Nasrallah’s Existential Dilemmas

Jerusalem Post- 25/02/2008

In a speech last week broadcast at the Sayed al-Shohada Mosque in south Beirut, Hizbullah General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah promised his supporters that Israel’s ‘disappearance’ was an ‘established fact.’ The Hizbullah leader railed from his unknown hiding place against the ‘robbing and murdering Zionists’, whom he accused of killing prominent Hizbullah official Imad Mughniyeh. Behind the Hizbullah leader’s customary defiant rhetoric, however, his movement currently faces a series of dilemmas. Firstly, the movement’s attempt to bring down the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, launched in late 2006, has gone nowhere. A few Hizbullah supporters (and a lot of tents) remain at the movement’s ‘permanent demonstration’ in downtown Beirut. But the Saniora government has stood firm. The constitutional crisis over the presidency is dragging on.

There is a growing sense that Hizbullah’s only non-Shi’a ally, the Free Patriotic Movement of Michel Aoun (Christian Maronite), is becoming an irrelevancy, because of the failure of Aoun to emerge as a realistic presidential candidate. The result of this is to make Hizbullah’s camp look more and more like a narrow, sectarian Shi’a force. The movement has spent the last decade and a half cultivating an image of itself as a ‘patriotic’ Lebanese and pan-Arab movement, rather than a sectarian, Iran-sponsored militia. This image is now looking increasingly frayed. The recent clashes at Mar Mikhael in southern Beirut, in which Hizbullah and Amal demonstrators clashed with the army, has served to reinforce this sense. The Army remains one of the few national institutions generally trusted by the Lebanese. The events since the killing of Imad Mughniyeh have further entrenched the sense of Hizbullah as a Shi’ite militia, operating on behalf of Iran. Mughniyeh was associated with the movement’s first phase, in the 1980s, when it had openly engaged in attacks on US and French forces, and acts of international terror such as the hijacking of TWA flight 847.

In subsequent years, Hizbullah leaders had denied any connection with Mughniyeh. This fiction had been faithfully re-produced by journalists and analysts close to the movement, and contributed to the carefully-cultivated sense Hizbullah wished to convey of a Lebanese and pan-Arab, rather than narrow Shi’ite force. The open embrace afforded Mughniyeh by the movement following his killing of course put paid to this image. Revelations of Mughniyeh’s activities on behalf of Hizbullah and Iran over the years have subsequently emerged in the Arabic media. Most recently, it has been reported that Mughniyeh was involved in bringing members of the Iraqi Shi’ite Mahdi Army to the Lebanese Beqa’a valley, where they trained in paramilitary methods. Mughniyeh is also reported to have been involved with a Kuwaiti Shi’a opposition group, the ‘Tharallah’ organization. This activity was conducted in cooperation with the Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. As Nasrallah swears revenge on Israel from his place of hiding, meanwhile, there is growing evidence of the war-weariness of ordinary Shi’ite Lebanese.

Many inhabitants of southern Lebanon have not yet recovered from the damage inflicted by Israel in the Second Lebanon War. A year and a half after the war, the destruction it wrought is still very apparent in the border towns of the south. A section of Maroun a Ras, for example, remains in rubble and uninhabited. Shi’ite civilians interviewed recently by Agence France Presse sounded far from enthusiastic at Nasrallah’s latest speeches. One border villager asked reporters “Why must we pay the price every four years or so,” adding that “They should leave us to live in peace, wars are no longer acceptable.” Another said “That war took us 100 years back. It’s enough.” So Hizbullah currently faces growing political isolation in Lebanon, an increasing sense of the return of the movement’s original image as a Shi’a agent of Iran, and a populace weary of war and longing for a chance to return to normality. Nasrallah may well conclude that the quickest way to escape isolation, once again re-brand the movement as the defender of Lebanese and Arabs, and re-galvanise its core supporters would be to seek another round of fighting against Israel.

Certainly, all estimates indicate that while the rubble may remain in the border towns, the movement has successfully recuperated the losses in arms and equipment sustained in the 2006 war. The killing of Mughniyeh makes some form of retaliation inevitable. But here the Hizbullah leadership faces the final item in the list of dilemmas. In 2006, the movement encountered an Israeli government and military caught off guard, confused and under-prepared. If pulled once again into confrontation, Israel will be concerned above all to commit all necessary force to reversing the ambiguous, troubling result of July-August 2006. The Hizbullah leader and his backers in Teheran will no doubt be weighing the odds and their options carefully in the weeks and months to come.

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