While last summer’s hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah ended on August 14 with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, the struggle for Lebanon did not. In the five months since the ceasefire’s implementation, the pro-Iranian Islamist organization has launched a furious offensive to harness its postwar gains.
Though the Israeli army’s 34-day operation ravaged Lebanon’s landscape and put a dent in Hezbollah’s arsenal, the group’s mobilization efforts and propaganda machine never missed a beat. No sooner had the fighting ended did Hezbollah begin dispensing cash to bolster its constituency and rebuild damaged infrastructure.
On September 21, three days after the Winograd Commission began investigating the Israeli leadership’s war effort, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah declared a “divine and strategic victory” over the Jewish state. Speaking in bombed-out south Beirut, an emboldened Nasrallah proclaimed his opposition to be “stronger than ever.”
With one enemy down, Hezbollah set its sights on another: the anti-Syrian March 14th forces and the U.S.-backed government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. As Israeli forces evacuated southern Lebanon on October 1, Hezbollah grew more brazen. Determined to prevent Lebanon’s return to the status-quo ante, the Party of God demanded a number of political concessions: veto power in the cabinet, the resignation of Siniora’s government, the adoption of a new electoral law, and early elections.
When a national dialogue failed to address its demands, Hezbollah’s campaign escalated. On November 11, six pro-Syrian ministers, among them five Shia, resigned from the cabinet and left the government on the brink of collapse. On December 1, the group’s efforts intensified with an open-ended sit-in in downtown Beirut. On January 23, 2007, the crisis reached a crescendo when a Hezbollah-led strike paralyzed the country and resulted in deadly clashes. In his own words, Nasrallah has depicted this clash with the government as nothing less than a continuation of July war.
But no matter how this crisis plays out, Hezbollah can already claim success. First, Nasrallah has diverted attention away from two key international demands: the creation of a U.N.-mandated tribunal to try the murderers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri; and the disarmament of Hezbollah as called for by UNSCR 1701 and previous resolutions. Hezbollah need only stonewall these initiatives until it can achieve greater representation and torpedo them indefinitely.
The postwar period has also shored up Hezbollah’s role as the sole representative of Lebanon’s Shiite community. While an embattled Siniora government would encounter difficulty in replacing the resigned ministers with independent Shiites, its failure to attempt or even suggest such a move confirms Hezbollah’s distinction as the community’s lone representative, even in the eyes of its adversaries. Naturally, Hezbollah’s consolidation of control over the Shiite community undermines the position of moderate Shiites who opposed the organization’s ideology and agenda — even before the 2006 war. As it coopts its critics and intimidates others, Hezbollah’s strong-arm tactics will continue to stifle Shiite dissent.
Huge gains have been made during the course of the reconstruction efforts as well. Amid the rubble of Beirut’s southern suburbs, Hezbollah has seized a golden opportunity to purchase real estate through questionable transactions in which it has coerced residents to sell their property and negotiate exclusively with the its representatives. These large tracts of land, which are already under construction, will be developed into parks, mosques, and community centers owned and operated by Hezbollah’s social-welfare machine. Throughout this process of rebuilding and expanding its unofficial capital neither the government nor the local community was able to exert any influence.
In terms of rehabilitating its military apparatus, the group wasted no time. Despite the postwar deployment of 12,000 UNIFIL and 15,000 Lebanese soldiers to southern Lebanon, Hezbollah has replenished its rocket supply and continues to receive weapons shipments through the porous Syrian border and the speech of February 16 was also the occasion to boast of this achievement. Though Hezbollah forces now operate underground, its personal fiefdom remains intact. In terms of actual sovereignty, the group still retains final say. UNIFIL seems to concur. When asked what action he would take in the event of renewed fighting between Hezbollah and Israel, former UNIFIL chief Alain Pellegrini said he would “beg” the parties to stop. Thus, if Hezbollah reignites the conflict with Israel, it is clear that neither UNIFIL nor the Lebanese Armed Forces will stand in its way.
The relative calm on the Israeli-Lebanese border is an illusion; Hezbollah remains alive and well. As the international community continues to pledge diplomatic, financial, and military support for Lebanon, it is imperative that the U.S. and its European allies counter Hezbollah’s power play which threatens to plunge the country back into the days of Syrian hegemony and inter-communal violence.
— Lokman Slim and Inga Schei are director and research consultant, respectively, at Hayya Bina, a Lebanese pro-democracy initiative based in Beirut’s southern suburbs.