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Analysis

Lebanon is sliding back to the Stone Age, and Iran couldn’t be happier about it

Israel’s northern neighbor is facing water, electricity and medicine shortages and its prospective new government won’t weaken Hezbollah; will the PA suffer a similar disaster?

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 patient rests on a bed in a hallway of the Rafic Hariri University Hospital in Lebanon's capital Beirut, on July 23, 2021. (STR/AFP)
A patient rests on a bed in a hallway of the Rafic Hariri University Hospital in Lebanon's capital Beirut, on July 23, 2021. (STR/AFP)

It was without a doubt one of the worst tragedies in Lebanon’s history – and the country has suffered quite a few. A year ago, on August 4, 2020, a fire broke out at a fireworks warehouse at the Beirut port. The blaze spread to a hangar storing a huge amount of ammonium nitrates. Just after 6 p.m., an immense explosion tore through the port, followed by a shockwave that destroyed everything within a kilometer of the epicenter. The blast was felt over 20 kilometers away.

The scale of the disaster quickly became clear: over 200 killed and 6,000 injured. Within days, prime minister Hassan Diab tendered his resignation. But if some in Lebanon hoped the shocking disaster might fuel a wave of protests that would wash out the rot within the country, they were to be sorely disappointed. A year has passed, and the state of the country is only becoming more dire by the day. No one has been able to form a new government since Diab’s resignation, and the nation’s economic situation — already grim before the blast — has deteriorated to catastrophic.

Perhaps the most pertinent example of Lebanon’s calamitous condition can be seen in its failing infrastructure. Various international groups have warned that the country’s water supply systems could collapse within weeks. The government simply does not have the funds to maintain it — neither the replacement parts nor the chlorine, nor even fuel needed to power it. The consequences of such an eventuality, in a state that a few decades ago was considered to be the Middle East’s most advanced, are that citizens will need to take care of their water needs themselves. Lebanon could yet slide into internal wars over cisterns and reservoirs. The country would find itself returning to premodern history.

But the water crisis is only one example of the country’s growing distress: The electrical system has also ceased functioning properly, and can barely manage a few hours of power every day. Even the power company’s website collapsed. Lebanese citizens are living on private generators, but the shortage in fuel means these too are hard to maintain.

There is a severe shortage in medicines, foodstuffs and all other basic supplies required by the population.

The currency has collapsed and is now worth less than 10 percent of its rate just a few months ago. Two weeks ago, a Lebanese pound sold for 15,000 to a dollar. Today it’s 20,000. Inflation has skyrocketed, and brawls at gas stations or firefights over essential products have become commonplace around the country. Hospitals are lacking electricity and medicine, and cancer patients and other people with serious illnesses are dying simply due to the shortages.

In this August 5, 2020 file photo, a drone picture shows the destruction after an explosion at the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon. (AP/Hussein Malla)

Bassam Mugrabi, a taxi driver who lost his job, told the BBC this week that he and his family had moved to a Palestinian refugee camp. Only recently such areas were home to the poorest of the poor. Now they are providing shelter for citizens who can no longer afford their homes. “The country is controlled by thieves and criminals,” Mugrabi said.

The only potential light at the end of the tunnel, if it can be called that, is the announcement this week from President Michel Aoun that billionaire Najib Mikati, one of the wealthiest people in Lebanon, has agreed to try to form a new government.

Previously, former prime minister Saad Hariri — the billionaire son of another former premier, Rafiq Hariri, who was killed in a 2005 suicide bombing by Hezbollah and Syrian intelligence — announced that he could not form a government and was relinquishing the post. Hariri on Wednesday said, “It’s in Lebanon’s interest that Najib Mikati succeed and we will support him fully.” It’s doubtful this commitment holds much weight, but it sounds good.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, left, meets with former Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, at the presidential palace, in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, July 26, 2021. (Dalati Nohra/Lebanese Official Government via AP)

Mikati may be the one who will pave the way for the establishment of a government, which will allow the French and EU to transfer billions in humanitarian aid that was promised to the country in the event a new government was formed that would advance significant reforms.

However, that process won’t really help the average Lebanese citizen. Mikati has already served as prime minister twice, has been investigated in the past for alleged financial corruption related to his family, and is broadly considered to be cut from the same cloth as his predecessors — just another member of the elite that has controlled Lebanon for decades and is embroiled in internal conflicts over its control, with no real changes enacted under his leadership. Mikati may succeed in forming a government, but he certainly won’t save Lebanon from its corruption, political decay, and disintegration of its government institutions.

That is why Hezbollah is watching closely — and rubbing its hands together in glee. The Iran-backed terror group has for decades been operating a network of social services for Shiite Muslims who are loyal to it, and from its perspective, the weaker the country, the easier it will be to influence and control what happens in it. Iranian funding is meant to help the organization in this aim, to quite literally buy more support and loyalty. In the end, Hariri, Mikati, and even President Aoun understand that as long as Hezbollah remains Lebanon’s strongest military and economic force, the country will continue sliding toward total collapse — or become an Iranian satellite state.

Supporters of Lebanon’s prime minister-designate Saad Hariri, who stepped down saying he was unable to form a government, hurl stones at a Lebanese armored personnel carrier (unseen) in the capital Beirut on July 15, 2021. (AFP)

Is the Palestinian Authority the next Lebanon?

Meanwhile, in the West Bank, the buzz around the Palestinian Authority’s instability continues. Analysts and experts are underlining a dramatic weakening of President Mahmoud Abbas’s standing among the Palestinian public. This is primarily over the death of the “Palestinian Khashoggi,” Nizar Banat of Hebron, a vocal critic of Abbas. Banat was arrested by Palestinian intelligence agents and beaten to death in custody. Since then, numerous protests have been held against Abbas.

The discontent comes against the backdrop of a worsening economic crisis in the PA, which, according to various reports, is on the brink of collapse — almost like Lebanon. It’s possible that in light of this development, the head of Israel’s Defense Ministry liaison to the Palestinians, Major General Ghasan Alyan, announced that Israel entry permits for Palestinian working in construction, as well as hotel workers, would be increased to 15,000. Whether BDS supporters like it or not, the Palestinian economy is heavily dependent on Israel and any boycott by the Israeli side could create hundreds of thousands of hungry households in the West Bank.

Maryam Banat, 67, mother of Palestinian Authority critic Nizar Banat holds a poster with his picture while attending a rally protesting his death, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, July 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

And yet — the situation in the West Bank and PA is very different from Lebanon. The electricity is running and the water is being pumped. In the PA there is no powerful subversive group seeking to undermine it, as Hezbollah is doing in Lebanon. To the contrary: Fatah and PA security continue to control the situation for the most part. The PA’s economic and political situation, while in crisis, is not yet on the brink of collapse.

The economic crisis is composed of several elements. The high taxes the PA collects from the Palestinians were reduced considerably this year because of the coronavirus pandemic and a marked slowdown in economic activity. In addition, the financial aid the PA received in the past from other countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, has stopped amid the Palestinians’ clash with Gulf states against the backdrop of the Abraham Accords that normalized ties between some Arab countries and Israel. Since the agreements were signed, though there is a new US president, the Gulf states’ position has remained the same.

The EU’s funding, for both the PA’s budget and its infrastructure, has stopped for reasons that are unclear. The PA’s debt to banks stands at $2.3 billion, a huge sum for the cash-strapped Palestinians. According to some Palestinian sources, the banks have informed the PA they do not intend to approve additional loans to pay the salaries of PA workers. As a result of the debt and the growing deficit, starting in early August, there will likely be delays in paying the salaries of government workers as well as the security forces that ensure the survival of the PA — including during the Banat instability, when protests against Abbas were violently quelled.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses a meeting of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council in a speech that was broadcast on Wednesday, June 23, 2021 (WAFA)

Politically, too, the PA is in trouble after the cancellation of the Palestinian elections and Banat’s death. Had elections been held, Hamas would likely have won, in part because of the Gaza conflict with Israel in May, which was seen by many in the West Bank as a Hamas victory. It’s to Abbas’s benefit that Palestinian elections are not in sight and reconciliation with Hamas is as elusive as ever. In many ways, the PA-Hamas divide resembles the PA’s intractable conflict with Israel, which cannot be resolved but only managed — with limited guarantees.

Despite the anger over Banat’s death, however, there are currently no mass protests against Abbas in the West Bank after Fatah deployed its officers to the streets to disperse the large demonstrations.

“Who will they protest against? Abu Mazen [Abbas]? Please, the question is the alternative,” a Palestinian colleague remarked this week. “Most of the Palestinian public in the West Bank does not want Hamas or the Israeli occupation managing its affairs. Abbas is seen as a bad option, but better than the alternatives.”

Thousands of Fatah activists gather in a rally in support of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday, July 3, 2021 (WAFA)

The good news for the Palestinians is the change of tone by the new Biden administration, as well as the establishment of the new Bennett-Lapid government in Israel.

Though the Israeli prime minister and PA president have had no contact, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, President Isaac Herzog and others have spoken to the Palestinian leader. Last week, Meretz ministers also met with their Palestinian counterparts. The Palestinians know that Israel wants a stable PA and to preserve Abbas’s standing. The increase in work permits for Palestinians was an expression of this desire, despite Israel’s decision to again withhold the tax revenues it collects for the PA, against funds that are distributed to Palestinian prisoners and the families of terrorists. From a diplomatic perspective, Abbas’s position is more secure today as he has someone to work with, as contrasted with the total disconnect from the previous Netanyahu governments.

Palestinian sources, however, say there is wide concern in Fatah that Israel and Hamas will reach an agreement to rehabilitate the Strip and improve Gaza’s economic situation, in exchange for quiet along the southern border. Should such a deal include a Palestinian prisoner swap in exchange for the Israelis held in Gaza, officials say, this will significantly boost Hamas’s support in the enclave and the West Bank and generate considerable disquiet over the PA’s standing.

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