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June 14, 2023 Special Dispatch No. 10665

Hizbullah's Military Exercise Sparks Criticism In South Lebanon: It Is An Act Of Hijacking The State, Intimidating Hizbullah's Opponents In The Country

June 14, 2023
Lebanon | Special Dispatch No. 10665

In May 2023, Hizbullah held two military exercises to mark the 23rd anniversary of Israel's withdrawal from South Lebanon. The first, called "We Will Cross" (referring to the Israeli border), was held on May 21 near the town of 'Armata in the Jezzine district, and involved some 200 fighters, most of them from Hizbullah's elite Radwan Force.[1] Described by Hizbullah as "the first of its kind," the exercise, conducted with live ammunition, simulated the seizing of Israeli military vehicles, a breaching of the border and a raid into Israeli territory, and the takeover of an Israeli military base and an Israeli settlement. It was an impressive show of force, in terms of both the number of troops involved and the number of scenarios simulated, although similar simulations have featured in previous Hizbullah exercises documented in the organization's videos.[2] Furthermore, the exercise did not present significant new capabilities or weapons, such as the accurate missiles Hizbullah frequently boasts that it possesses.

According to media reports, the exercise was observed by 500-600 journalists, at the invitation of Hizbullah's public relations department. In fact, the organization bussed the journalists to the area and hosted them there.[3] It was also attended by representatives of Iran-backed militias, such as the Houthi Ansar Allah movement from Yemen and officials from the information department of the Iraqi Al-Nujaba movement. This was apparently meant as a show of "uniting the fronts" of the resistance axis, a goal Hizbullah has been promoting since 2021.[4]

Several days later, Hizbullah's branch in the Jabel 'Amil area in South Lebanon invited the public to observe another exercise, called Al-Fath Al-Mubin ("The Clear Conquest"),[5] simulating "the great and final liberation of Palestine," starting with "the breaching of the [border] fence." But, unlike in the case of the first exercise, no footage or photos of this event have been released to date.

These Hizbullah exercises attracted considerable attention in Lebanon and the world, due to their timing, shortly after the latest round of fighting between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in Gaza, and their location, close to the border with Israel. The May 21 exercise was apparently intended to have an impact on public opinion in Israel, Lebanon and the Arab and global arenas, and to present Hizbullah's military forces as an alternative to the Lebanese Armed Forces. The fact that Hizbullah deliberately invited hundreds of journalists from Lebanon and abroad – not all of them Hizbullah supporters – to observe it reflects the organization's sense of confidence, or at least its desire to appear confident; moreover, it shows that Hizbullah is able to hold such an event in Lebanon without any fear of the authorities' intervention.

It appears that the exercise indeed embarrassed the Lebanese government by exposing its lack of control on the ground. It is presumably no coincidence that, shortly after it was held, Lebanon's interim prime minister, Najib Mikati, held a series of meetings with the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon, the UNIFIL commander and the U.S. ambassador in Beirut. The exercise also rekindled the debate in Lebanon about Hizbullah's weapons, and sparked dismay and concern among the organization's opponents, who regarded it as a threatening message directed not only at Israel but at the Lebanese public, as part of Hizbullah's efforts to promote its presidential candidate. The organization's opponents stressed that this publicly-held exercise shows, more than anything else, that Hizbullah behaves like the real and only authority in Lebanon, and expressed concern about returning to the days of the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s and 1980s, which almost destroyed the country. They also noted that Hizbullah was sabotaging Lebanon's foreign relations, both with the Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, and with the international community.

This report reviews the military exercise held by Hizbullah in South Lebanon on May 21, 2023, and the reactions to it in the country: 

Hizbullah's May 21 Military Exercise

As stated, the military exercise, held near the town of 'Armata in the Jezzine region, 20 km from the Israeli border, involved 200 fighters who simulated seizing IDF military vehicles, raiding Israeli territory and attacking an Israeli army base and an Israeli settlement, using live ammunition, drones and explosives.[6]        

Hizbullah attached considerable importance to this exercise, which was accompanied by an extensive public relations campaign. Ahead of the event the organization's media outlets, and social media accounts of its supporters, circulated advertisements announcing it.[7] Hizbullah's public relations chief, Muhammad 'Afif, clarified before the exercise that its goal was to convey a message to the public in Lebanon and Israel: that Hizbullah is ready to confront any Israeli aggression and to take part in the defense of Palestine whenever necessary.[8]

After the exercise, Hizbullah and pro-Hizbullah media published extensive footage of it and statements and reports about it.  Hizbullah Deputy Secretary-General Na'im Qassem described it as "the first exercise of its kind" held by the organization in Lebanon, and said that it had conveyed Hizbullah's determination and readiness to achieve victories and deter Israel.[9] The pro-Hizbullah Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar devoted a special section to the exercise. Describing it as a "rare" event that took place "a few kilometers" from the Israeli border,[10] it added that the exercise had "announced a new resistance strategy, involving advanced technology of the type used by the most modern armies, and very organized and determined troops that can realize any concept and translate it into a tactical operation." The daily also mentioned the extensive media presence at the event. It noted that, for the first time since 2005, Hizbullah had allowed "many diverse" media outlets "from Western and Asian countries" to observe its military activity, and had undertaken an extensive logistical operation in order to bring the journalists to the area and allow them to document "almost anything they wished." [11]

The hype ahead of the exercise was apparently more successful than Hizbullah had anticipated, creating far-reaching expectations among its supporters and opponents alike so much so that the organization was forced to temper expectations several days before the event. Muhammad 'Afif noted that "several brothers in the media, with good intentions, had created excessive expectations," and that the drill would involve "military activity limited in time and place… only a sample of the real capabilities of the resistance."[12] After the exercise Na'im Qassem stressed, in a similar vein, that it had "presented just a part and a sample of our capabilities. The accurate missiles and other weapons were not shown."[13] 

The Lebanese Authorities Were Helpless To Prevent The Public Exercise

The Lebanese authorities, including Interim Prime Minister Najib Mikati, were apparently helpless to prevent this public show of force by Hizbullah. Asked about this during a meeting with UN Special  Coordinator for Lebanon Joanna Wronecka, held the day after the exercise, Mikati said that his government "opposes anything that undermines the state's sovereignty" but that resolving "the specific problem of Hizbullah's weapons… requires a broad national consensus. At the moment," he added, "the government is stressing the need to maintain security stability throughout Lebanon and refrain from any action that undermines it."[14] One day later Mikati met with UNIFIL Commander Gen. Aroldo Lázaro Sáenz and with U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea. Although these meetings presumably addressed the issue of the exercise, the only details disclosed were that Mikati had stressed to Lázaro that cooperation between the Lebanese Armed Forces and UNIFIL was the main guarantee of stability along the border with Israel.[15] 

Lebanese Politicians: Hizbullah Has Once Again Proved That It is Above The State; It Must Be Disarmed

As mentioned, the widely-covered exercise confirmed the concerns of Hizbullah's opponents regarding its weapons and rekindled the debate about this issue. The organization's opponents argued that, in addition to conveying a clear message to Israel, the drill was also meant to threaten the Lebanese public, especially in the context of the upcoming presidential election. They noted that this blatant show of force was disturbingly reminiscent of the civil war period in Lebanon, when armed Palestinian organizations did in the country as they pleased. Hizbullah, they added, is also harming Lebanon's relations with the Arabs, in particular with Saudi Arabia, and with the entire international community.

Hizbullah's opponents noted that the exercise was held just a few days after the Arab summit in Saudi Arabia, whose closing statement had condemned the phenomenon of armed militias. In addition, they said, it was apparently meant to signal that Hizbullah and Lebanon were not part of the understandings being formulated between Iran and Saudi Arabia.[16] They reiterated their demand to disarm Hizbullah, and some even called to take up arms against this organization, in light of the state's inaction. 

Criticism of the exercise was heard even before it took place. MP Nadim Gemayel, of the Christian Kataeb party, warned that the exercise "is not directed at Israel, but is an attempt to frighten and intimidate every Lebanese who believes in Lebanon. It is directed against the Lebanese state and its sovereignty. Iran, by means of its militias, is determined to turn Lebanon into an arena of [military] exercises, missiles and false wars." Gemayel called on the Lebanese army "to take the necessary measures to prevent such displays."[17]

Following the exercise the condemnations were harsher and more intense. A notable response that summarized the criticism against the event was issued by 31 Lebanese MPs from parties opposing Hizbullah. They wrote that this show of force by Hizbullah was meant "to clarify to the Lebanese, the Arabs, and the world that its sovereignty exceeds that of the Lebanese state and that the state [in fact] lacks sovereignty over its territory. [It was meant to signal] that no decision can be made in Lebanon against Hizbullah's wishes or the wishes of the regional axis to which it belongs [i.e., the resistance axis led by Iran], and that the lives of the Lebanese, their present and their future, are hostage to Hizbullah's plan… The election of a new president and the re-forming of the executive branch are also hostage to [Hizbullah's] weapons, which are always there to impose this power equation on the rest of the Lebanese [and to torpedo] any attempt to create a political counterweight to Hizbullah and its allies in Lebanon…" The MPs added that the exercise also "harms Lebanon’s relations with the international and the Arab community, and informs the Arabs that the sixth clause of the [closing] statement [of the recent Arab League summit] in Jeddah, which firmly opposes the presence of armed militias operating beyond the [purview of] state institutions, does not concern [Hizbullah], because [this organization] considers itself a state…”

The MPs explained that “the aberrant status of Hizbullah has no place in Lebanon's political life and is an abomination in the eyes of most Lebanese." Hinting at Hizbullah, whose name means "the party of God", they added that, "however high the status of a particular political party may be, this does not entitle it to drag Lebanon into struggles that serve only its own regional plan or to impose its political, military, security and economic agendas on the Lebanese state…”

The MPs concluded with a call to implement the Taif Agreement[18] and the Lebanese constitution, which is based on it, both of which call for disbanding all militias and confining weapons to the state and its legitimate security apparatuses. The parliamentarians also urged to implement UN Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701,[19] to end Hizbullah's military and security involvement outside the country, as well as its interference in the internal affairs of other Arab countries, in order to restore Lebanon's historic relations with the Arab world and the international community. In addition, they called for dismantling “the parallel economy that Hizbullah has created by smuggling [contraband] through the official and unofficial [border] crossings,” and stressed that Hizbullah and its allies in and out of Lebanon must “understand once and for all that the Lebanese people will not surrender to the logic of weapons and force, no matter what the cost…”[20]


Some of the signatories to the MPs' statement condemning the Hizbullah exercise (image: Al-Nahhar, Lebanon, May 26, 2023)

In an interview with the Lebanese daily Al-Nahhar, Samir Geagea, head of the Christian Lebanese Forces party, called it inconceivable that "a group within Lebanon should usurp the decisions of the Lebanese state and the choice of the rest of the Lebanese, and take them against their will in a direction they oppose.” He urged the Lebanese people to realize that this "totally unacceptable" exercise  will impact them, their future, their existence, their lives and the [country] they live in."[21]

A statement from the Saydat Al-Jabal Association[22] noted that this “unprecedented show of force” by Hizbullah had been held less than a month after the Iranian foreign minister visited South Lebanon, and that Hizbullah had used this display to "draw a connection between its weapons and the issue of the presidency, so that any new president [elected] will be forced to recognize these weapons and permit Hizbullah to use them,  despite [the absence of] any consensus [about this issue] in Lebanon.”[23]

Kataeb Party: The Absence Of An Official Response To the Exercise Confirms That Hizbullah Has Taken Over Lebanon; We Will Call On Our Supporters To Openly Carry Weapons As Well

There were also those who criticized the heads of the Lebanese state for allowing Hizbullah to do as it pleases in the country. Kataeb Party leader Samy Gemayel, for example, claimed that the absence of any official response to Hizbullah's exercises "means that the country is totally under Hizbullah's control,” and that this, in turn, means that “the presidential campaign is extremely important.” He called on Hizbullah's opponents to agree on a presidential candidate, so as to prevent the election of a president who will license and support more displays of this sort by Hizbullah.[24]

Kataeb Party MP Nadim Gemayel stated that the authorities' failure to respond to this event grants de facto permission to any Lebanese citizen to carry arms, and went so far as to urge the citizens to do so. He said: “[The exercise] is a provocation to all Lebanese… These sights take us back to 1975 and to the sights of the armed Palestinian organizations [in Lebanon]. We oppose this and will not accept it. The fact that there was no official response to this essentially gives anyone in Lebanon permission to carry arms in order to defend himself… Therefore, I urge our supporters to bear arms openly and not to stop at the checkpoints, because we are all equal and therefore the state and the army do not interest us, [just as they do not interest Hizbullah].”[25]

Articles In The Anti-Hizbullah Press: This Organization Has Cancelled The Lebanese State; Where Is UNIFIL?!

Similar concerns were raised in the Lebanese newspapers known to oppose Hizbullah. For instance, journalist Nawal Nasser, who was among those who observed the exercise, shared her impressions in an article on the Nida Al-Watan website, and complained about the helplessness of the Lebanese state. She wrote: “…This is the first time in its history that this party [i.e., Hizbullah] has held an event of this magnitude… The  military exercise [itself] lasted only one hour, but the events that preceded and followed it lasted 10 hours… during which we forgot the state of Lebanon, the state's obligations, and our rights, and became [citizens of] a 'non-state' belonging to Hizbullah…

“[This event took place after] twenty-five days of preparation, and more than 500 journalists from Lebanon and the world registered to participate in the press coverage. On Sunday, [May 21], 11 buses waited for the invitees and then took off from the central bus station… on Hajj Qassem Soleimani Street [named after the slain commander of Iran's Qods Force]. All these details make us feel, against our will, that we have moved from Lebanon to another place that is nothing like Lebanon…”

The bus ride to the site of the exercise, writes Nasser, was accompanied by Hizbullah songs and slogans. Along the roads hung pictures of Hizbullah officials and of Qassem Soleimani, flags of Hizbullah, “and among them also a few flags of Lebanon, as though  Hizbullah wanted to convey that ‘all of Lebanon is with us’… Military uniforms were everywhere… Dear Allah," she exclaims, "Hizbullah is allowed to do what the [rest of] the people of this country are forbidden to do. We look into the eyes of the [local] people… Their loyalty is to Hizbullah. They receive their instructions from Hizbullah… Most of them are Lebanese, but they have become involved in great struggles that are larger than the homeland…”

After the military display, Nasser adds, the guests were taken to the village of Rihan for lunch with “the jihadi fighters.” The region was full of Hizbullah military camps, and Hizbullah gunmen were everywhere on the roads. They were even the ones directing traffic. “Is this allowed?", she wonders. "Where is UNIFIL? Where is the state and those responsible for it?..." She concludes by saying that, with this exercise, "Hizbullah has confirmed that it is no long a statelet but is [simply] the state…”[26]

An article in the Al-Nahhar daily likewise claimed that the exercise was an outright act of defiance against the Lebanese state: “…The southern region seems to have been abandoned to be taken over by Hizbullah and by its arsenals of heavy weapons… The exercise wasn’t limited or symbolic. The heavy weapons, the missiles, and the drones that were on display were sufficient for Hizbullah to convey the messages it wanted [to convey] to Israel, to Lebanon itself, to the Arabs and to the region.” The daily noted that, although the exercise was ostensibly held on the occasion of “Liberation Day” [i.e., the anniversary of Israel's withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000], marked on May 25, it was actually nothing more than an act of defiance against the sovereignty of the state, “whose leaders refrained from [reacting] or were afraid to react to it." Moreover, it was held just after the Arab League summit in Jeddah, whose closing statement included a clause opposing the phenomenon of militias within states. The exercise, said the daily, thus appears to be a direct and swift response to this position of the summit and a signal that there will be no change in the status quo following the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran.[27]

Some compared this show of force by Hizbullah in South Lebanon to its show of force in Beirut in May 2008,[28] and to the civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s. Journalist 'Ali Hamada wrote, “Hizbullah didn’t have to flex its muscles on Sunday in the south in order to remind Israel of its missile capabilities, which are no secret. The [military] display, which went over the head of the slumbering state of Lebanon… was intended to remind the Lebanese people of [Hizbullah's] raids on Beirut and in the Druze mountains on May 7 and 11, [2008], and of the Black Shirts[29] who deployed in the streets of Beirut in a bid to topple the government of Sa'd Al-Hariri… This act is a reminder for the Lebanese, intended to convey that all the developments in the region – the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the openness toward the Assad regime… – make no difference as far as Lebanon is concerned. In other words, to convey that Hizbullah will maintain its role as the de facto authority in Lebanon by means of its illegal weapons and by instilling terror, regardless of any regional agreement… Hizbullah [wishes to convey that] it is part of Lebanon's sovereignty, since it is a Lebanese faction, and that the decision regarding its weapons is an internal and not an external one.” Hamada added that this exercise "constitutes another step on the road to [Hizbullah] swallowing up this country, with the help of [Lebanese] forces that collaborate with it or surrender to it…”[30]

Journalist Diana Moukalled compared Hizbullah to ISIS, tweeting, “Hizbullah's military display in the south – the use of drones, the display of weapons, and the way its operatives were dressed – was a performance that reminded me of the [military] displays held years ago by ISIS. The similarity is obvious, down to the clothing and the style of the display and the photography. ISIS was a murderous terrorist organization that turned killing and death into a spectacular visual display, and Hizbullah is likewise trying to use this type of spectacle, despite the disgraceful reality that prevails in Lebanon under its rule.”[31]


Diana Moukalled's tweet

 

[1] Hizbullah's elite Radwan Force, named after the organization's military chief 'Imad Mughniyeh, aka Hajj Radwan, who was killed in 2008, comprises some 10,000 troops and spearheaded the organization's action against the rebels in in Syria. This force took part in the military parade held by Hizbullah in the Syrian village of Al-Qusayr in November 2016. About this parade, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1295, The Significance, Ramifications, And Messages Of Hizbullah's Show Of Military Force In Al-Qusayr, Syria, January 3, 2017; MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6677, Hizbullah Military Parade In Syrian Town Of Al-Qusayr: Tanks, Cannon, And Machine Guns, November 14, 2016.

[3] See e.g., Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 22, 2023.

[4] In May 2021, several days after the end of a round of fighting between Israel and the Palestinian factions in Gaza, Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah called on the resistance factions on all the fronts to establish a principle whereby any Israeli aggression against Jerusalem or Al-Aqsa will spark a regional confrontation with it. Several factions, especially Shi'ite militias in Iraq and Yemen, proclaimed themselves ready to heed this call, but it appears that Hizbullah has not yet managed to implement it in full. See MEMRI  JTTM reports: Hizbullah Brigades: Responding To Nasrallah's Call For A New Equation That A Threat To Jerusalem Equals Regional War, June 17, 2021; Al-Nujaba Spokesman: Golan Liberation Brigade Is Ready For Action; Any Violation In Jerusalem Will Lead To Attacks On Israeli, U.S. Interests In Region, June 16, 2021.

[5] The name is an allusion to Quran 48:1: " Indeed, We have given you, [O Muhammad], a clear conquest."

[8] Al-Jumhouriya (Lebanon), May 19, 2023.

[9] Almanar.com.lb, May 22, 2023.

[10] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 22, 2023.

[11] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 22, 2023.

[12] Alahednews.com, May 19, 2023.

[13] Elnashra.com, May 23, 2023.

[14] Al-Nahhar (Lebanon), May 22, 2023.

[15] Al-Nahhar (Lebanon), May 23, 2023.

[16] On these understandings, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 10522, In Saudi Press, Cautious Optimism Follows Saudi-Iranian Renewal Of Relations, March 13, 2023.

[17] Twitter.com/nadimgemayel, May 19, 2023.

[18] The Taif Agreement, signed in 1989 at the conclusion of the Lebanese civil war, distributed political, civil, and military authority in the country along sectarian lines.

[19] UN Security Council Resolution 1559, passed on September 2, 2004, called for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon, for disarming all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias in the country, and for imposing  the sovereignty of the state throughout Lebanon. UNSC Resolution 1701, passed on August 12, 2006, called for a ceasefire between Israel and Hizbullah in the 2006 Lebanon war, which broke out following Hizbullah's kidnapping of three IDF soldiers on the Israeli border. It also called for reenforcing UNIFIL and expanding its powers, and banned the armed presence of Hizbullah south of the Litani river.

[20] Al-Nahhar (Lebanon), May 26, 2023.

[21] Al-Nahhar (Lebanon), May 27, 2023.

[22] A Christian cultural organization established in 2006 by the Maronite Church which promotes Christian-Muslim coexistence.

[23] Saydeteljabal.org, May 22, 2023.

[24] Elnashra.com, May 23, 2023.

[25] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 21, 2023.

[26] Nidaalwatan.com, May 23, 2023.

[27] Al-Nahhar (Lebanon), May 22, 2023.

[28] On May 6, 2008, the government of Lebanon, headed by Fouad Siniora, decided to outlaw Hizbullah's private telecommunications network, on the grounds that it violated the sovereignty of the state, and to prosecute those responsible for establishing it. The government also decided to fire the head of security at Beirut international airport, who was affiliated with Hizbullah. In response, armed members of Hizbullah took control of Beirut and other parts of Lebanon, in order to force the government to revoke its decisions, which it did. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 437 - The Lebanon Crisis (2): Hizbullah's Victory and its Regional Implications – March 31, 2009

[29] The Black Shirts is a name for Hizbullah activists who wear black shirts when attending Hizbullah displays of force. On January 19, 2011, for example, hundreds of black-clad Hizbullah activists marched in Beirut and in other Lebanese cities following the release of some of the findings of the UN investigation into the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri, which implicated Hizbullah.

[30] Al-Nahhar (Lebanon), May 23, 2023.

[31] Twitter.com/dianamoukalled, May 21, 2023.

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