Hezbollah, Iran need to contain the situation in Lebanon

As Israel’s northern neighbor teeters on the brink, Tehran and its Lebanese proxy force risk losing their hard-earned control over the country.

Hezbollah and Lebanese flags. Credit: Arthur Sarradin.
Hezbollah and Lebanese flags. Credit: Arthur Sarradin.
Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira (JCPA)
Shimon Shapira
Brig. Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira is a senior research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as Military Secretary to the Prime Minister and as Israel Foreign Ministry chief of staff. He edited the Jerusalem Center eBook Iran: From Regional Challenge to Global Threat.

Seven Hezbollah and Amal Party members were killed and 60 wounded in Beirut on Oct. 14  in what has been termed the Tayouneh neighborhood massacre. Hezbollah has accused the Christian Lebanese Forces Party, headed by Samir Geagea, of being behind the attack but has moved to prevent any retaliation.

Hezbollah’s goal in doing this, decided upon jointly with Iran, was to prevent Lebanon from deteriorating into civil war. Mohammad Raad, the head of Hezbollah’s bloc in the Lebanese parliament, expressed this goal unequivocally at a Hezbollah political gathering in southern Lebanon. “Hezbollah will not be dragged into a civil war and will not threaten civil peace,” he said. However, he added that “they will not accept their martyrs’ blood to go in vain, as Israel would have ruled Lebanon without these martyrs.”

Raad emphasized that “Hezbollah’s keenness, with its full will, is on civil peace among Lebanese, so that what happened during the [previous] civil war will be avoided.” It was to this end, he said, that Hezbollah had “reached an understanding with the largest Christian component in Lebanon, the Free Patriotic Movement, in 2006.”

At the same time, Hezbollah allowed the Lebanese Army to deploy its forces along the boundaries between conflicting neighborhoods, and Lebanon’s intelligence and security forces to handle the incident. Indeed, Lebanon’s Central Security Council, incorporating all security and intelligence heads, immediately convened for this purpose.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah accused Geagea of trying to drag Lebanon into a civil war that would lead to demographic changes and the creation of Christian cantons under his control. He accused Geagea of being the greatest danger to Lebanon’s Christians, stressing that Hezbollah was not their enemy. Hezbollah, said Nasrallah, had supported Christians in Syria, helped them in the war against Islamic State and the Al-Nusra Front and sacrificed its elite fighters in these battles.

After Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, he added, “Hezbollah prevented any of its fighters or the fighters belonging to the [Shi’ite] Amal Movement from entering the Christian towns in south Lebanon upon the liberation in 2000. We did not harm even collaborators with the Israeli enemy in those towns, rather, we handed them over to the Lebanese Army. This was in a bid to avoid any Muslim-Christian tension.”

Nasrallah also claimed that Hezbollah has 100,000 trained, organized and equipped fighters, but said they were unprepared to fight a civil war.

“We have trained them to defend our land and our oil and gas, which are stolen from right under the nose of the Lebanese people, to protect Lebanon’s dignity and sovereignty from any aggression and terrorism, not for an internal war,” he said. “We’re unveiling for the first time the number of our fighters to avoid a civil war, not to threaten such a war. To [the Christian] Lebanese Forces and their leaders, I say: don’t miscalculate. If a war breaks out, would Israel, the United States, or Saudi Arabia support you?”

While Nasrallah appears to have overstated the size of his forces, taken at face value the figure validates the assertion that Lebanon is a state within Hezbollah more than Hezbollah is a state within Lebanon.

The strategic goal of Hezbollah and Iran is to maintain internal stability and thus continued control of Lebanon through the country’s legitimate institutions. Iran views Hezbollah as its greatest foreign-policy success in the Middle East and is determined to protect and preserve it. In this framework, Hezbollah and Iran will not allow Judge Tarek Bitar, who is investigating the Aug. 4 Beirut Port explosion, to damage Hezbollah’s standing and blame it for the misdeeds that led to the disaster. Therefore, they are insisting on the judge’s dismissal. At the same time, Hezbollah is demanding the prosecution of those who killed Shi’ite civilians on Oct. 14.

At this stage, the threat to Lebanon’s internal security remains. Despite Hezbollah’s efforts to avoid a violent deterioration, the tensions brought on by the CLF may spiral out of control, precisely when Lebanon is facing a catastrophic economic crisis.

Brig. Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira is a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as Military Secretary to the Prime Minister and as chief of staff to the Foreign Minister. He edited the Jerusalem Center eBook Iran: From Regional Challenge to Global Threat. He is the author of Hezbollah: Between Iran and Lebanon, Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University, 2000, four editions.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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