When Israel undertook its aerial and naval bombardment of Lebanon on July 12, one announced goal was to recover two Israeli servicemen seized by Hizballah in a cross-border raid earlier that day. The attacks upon civilian infrastructure—beginning with Beirut International Airport and continuing with ancillary airstrips, bridges and roads, as well as port facilities in Beirut, Jounieh, Amshit and Tripoli—were necessary, Israeli officials claim, to prevent Hizballah from smuggling the prisoners out of Lebanon.

Israel cites a different reason for the incessant targeting of Beirut’s southern suburbs (the dahiya), and villages and towns in the Bekaa Valley and south Lebanon. In language adopted uncritically by the Western media, these areas are said to be “Hizballah strongholds” that house key meeting places for the Islamist party’s political and military leadership and harbor batteries of the rockets that Hizballah sends flying into northern Israel. According to Lebanese officials, the bombing focused on the dahiya, the Bekaa and the south has killed over 380 Lebanese, the vast majority of them civilians, and displaced another 500,000-750,000. Most of the dead and displaced are Shi‘a, since the air raids have been concentrated in predominantly Shi‘i regions.

In the name of “hitting Hizballah infrastructure,” Israel has bombed power stations, a lighthouse, dairies and factories, trucks ferrying medical supplies from Syria, minivans packed with fleeing Lebanese refugees, cellular phone towers and television broadcast transmitters. The latter strikes knocked out transmissions of Hizballah’s al-Manar network, but two other major channels as well.

All the justifications aside, the battle plan makes it clear that, with its campaign to “neutralize” Hizballah, Israel, with US backing, has reentered Lebanese politics. The idea, over the long term, seems to be to utilize Lebanon’s heightened sectarian tensions to help bring Hizballah’s military capacity into line with the conventions of international law. At the same time, as per President George W. Bush’s repeated statements, Israel and the US hope not to “weaken” the Lebanese government. Making sure the government will not collapse was likely the real purpose of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s “surprise” visit to Beirut on July 24. But, particularly as the war proceeds, Israel’s meddling through bombing may be more than the feeble Lebanese state can bear.

Political Ground of the Battle

Lebanon has a long history of international intervention, often invited by one element of the Lebanese polity against another. The Syrian military’s entry into Lebanon’s civil war in 1976, for example, was requested by then-president Sulayman Franjieh to counter the nominally leftist, mostly Muslim forces of the Lebanese National Movement.

Today, “internationalization” is packaged as UN Security Council Resolution 1559, passed in September 2004 with the vigorous backing of the US and France, and now promoted just as vigorously by Israel. That resolution called for the Syrian military’s withdrawal from Lebanese territory and “disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias,” a reference to the Islamic Resistance of Hizballah and the Damascus-backed militant groups in Palestinian refugee camps.

Resolution 1559 did presage Syria’s departure, thanks to the February 2005 assassination of the billionaire and former premier Rafiq al-Hariri, a crime that many Lebanese blame on Syria and its Lebanese clients. Hariri was the man accused of secretly lobbying France and the US to cosponsor the resolution.

Washington’s Lebanese clients are the “March 14 forces,” an assortment of confessional groups ranging from the Future Movement (the political machine of the Hariris, still Lebanon’s pre-eminent Sunni family) and their close ally Druze lord Walid Jumblatt to the liberal Christian Qurnat Shahwan Gathering and the Lebanese Forces of the Maronite Christian right. The most significant secular component of the March 14 forces is the Democratic Left Party, the brainchild of assassinated academic and al-Nahar editiorialist Samir Kassir.

This unwieldy coalition’s name comes from the massive popular demonstration of March 14, 2005, the largest in Lebanese history, called to trump Hizballah’s rally of March 8—organized to “thank” departing Syrian forces for their service to Lebanon. Congealing in the wake of Hariri’s assassination, the March 14 forces have few common interests other than shaking off the remnants of Syrian hegemony—in the main, President Emile Lahoud—and reining in Hizballah.

These are the very issues taken up by the Lebanese “national dialogue,” which assembled the country’s sectarian-political leadership in downtown Beirut for nine consecutive sessions from March to June 2006. It is a mark of the shortcomings of Lebanon’s confessional system of consensus decision-making that, after three months of negotiations, neither issue—Lahoud’s mandate or Hizballah’s arms—had been resolved. The outcome of the final two sessions, on June 8 and 29, offers a snapshot of the quality of statesmanship at work in the national dialogue. Appropriately enough, these sessions were supposed to be devoted to Hizballah’s weaponry and what “national defense strategy” (vis-à-vis Israel) might be adopted after the Shi‘i militia’s disarmament.

The June 8 session was held in the wake of small-scale riots led by Hizballah supporters on June 2, following mockery of Hizballah Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah on a satirical program that runs on LBC, a television network founded by the Lebanese Forces. These disturbances saw Shi‘i youth block streets, burn tires and vandalize property, and assaults were reported in some Christian and Sunni neighborhoods. The main accomplishment of the June 8 session, then, came when the participants publicly adopted Nasrallah’s proposed “code of honor,” in order to end the mudslinging that preceded the riots.

As to the matter of defense strategy, discussants agreed to disagree. Former President Amin Gemayel told the press that the March 14 forces had agreed “on general principles without discussing details and we reached a conviction that arms and decisions to protect the country should be with the Lebanese authorities alone.” For his part, Nasrallah refused domestic and international calls to disarm or integrate Hizballah’s military wing into the Lebanese army, proposing, rather, a defense strategy that allowed the Islamic Resistance to keep its weapons as a deterrent to possible Israeli aggression. In reply, March 14 spokesmen asked “whether Lebanon alone should continue to confront Israel militarily, and bear the burdens of such confrontation.”

The session of June 29 was equally inconclusive, though discussants agreed that the international community should step in to halt Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip. “Everyone is committed to Lebanon, as a strong, united and sovereign country,” said Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, who had long been a rival of Hizballah as leader of the Shi‘i Amal movement, but who has grown closer to Hizballah since the 2005 parliamentary elections. “Therefore, since they all have the same concerns and agree that Israel is the enemy, we will reach agreement [on a national defense strategy].”

Just before the June 29 session, a March 14 spokesman told the press that the public should not have high expectations from the talks. With the international community’s attention focused on Iran’s nuclear program, Iraq and Palestine, he said, finding a solution to Lebanon’s problems seemed unlikely.

Why Now?

Why did Hizballah grab the Israeli soldiers when it did? This is the question about the present crisis that most puzzles veteran analysts and observers of the Shi‘i movement. Nasrallah told al-Jazeera on July 20 that the answer is quite simple: the ongoing imprisonment of three Lebanese in Israel is an outstanding Lebanese grievance against Israel whose resolution “can stand no postponement.” He went on to say that he informed his interlocutors in the national dialogue “on more than one occasion that we are serious about the prisoners issue, and that this can only be solved through the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers.” He did not, however, alert them of the timing of the operation, which he tacitly portrayed as a matter of opportunity.

March 14 politicians and media outlets (many of Lebanon’s major political groupings own television and radio stations and newspapers) have long been fond of portraying Nasrallah as a stooge of Iran and Syria. Since the onset of the Israeli campaign on July 12, though, only Walid Jumblatt, ensconced in the mountain fastness of his villa in Mukhtara, still speaks in such terms.

The relationships among Hizballah, Syria and Iran are more complicated than the caricatures suggest. Analysts agree that the party’s relationship with Damascus is a pragmatic one, whose significance has declined with Syria’s international marginalization in the aftermath of the Hariri assassination. “Syria has no political clout over Hizballah,” says Lebanese-American University professor Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, author of a book on the Shi‘i movement. “If anything, the relationship has been reversed, that is to say, Tehran is of assistance to Damascus. In fact, we’ve seen this since Israel launched its attack on Lebanon, when Iran warned it would intervene if Israel attacked Syria.”

Hizballah’s founders are indeed inspired by Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, and analysts agree it shares obvious ideological and geopolitical goals with Tehran. None, though, would reduce Iran’s ties with Hizballah to a simple patron-client relationship. “Hizballah’s leadership has considerable autonomy in its decision-making and internal dynamics within the party cannot be dismissed,” says Timur Goksel, the veteran commander of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), now retired, who has decades of experience dealing with Hizballah on the ground.

The sheer scale of the present conflict, though, has made analysts wonder. Among advocates and foes alike, Hizballah under Nasrallah is respected for the strategic and tactical intelligence of its decision-making. That said, Hizballah must have understood the risks it was taking in snatching two Israeli soldiers at this time.

“This operation has aroused deep doubts in me,” says Goksel. “Risking an attack of this magnitude now has nothing to do with Hizballah’s interests. It’s against the interests of south Lebanon and Lebanon. It certainly wasn’t carried out for Syria’s benefit. But Hizballah’s acting on Iran’s behalf doesn’t make any sense either. Why would Tehran want to waste an asset like Hizballah at this point, being in conflict with the US as it is? I think there are lots of people within Hizballah who are asking themselves, ‘Why now?’”

Saad-Ghorayeb is also at a loss to explain the timing. “They’ve attempted such abductions [since the successful operations of 2000],” she says. “There was a failed attempt in November 2005. Coinciding as the kidnapping does with what’s happening in Gaza, the question arises as to whether it was done in coordination with Hamas, or perhaps it was just a coincidence.”

“This action clearly wasn’t inspired by Hamas,” says Goksel. “It must have been planned several months in advance…. Palestinians love to see Hizballah humiliate the Israeli army but, as someone pointed out recently, Hizballah stole the limelight from Hamas’ activities in Gaza and there are likely to be members of the Hamas leadership who resent that.”

Perceptions that Hizballah was playing to a foreign audience with its July 12 cross-border raid will complicate efforts to secure political reconciliation in Lebanon after the Israeli air raids and incursions are over. The Future Movement and its March 14 allies will likely use the destruction wrought by Israel’s vengeance to argue that Hizballah is now obliged to subordinate its regional agenda to national interests dictated by the Lebanese government.

Playing Sectarian Politics

Now Israel has made effective compliance with Resolution 1559—Hizballah disarmament and retreat from the border—its condition for the cessation of bombardment. Israel has thus cast itself as the enforcer of US policy in Lebanon. In doing so, it underlines for Lebanese and international audiences alike that Resolution 1559 expresses a de facto community of interests among Washington’s Lebanese and Israeli clients. The effect is to further delegitimize Hizballah’s agenda in the eyes of the world while deepening the alienation of the party’s constituency from the Lebanese state—whom some will see to be complicit in the huge Israeli assault.

Israel has blithely played upon Lebanon’s sectarian divisions with the patterns of bombing and with leaflets asserting that Nasrallah is beholden to foreign masters. Though the Shi‘a of Lebanon are not pre-programmed to be Hizballah supporters, and many are not, the unremitting strikes against south Lebanon, the Bekaa and Beirut’s southern suburbs punish the Shi‘i population for being the constituency that Hizballah primarily serves. They also replicate international sanctions against Palestinians for having the temerity to vote for Hamas in the January 2006 Palestinian elections.

While residents of the dahiya died or were displaced, residents of northern Beirut live in deep anxiety. Smaller, but still deadly strikes upon targets outside the dahiya and south Lebanon—a construction site in Beirut’s Christian residential neighborhood of al-Ashrafiyya, for example—are aimed at accentuating domestic antagonism against Hizballah, indeed the Shi‘a generally, without explicitly targeting the constituencies of the Bush administration’s Lebanese allies.

Infrastructure hits have been vicious, yet (in a sense) oddly restrained: Israel could have (and, in fact, has in the past) taken out all of Lebanon’s power plants in a single night. It did not do so. Though the fuel tanks and runways of Beirut International Airport were struck, those who have seen it say the terminal building itself is unscathed.

Such selectivity is not born of humanitarian instincts. Through strangulation and anxiety about what will next be targeted, Israel hopes to provoke simmering resentment against Hizballah rather than shocked nationwide anger at an external enemy.

Any claims Israel might put forward that its attacks have been in the best interests of Lebanese are rendered absurd by the crisis it has provoked. International human rights organizations tag the human and material loss arising from the Israeli offensive—coupled with the military’s blockade of Beirut—as a humanitarian crisis in the making.

Lebanese civil society activists, who stepped into void left by the ineffectual Social Affairs Ministry of the March 14 forces’ Nayla Mu‘awwad, reported that there were rumors of rice and lentil shortages within the first week of the siege. One speculated that some Lebanese wholesalers were keeping their produce off the market to drive prices up.

Without effective intervention, shortages are inevitable, since air and sea attacks are systematically destroying reserves, and infrastructure strikes and the naval blockade make resupply ever more difficult. If the blockade continues for more than a couple of weeks, shortages of affordable food, petrol and potable water will worsen for the poor. Electricity supplies will dwindle, all the more quickly because the state has so far pursued a very liberal rationing regime—much more so than during the several infrastructure strikes from 1998 to 2000.

Israeli promises to allow aid to enter the country ring hollow for refugees, given that Israel could close such “humanitarian corridors” on any pretext, effectively using them to pressure the Lebanese in negotiations.

A Landscape Altered by Bombs

“We are truly in a state of war and Hizballah’s priority is to stop the savage Zionist aggression on Lebanon,” said Nasrallah in an interview with Beirut’s al-Safir newspaper. “We do not feel that we are currently interested in discussing ideas or initiatives.” But his party will have to discuss initiatives sooner or later.

Analysts looking at post-assault scenarios wonder what pragmatic measures can be taken to curb the autonomy of Hizballah when the dust of this crisis settles. The foremost question is whether the party’s military wing can be integrated into the Lebanese army.

For Saad-Ghorayeb, this is a non-question. “Israel won’t eliminate Hizballah, but if the Israelis succeed in imposing a ceasefire on their own terms, if 1559 is implemented and Lebanese troops are deployed along the border, then the party is finished: there will be no need to integrate them into the army.” Other analysts and observers say integration is far more likely now than before July 12. “After this attack,” says Goksel, “Hizballah now owes something to this country.”

Hizballah authority and American University of Kuwait professor Nizar Hamzeh agrees with this assessment. “It’s inconceivable that Hizballah would continue [cross-border] attacks without regional cover,” he says. “If they do so, it means someone in the Hizballah military command has gone mad. To negotiate a solution means either giving back the soldiers or exchanging them for Lebanese prisoners and retreating 20-25 kilometers back from the border. The vacuum will be filled by a double barrier: a bolstered international troop contingent with the Lebanese army deployed behind them.”

Some doubt the efficacy of this solution because, at the end of the day, Hizballah still has missiles that can reach deep into Israel. For all its bluster about defending its citizens, though, this may be enough for Israel. A threat of indiscriminate Katyusha attacks upon Israeli civilians will simply reinforce international perceptions that Hizballah is a terrorist organization. More important is the need to terminate the capacity of the Islamic Resistance to kill and capture Israeli soldiers.

It should be noted that, in the war to date, Hizballah has killed more Israeli soldiers than civilians and dented the pride of the Israeli navy with its missile strike on a gunboat off the Beiruti shore. Such ratios eat away at the morale of the Israeli army and public—who thrive on the myth of Israeli military invincibility. More significantly, they boost the morale of Arab populations whose leaders’ compliant positions vis-à-vis the US and Israel are premised on the idea that Israel is unbeatable on the field of battle. Most worrisome for the Israeli military command, of course, are Palestinian resistance fighters, who have already proven themselves avid pupils of Hizballah’s success.

The major question troubling analysts, though, isn’t whether the Hizballah’s armed forces will be integrated into the Lebanese army, but whether post-siege Lebanon will have the political stability needed to make such negotiations possible. The sectarian groups within the country are likely to be further polarized when this is all over.

For some Hizballah antagonists, the lack of consultation with the mainstream political class before the July 12 operation amounts to a de facto coup. The ensuing, unwanted conflict with the region’s great power has crippled the economy and destroyed post-war efforts to rehabilitate the country’s image as a thin wedge of Europe in the Middle East.

Most Lebanese Shi‘a and others who do not see a stake for themselves in Hariri’s neo-liberal dream for Lebanon will blame Israel for this mayhem. Many will be bound ever more tightly to Hizballah, particularly if the wellbeing of most of the displaced remains in the hands of the party’s social welfare system. “Politically speaking, the viability of the party doesn’t depend on international or military considerations,” says Hamzeh. “What does matter is the degree of support it maintains within its constituency after the conflict is ended—and that could drag on until August, and beyond.”

“After this is over the stark question is whether Lebanon will plunge back into civil war. The potential is certainly there. The corollary to this is whether the international community has any interest in Lebanon’s stability or not. What is certain is that Israel doesn’t care about what goes on inside Lebanon’s borders. All they want is Hizballah to be militarily neutralized—whether that mean disarming them or putting an effective international and Lebanese buffer between militants and the Israeli border.”

“We have to wait and see whether Iran and Syria are equally indifferent,” Hamzeh continues. “Syria has more to gain from chronic instability here. Iran is a much more important player and might be willing to work indirectly with America—as it is in Iraq. We’ll have to see.”


How to cite this article:

Jim Quilty "Israel’s War Against Lebanon’s Shi‘a," Middle East Report Online, July 25, 2006.

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