombings, kidnappings and assassinations sends a clear message to Israel: Hezbollah is not alone.

Kaabi made that warning explicit. “We in the Iraqi resistance stand with Hezbollah, and we will stand with Hezbollah in any Israeli attack or action against it,” Kaabi said.

The message being sent was that many regional militias, including al-Nujaba, will join with Hezbollah in its next war against Israel — a war that has already threatened by the organization’s head Hassan Nasrallah.

Akram al-Kaabi, the head of Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba Akram, stands next to the tomb of Hezbollah terror chief Imad Mughniyeh in Beirut’s southern suburb on February 13, 2018. (AFP Photo/Anwar Amro)

Kaabi’s militia takes its instructions directly from Iran, under the orders of al-Quds Force commander Qasem Suleimani, a senior officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Iran has spent the past few months working to unite the Syrian and Lebanese fronts in preparation for war with Israel. It has sent more and more Shiite troops to Syria, set up military bases for its troops, and also sent drones into Israeli territory.

In addition to visiting Mughniyeh’s grave. Kaabi met with Ihsan Attaya, the representative of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Lebanon, as if to signal that the Lebanese, Palestinian and pro-Iranian Shiite paramilitary forces have formed a united front.

Despite this, it appears that Hezbollah itself is not rushing to war or to inflame the situation with Israel. In its view, tensions between Israel and Syria are under control, while in Lebanon Hezbollah made sure to distance itself from any connection to the Iranian drone that breached Israeli airspace on February 10 and the subsequent downing of an Israeli Air Force F-16 fighter plane.

True, a few days after the event, Nasrallah praised the downing of the Israeli warplane, yet Hezbollah seems to be working hard to give the impression that it is more concerned at the moment with the domestic Lebanese front, and less with Israel.

The terror group is not rushing to bring its estimated 8,000 fighters back from Syria, and has given vacations to some of its troops.

Hezbollah has even taken a backseat in the dispute around a border wall the IDF is constructing along the boundary between the two countries and arguments over contested rights to offshore natural gas exploration, leaving the Lebanese army and politicians to express their outrage.

From time to time Hezbollah makes threats, including to attack the Israeli offshore gas fields. However, the bottom line is that it is the Lebanese government that is taking a lead on the issue.

In this October 24, 2015 photo, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addresses a crowd in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)

So what has happened to Hezbollah? Has Nasrallah suddenly become a Lebanese patriot who has forgotten his loyalties to Iran? Clearly not. But in the past few weeks Hezbollah has sounded more “Lebanese” and less “Shiite.” This is mainly due to the upcoming parliamentary elections, to be held in May, which give the group an exceptional opportunity to strengthen its political standing.

This focus on the elections in May is not a dramatic shift — perhaps it is only cosmetic.

The elections are being held within the parameters of the old approach that was agreed in the 1989 Taif Agreement, which provided the basis for ending the Lebanese civil war and which perpetuates the discrimination against the Shiite community to a certain extent.

This approach says that the Lebanese president must be Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Shiite. Half of the MPs (64) must be Christian and half Muslim — Sunni, Shiite and Druze. This despite the fact that surveys say Shiites make up more than 40 percent of the Lebanese population.

The country is divided into 15 areas, and any slight change in its electoral method could give Hezbollah a few additional seats, but not more than that. On the face of it, this is encouraging news for the Shiite group.

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri gives a live TV interview in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 12, 2017. (Future TV via AP)

However, the past few months have seen the emergence of new political forces in Lebanon. Forces that differ from the camp of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, which opposes Syrian interference, and from the Hezbollah camp, which supports Syria and Iran.

The old order in Lebanon has cracked in favor of a new reality. There are those who now say that the historical division of Lebanon into religious factions, or the traditional reliance on the political elites, no longer speak to them.

For these people, the socio-economic issues in Lebanon, including unemployment, poverty, education and garbage removal, are far more important and vital to their lives and politics. Some of the new parliamentary candidates who are part of this trend are Shiite, and thus a threat to Hezbollah’s chances of electoral growth.

For example, the Baalbek-Hermel Governorate is an area suffering extreme poverty and a high crime rate. The 30,000 outstanding arrest warrants speak to the failure of governance in the area. This is combined with by far the highest rate of casualties among the Shiites fighting in Hezbollah’s ranks in Syria to create an atmosphere of frustration and resentment toward Hezbollah. In the last local elections in 2016 in Baalbek and Beirut, 40% of the seats assigned to Shiites went to parties with a civil agenda, primarily at the expense of Hezbollah.

This is the main reason that the terror group wants to rebrand itself, no longer solely as the “shield of Lebanon” but also as the builder of Lebanon.

Nasrallah himself understands the problem in Baalbek, and instructed that the party replace two of its four candidates there.

It appears that Hezbollah has decided to send a message of statehood: To support the country and President Michel Aoun, whose alliance is considered critical for Hezbollah.

Despite the rhetoric from Lebanese leaders, then, it is unlikely that any major force in Lebanon has any real desire for a war against Israel, at least during the run-up to these critical elections.

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