Friday, 9 August 2013

LEBANON: Hezbollah's Israel card

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah briefly emerged from his underground lair last Friday and delivered his first public speech in years urging his enemies to stop fretting over his involvement in the Syrian war and worry instead about the Jews. “Call us terrorists, criminals, try to kill us,” he said, “we Shiites will never abandon Palestine.”

But they have abandoned Palestine—for now, anyway—and are fighting instead to save their collective backside in Syria. If Bashar al-Assad falls to the Free Syrian Army, Hezbollah will lose its weapons supply link with Iran and find itself cut off and encircles by enemies. Hezbollah needs the Israel card now more than ever. It has worked in the past, and never before in its history has the so-called Party of God faced so much internal pressure.

On the same day Nasrallah made his speech, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the de-facto leader of Lebanon’s Sunnis, reiterated that he is against the formation of a government that legitimizes Hezbollah's weapons. This by itself isn’t surprising. Hariri has always been opposed to Hezbollah. Not only are they ideological opposites, and not only have their two communities been in an on-again off-again state of war for more than 1000 years, according to a United Nations indictment, Hezbollah murdered Hariri’s own father. But just one day earlier, President Michel Suleiman, for the first time ever, publicly announced he can no longer sanction Hezbollah’s existence as an armed militia in Lebanon.

Hezbollah desperately needs the Israel card, but it won’t work this time unless Israel invades Lebanon. Yet Israel won’t invade Lebanon unless Hezbollah starts something. And Hezbollah wouldn’t dare start something now while it’s busy in Syria. The last thing it needs is open-ended conflict on two fronts at once. Hezbollah isn’t a superpower. It only has a few thousand fighters.

It’s obvious to just about everyone now that Nasrallah needs a distraction, but the truth is that his relentless war against Israel has always been partially a distraction. His hatred of Israel is real, no doubt, but it serves a dual purpose. It papers over the dangerous rift between Sunni and Shia Muslims that has led to so many wars, the majority of which the Shia lost.

Hezbollah is and always has been more worried about Sunnis than Israelis and Jews. Of course that’s the case. Various Sunni-Shia wars have killed orders of magnitude more people during my lifetime—over a million—than the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Sunni-Shia conflict is more than 1300 years old, the Arab-Israeli conflict less than 100. And the Shia only joined the Arab-Israeli conflict 34 years ago. In the 1970s, and even into the 1980s, Middle Eastern Shias were Israel’s allies. It’s a bizarre, but it’s true.

When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to evict Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization in West Beirut and along the border with Israel, Lebanon’s Shias all but unanimously hailed the Israelis as liberators from Palestinian (Sunni) oppression. Not until the Israelis overstayed their welcome, and not until Iranian Revolutionary Guard units stepped into Lebanon and created Hezbollah—which is effectively their Lebanese branch—did the attitudes of Lebanon’s Shias begin to change.

“Resistance” against Israel was the great Sunni cause at the time, and Lebanese civil war was the context. By adopting the Sunni cause as their own, Lebanon’s Shias, via Iran and Hezbollah, bought themselves protection from the Sunnis with guns and respect.

A similar dynamic is at work in Tehran, where the idea of Hezbollah was hatched in the first place.
Jews have lived among Persians for thousands of years. The two haven’t always gotten along famously, but they’ve never been at each other’s throats the way Jews and Arabs have been, especially lately. Before the 1979 revolution, Iran was Israel’s ally. It made sense for both parties. Israel needs whatever friends it can get in the region, and most Persians, like the Kurds, aren’t interested in aligning with their ancient Arab enemies against Jews or anyone else. The Arab-Israeli conflict is called the Arab-Israeli conflict for a reason. And until 1979, it was strictly a Sunni Arab-Israeli conflict.

Khomeini did his worst to change this, partly because he did really did hate Israel, but also because it served his strategic interests. Iran can’t very well become the hegemon of the Levant and the Persian Gulf regions if the entire Arab world is against it. But if the ancient ethnic and sectarian squabbles could be set aside in favor of a united front against Israel, Iran could, at least theoretically, become dominant.

Hezbollah leaders know perfectly well that Israel is not going to randomly invade Lebanon one day just for the hell of it. They tell their constituents and say Hezbollah’s military capabilities deter the Israelis, but it’s a lie and they know it’s a lie. On the contrary, the threat from Hezbollah is a magnet for Israeli invasions. Nasrallah is likewise pulling a fast one when he tells his fellow Lebanese to focus on Israel while he’s ignoring Israel and fighting in Syria. It’s not going to work.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit: AFP-Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah