Five months after the withdrawal of Israeli forces from south Lebanon, Hizballah refuses to go away. In early October, Hizballah made headlines in its struggle against Israel by kidnapping three Israeli soldiers, and a fourth man, Elhanan Tannenbaum, accused of spying on Israel’s behalf. The high-profile abductions were much more than an act of “solidarity” with the ongoing popular uprising in the Occupied Territories: Hizballah seeks to broaden the regional and domestic political influence it gained when its fighters forced the Israeli evacuation. Hizballah’s strong pronouncements in support of the new intifada, renewed October 22 in the wake of the Arab summit, must be read as attempts to capture Palestinian and other Arab public opinion. But Hizballah finds itself caught in a dilemma: to play a regional role it must remain as militant as it is today. Yet as long as Hizballah remains militant, it will provoke the suspicion of most other political and religious constituencies within Lebanon.
Anatomy of Four Kidnappings
Though the four kidnappings appeared to be linked to the Palestinian uprising, the link was only tangential. Hizballah primarily seeks bargaining chips in what is bound to be a long and complex negotiating process to bring about the release of 19 Lebanese prisoners still being held in Israeli jails. Among these are two senior Hizballah officials, Sheikh Abd al-Karim Ubayd and Mustafa Dirani, both of whom Israel decided to keep in custody after its withdrawal, in order to gain information on a missing airman, Ron Arad, who disappeared in Lebanon in the 1980s.
Since May, Hizballah has argued that until all Lebanese prisoners are released, the Israeli pullout will be considered incomplete. The UN, which mediated between Israel and the Lebanese authorities at the time of the withdrawal, appeared to implicitly agree: following the abduction of the Israelis, the international organization’s special envoy to Lebanon, Rolf Knutsson, called on all sides to release their captives. However, things may become more complicated: Hizballah’s demands may also include information on the fate of four Iranian diplomats captured by the Christian Lebanese Forces militia in 1982. A Palestinian organization has also asked Hizballah to secure the release of Palestinians being held in Israeli jails.
Not by coincidence, the three Israeli sergeants were abducted in the Shebaa Farms area. The farms are claimed by the Lebanese as theirs, though Israel and the UN argue that they are Syrian. Though Lebanon’s claim poses difficulties internationally, it has become official Lebanese policy that the farms must be returned. Until then, Lebanon contends, resistance in the area is legitimate. Within the parameters set down by the authorities, therefore, Hizballah’s operation was permissible. Significantly, in laying down cover fire for the abductors, Hizballah avoided targeting Israeli territory.
The principal explanation for Lebanon’s desire to justify continued resistance in the border area lies in the strategic needs of its powerful neighbor Syria. Despite UN, French and US insistence, the Lebanese government has refused to deploy a sizeable army force in the southern districts previously occupied by Israel. Lebanon and Syria wish to avoid the military neutralization of the border area. Their fear is that if the area were neutralized, Syria would be denied military leverage during negotiations over the fate of the Golan Heights. Hizballah’s operation made it clear that Shebaa Farms could be turned into a flashpoint at any time, should Syrian interests so dictate.
In lieu of a substantial Lebanese army presence—only 500 soldiers and 500 policemen have been deployed—the border area is largely controlled by Hizballah. The party has been instrumental in maintaining low-level tension along the border, most often by organizing, or permitting, rock-throwing at Israeli troops. The Israelis have responded with increasing vigor, firing live ammunition on Palestinian refugees who marched on the border fence October 7 and killing two. Hizballah considers these border incidents an essential strategy for keeping the Israelis off balance. The downside is growing international discomfort with the vacuum in the border area. During his most recent visit to Beirut, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan reportedly warned the Lebanese that the mandate of UNIFIL, the UN force in southern Lebanon, might not be renewed if the Lebanese government refused to secure the border.
Playing Domestic Politics
Hizballah hopes its heightened regional profile will also consolidate its influence in Lebanon’s domestic political scene. In many respects, the party’s domestic influence has been a byproduct of its successes in the south — hence its reluctance to see a swift end to the conflict with Israel. Domestically, however, Hizballah faces real constraints. In Lebanon’s September elections, for example, the party did not gain parliamentary seats. According to several accounts, Hizballah and Syria came to an understanding that all the party’s candidates would be ensured of election if Hizballah would forego a larger quota of seats. That is indeed what happened, suggesting that while Syria is willing to grant Hizballah leeway in the south, it is not prepared to let the party gain undue power in the delicately balanced internal political arena.
The Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri today named a new cabinet, though Hizballah had already formally announced that it would not participate. Its relations with Hariri have not been especially good in the past, nor did the party consider representation in the new government essential. While a cabinet post would have signaled a milestone in the party’s gradual integration into the formal political system — a process which commenced well over a decade ago when it began dispensing social services within the Shiite community — Hizballah sees itself as larger than the political system, with its petty deal-making and confessional compromises. Hizballah aspires to nothing less than to be the main Shiite interlocutor with Lebanon’s other communities, while also playing an influential regional role as the spearhead of opposition to Israel.
Outside and In
These domestic and regional aspirations received a major boost from the abduction of the Israelis. Hizballah can now claim, simultaneously, that it is the most effective defender of Lebanese national interests and a champion of the Palestinian struggle. For this reason, the prisoners imbroglio will develop parallel to, but independently of, the intifada. Hizballah will likely draw the negotiations out, both to embarrass Israel and draw maximal political gains from the heightened Arab resentment of Israel.
Within Lebanon, Hizballah has more to lose. Despite the party’s success in the south and its purportedly greater integrity than other Lebanese parties, another Shiite organization, parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal movement, holds the most sway in internal politics. Though Amal is less disciplined and played a far smaller role in the liberation of the south, it controls, thanks to Berri’s influence, most Shiite government and civil service appointments, a powerful source of patronage. Adding to Berri’s advantage is the weakening but still ambient suspicion of Hizballah by other communities. Hizballah has sought to build bridges to Christians, meeting with the Maronite patriarch, Nasrallah Sfayr. But Hizballah’s brand of Islamist militancy—which the party uses strategically when it needs to strengthen its appeal to impoverished Lebanese Shiites and other Muslims—is virtually irreconcilable with some Maronites’ fears of their growing minority status in postwar Lebanon.