Hizbollah’s ‘liberation’ hurt both Lebanon and Israel

The withdrawal of Israeli troops from south Lebanon was popular in both countries. But 14 years on, it is clear Hizbollah's success merely empowered the most confrontational elements of both democracies, writes Faisal Al Yafai
Supporters of Hizbollah listen to their leader, Hassan Nasrallah, as he speaks via a giant screen during the celebration in the southern town of Bint Jbeil, Lebanon. EPA
Supporters of Hizbollah listen to their leader, Hassan Nasrallah, as he speaks via a giant screen during the celebration in the southern town of Bint Jbeil, Lebanon. EPA

Sunday in Lebanon saw celebrations in Beirut and the south for Liberation Day, the day Lebanese mark the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the south in 2000, ending a 15-year occupation.

Amid the flag waving and singing, there was a speech by Hizbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah, featuring a telling moment about the state of Lebanon’s politics. It came when Mr Nasrallah spoke about the current impasse in Lebanon’s choosing of a president and urged “patience” with the process. Here was the unelected leader of a party with a formidable military wing urging the Lebanese to have “patience” with their squabbling elected representatives.

It was a reflection of how, over the long 14 years since the end of the occupation of the south, Hizbollah has positioned itself at the very centre of Lebanon’s politics, the constant heart of a democracy endlessly in flux. It also explains where the blame for that political failure really lies.

Hizbollah’s success in 2000 should have ushered in a new era of politics in the two democracies affected. The withdrawal was popular in both Israel and Lebanon – but the repercussions of it have dragged both countries into extreme politics.

It did not start that way. Like so much of the Levant’s recent history, the reasons for Israel’s occupation of the south had its roots in the civil war in Lebanon.

By the end of the 1990s, Lebanon still did not control its own territory – the Israelis occupied the far south and the Syrians were still on the ground inside the country.

(More than one analyst has pondered why Hizbollah were so keen to get rid of one foreign occupation but less keen on removing the other.)

Hizbollah, with help from Syria and Iran, had stepped up its attacks to remove Israel and were exacting a painful price. The military were unhappy at both the loss of prestige (and its related weakening of Israel’s deterrent), and felt they were being tasked with defending a pointless occupation.

Politically, it was also costly – Israel was now occupying parts of three Arab countries (Palestine, Syria and Lebanon). And public opinion was against it, disliking the loss of life.

In Israel, the withdrawal could have ushered in an era of more conciliatory politics. Ehud Barak made withdrawal from Lebanon a central part of his election campaign and won in 1999 – the first time a centre-left party had won in Israel since Yitzhak Rabin in 1992. But after 18 months, even after the withdrawal, he was on his way out. His brief prime ministership was the last time a centrist party would lead Israel.

What happened? How did the retreat from an unpopular war turn into political defeat?

Partly, it was a resurgence of support for the military-first narrative, as epitomised by Ariel Sharon. Sharon outmanoeuvred Barak, even managing to avoid the blame for sparking the Second Intifada with a provocative visit to the Temple Mount.

But it was also a failure on Barak’s part to see that the occupation of Lebanon and the occupation of Palestine were related. The loss of the south empowered the rejectionist wing of the Palestinian parties, making them more likely to believe a military victory could also unseat Israel from their lands. Without a political track to negotiations, Sharon filled the gap.

A similar move happened in Lebanon. Hizbollah emerged from the 2000 withdrawal militarily strong, politically influential and with the propaganda claim of forcing Israelto cede occupied territory for the first time since Egypt regained the Sinai Peninsula in 1979.

What followed was enormous sway over Lebanon’s politics. The group already had representatives in parliament, but when Syrian troops were forced out by popular protests in 2005, Hizbollah really came into their own.

Having survived Israel’s onslaught in 2006, Hizbollah emerged as the only guarantor of Lebanon’s security. The national army proved inept at stopping Israeli warplanes from attacking the capital Beirut. This was the high point of its popularity and Hizbollah sought greater political powers, leading the country into its worst deadlock for years. In the end, indirectly, the group got its demand, with the Doha Agreement handing the opposition – of which Hizbollah’s political wing was a leading part – veto powers.

They used that power in 2011 to bring down the government of Saad Hariri. Indeed, today, it is impossible to imagine a government in Beirut that does not have the approval of Hizbollah.

It is striking – and instructive – to look back at the political repercussions of the 2000 withdrawal. Despite being a popular move in both countries, it led to a chain of events that have paralysed both democracies.

In Israel, military-first, security-led policies are now the norm. No party dares oppose the settler movement, even as its followers stage more audacious attacks on Palestinians and its politicians espouse the harshest rhetoric.

Similarly in Lebanon, the 2000 withdrawal paved the way for the centrality of Hizbollah’s political wing in Lebanese public life. A big part of that has been the complete failure of Lebanon’s politicians to confront the group in an organised way. Rather, with Hizbollah at its heart, Lebanon’s politics has revolved, with various political groupings allying for short-term gain.

The end result is that both countries are in thrall to less moderate wings, the Lebanese to Hizbollah, the Israelis to the settlers. The end of the occupation should have ushered in a period of better relations between the two. It turned out to merely empower the most confrontational elements in both countries.


On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai

Published: May 28, 2014 04:00 AM


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