Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah downplays role in Lebanese government after US warnings

In a speech, the leader said his party would never use state funds for its own benefit

epa07343521 Lebanese citizens listen to Secretary General of Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah during his speaks on Al-Manar TV screen where he spoke about the latest political developments in Lebanon and the situation after new government formed with three Hezbollah ministers, at a coffeshop in Beirut, Lebanon, 04 February 2019.  EPA/NABIL MOUNZER
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Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah downplayed the importance of a party ally being appointed to run the country’s health ministry after US officials warned that the group could seek to use the department to skim funds.

“This is a ministry for all the Lebanese people,” said Mr Nasrallah in a speech on Monday after the 63-year old physician Jamil Jabbak was appointed to run the Health Ministry.

Mr Jabbak insists he is not an official party member but is close to Hezbollah and was reportedly previously the leader’s personal doctor.

The Lebanese government was formed last Thursday after a nearly nine-month deadlock.

For the first time, Hezbollah was given the Health Ministry sparking concern in Washington given that the department controls one of the largest and most important budgets in the government.

Hezbollah also had officials appointed minister of state for parliamentary affairs and minister of youth and sport.

US officials have warned several times over the past few months that Hezbollah should not be given the Health Ministry.

Shortly after the new Cabinet was unveiled, US Treasury's assistant secretary on terror financing Marshall Billingslea told local reporters on Friday that "they [Hezbollah] will exploit whatever ministry they are given". He warned that the US would impose sanctions if they saw the party using the ministry to fund their operations.

Deputy State Department spokesman Robert Palladino reiterated this position by calling the new Lebanese cabinet to “ensure the resources and services of these ministries do not provide support to Hezbollah”.

The US labels the Iran-backed party a terrorist organisation and has targeted the group with financial sanctions in an attempt to curb its activities.

Unlike Washington, most European capitals make a distinction between Hezbollah’s armed and political wings.

"The money of the Lebanese state belongs to the state,” Mr Nasrallah said on Monday night. "We don't want projects, business or anything.”

The Hezbollah leader also stressed that the Health Ministry’s spending would be available for inspection, according to party-affiliated news website Al Ahed.

Mr Nasrallah called Lebanese politicians to not accuse the new government of being a “Hezbollah government” because “this is not in Lebanon’s interest".

“The right description is that this government is comprised of a group of political forces in Lebanon and one of them is Hezbollah,” he said.

Mr Nasrallah’s speech echoed Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s efforts to downplay US warnings last week.

epa07338382 A handout photo made available by Lebanese official photography agency Dalati Nohra shows on (front line) Lebanese President Michel Aoun (C), Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri (C-R) and Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri (C-L) with new Lebanese Ministers pose during family picture at the presidential palace in Baabda east of Beirut, Lebanon, 02 February 2019. Lebanon formed a new government ending nine months of wrangling and deadlock, the government headed by Saad Hariri who has Western and Arabic backing. Hezbollah emerged stronger since the parliamentary election May 2019, held positions in three ministries including the Ministry of Health.  EPA/DALATI NOHRA HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
Lebanon’s new cabinet stand with President Michel Aoun (centre front) and Speaker Nabih Berri (centre left). EPA

But these attempts will do little to change American minds, argued former Lebanese MP Bassem Chab who used to visit the US regularly to discuss Hezbollah along with several other Lebanese officials.

“After so many warnings, this is too much to swallow for the US. I don’t think anybody has any illusions about who will be calling the shots at the Health Ministry”, he told The National.

Should there be additional sanctions, which would create difficulties for the new cabinet, Mr Nasrallah will probably try to deflect the blame to other Lebanese parties, Mr Chab said.

“He’s already preparing the public by accusing politicians of undermining Lebanon’s interests.

“I think we’ll be lucky if the US only target the Health Ministry.”