This past week, protests and rebellion made a reappearance in Lebanon. After sheltering in place for weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic, the masses took to the streets as restrictions were eased, to demonstrate against another, no less dangerous plague, that has been attacking Lebanon for years and which they can’t seem to shake off. The protesters set fire to banks, blocked traffic and clashed with security forces over the nation’s economic distress, lack of jobs and budding shortages.
The coals of popular protest have been blazing in Lebanon for many months now, even before the arrival of the winter rain and the virus. Popular criticism targets the “system” in Lebanon, that creates corruption and paralyzes state institutions. In last week’s protests, the new government—only just established in an attempt to handle the economic crisis—was also targeted. But the ones who should be most worried by the resurgence of the protests are Hassan Nasrallah and his Hezbollah organization, which many Lebanese see as responsible for Lebanon’s current plight.
For years, Hezbollah was able to control events in Lebanon from behind the scenes and maneuver the government in Beirut into doing its bidding, all the while presenting itself as the opposition representing the weak and oppressed in Lebanese society, particularly the Shi’ites, in their fight for social justice. Hezbollah also presumed to promise the Lebanese that its ongoing battle against Israel would not only not harm Lebanon but would bolster the country, allowing its citizens to continue living in comfort, freedom and prosperity as the conflict went on.
But Hezbollah’s masks have been ripped off one after the other, and the organization has been exposed as an entity likely to wreak greater disaster in Lebanon than COVID-19.
The fires were lit at the end of last year after the Lebanese economy collapsed and the government proved helpless to address the crisis. Hezbollah, which came under criticism as the “strong man” of the country, was at first embarrassed, then rushed to exploit the protests to put in place a government in which it and its allies could set the tone, a government that would not interfere with or criticize it. But then the coronavirus pandemic arrived, and Lebanon’s economic problems only grew worse. The Lebanese lira lost 100 percent of its value in the space of a few weeks, and over half the Lebanese were driven into abject poverty.
As a result, the Lebanese are now starting to acknowledge that the crisis demands they fight not only the coronavirus but also Hezbollah, which has turned Lebanon into a pariah nation and made it difficult for it to receive international aid. Just last week, for example, Germany outlawed Hezbollah—the whole organization, not only its military arm—as a terrorist entity.
Despite the troubles at home, Hezbollah wants to send a message of “business as usual” when it comes to Israel. Just two weeks ago, Israel accused Hezbollah of breaching the Israeli-Lebanon border with the intent of sending a threatening message about what could happen if Israel dared to attack Hezbollah or Iranian assets in Syria. But the move actually signalled weakness, and, as was shown by the killing of top Iranian military commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani by the United States in January, it turns out that both Hezbollah and its Iranian patron talk a big game but do little, and are afraid that any escalation at the current time would not be to their benefit.
All Hezbollah really wants is to be left alone so it and the Iranians can keep building up their forces. Therefore, the last thing Israel should do right now is let up the pressure if its goal is to oust the Iranians from Syria and weaken Hezbollah.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.
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