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memri
April 1, 2000 No.
26

Lebanon and the Armed Struggle after Israel's Withdrawal

By: Yotam Feldner and E. Carmeli*

For most of the last quarter of a century, Lebanon has been subject to a war between different political and religious groups and used as a battleground by other powers and their proxies in the region. In 1976 Syria intervened openly in Lebanon's war, following a secret year-long intervention under the banner of the Palestinian Liberation Army. Currently, with over 30,000 soldiers in Lebanon, Syria has de facto control of the country. In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon to end PLO attacks on northern Israel. Since then Israel has maintained a security zone in southern Lebanon to protect northern Israel.

For several years, Hizbullah has been the main armed organization in Lebanon. Throughout the 1990s, Syria supported the Iranian-backed Hizbullah and its armed confrontation with Israel in order to pressure Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights and Lebanon itself while avoiding a direct military confrontation. With Israel planning to withdraw from southern Lebanon this summer, the justification over Hizbullah's role and status will dissipate and Syria will have to re-shape its strategy. But there is no certainty that the Israeli withdrawal will end armed activity against Israel from Lebanon.

Prospective Changes in Hizbullah

Whether or not Hizbullah will continue to fight Israel after it withdraws from Lebanon is unclear. The leaders of Hizbullah state that the organization's attitude towards Israel is a matter of principle and ideology, and therefore the struggle against Israel is not dependent on mutable political circumstances, such as an Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon. The Secretary General of Hizbullah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, recently stated, "Even if [an agreement] is signed we will continue to view [Israel] as an illegitimate and illegal entity occupying and robbing the Palestinian lands…."[1]

Nasrallah has remained consistent. In a 1997 interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, he stated: "Let us assume that hell freezes over and Israel does the unthinkable and withdraws from South Lebanon and the Golan Heights. Do you believe that peace and reconciliation between the Arabs and the Jews will then prevail? There will be no peace or reconciliation as long as Palestine is occupied by the Zionist enemy... there will be no peace with an entity that brings Jews from all over the world to Palestine and robs the land and homeland of the Palestinians. Palestine belongs to the Palestinians, not to the Jews. Only our weapons and martyrs will bring peace to the region..."[2]

Nasrallah's extremist position may not be accepted by everybody in the Hizbullah leadership. The Head of the Shiite Islamic Higher Council in Lebanon, Sheik Muhammad Mahdi Shams Al-Din, said, "After the withdrawal, Hizbullah will become a civilian political party similar to other groups." Although Sheik Shams Al-Din said that Israel is illegitimate and that the Arab nation should enlist to struggle against normalization, he added, "The legitimacy of Hizbullah's weapon is derived from the legitimacy of the Lebanese struggle and nothing else."[3]

Another Hizbullah leader, Sheik Nai'm Qasem, declared, "We will consider the Israeli withdrawal, if it occurs, as a full and unprecedented victory in the history of the Israeli-Arab conflict. This will satisfy us and cause us to be optimistic regarding the next stage. We are not war-mongers but peaceful people [who strive for] the realization of our rights."[4]

Abdallah Quseir, a member of Lebanon's Parliament from Hizbullah's party[5], expressed a similar position: "Hizbullah can live with the new reality forced by a settlement, in which military and security activity will be impossible at the present time. However, according to Hizbullah, the Jihad and the struggle for the Palestinian cause are not limited to the military and the security aspects. There are other aspects and other forms of Jihad that should be adopted in order to keep the cinder of Jihad burning in the minds, hearts, and conscience of the nation. We can use information, cultural methods, and propaganda to keep the issues of Jerusalem and Palestine in the conscience of the nation and wait for an opportunity to appear, when the conditions will change, and we will return to combat the enemy in Palestine and drive it from Jerusalem."[6]

It is difficult to predict what Hizbullah might do when Israel withdraws from Lebanon. While it is clear that Hizbullah remains devoted to confronting Israel, some of its leaders accept that Hizbullah could lose its international legitimacy if it launched direct attacks on Israel proper.

Possible Changes in Lebanon's Internal Balance of Power

The competition over hegemony in Lebanon between the different religious and political groups is rooted in history. In the last decade the Shiites, previously the weakest group among Lebanon's Muslims, have grown much stronger. As the only significant force fighting Israel, Hizbullah, a Shiite organization, has contributed to the present status of Lebanon's Shiite community. Therefore, Hizbullah is perceived as a threat to other groups in Lebanon, especially the Christians. The Maronite Bishop, Rolan Abu Judeh, complained that while the Christians were disarmed and their leaders, are either in exile or jail, Hizbullah was allowed to expand. Abu Judeh also noted that the majority of the Israeli-supported South Lebanese Army [SLA] soldiers are also Shiites. He was alluding to the possibility, which is threatening to the Christians, that the two strongest and most experienced armed forces in Lebanon -- Hizbullah and the SLA-- could join forces after the Israeli withdrawal and form a Shiite military force. This force would endanger the position of the Christians in Lebanon, which is already deteriorating due to massive Christian immigration overseas.

The leaders of the Lebanese state, who express the Syrian position, have stated that Hizbullah should not remain a military organization after an agreement. At a September 1999 meeting with the French president, The President of Lebanon, Emile Lahoud, committed himself to disarming Hizbullah in the event of an agreement. "Lebanon has already disarmed [other] militias in the past," Lahoud said, "and in the light of peace, it will be easy to put an end to the armed activity of the Resistance Movement."[7]

The Shiite Amal organization, which competes with the Hizbullah for the support of the Shiite community, also opposes future Hizbullah military activity. The Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament and the Head of Amal, Nabih Berri, said: "Following an agreement, Hizbullah will opt for political and social activity. This is the nature of political parties, but it will be without weapons."[8]

This lack of consensus among the Lebanese about continuing Hizbullah's prominent role after an Israeli withdrawal is a potential factor that may ameliorate Hizbullah attacks on Israel.

Armed Activity against Israel after a Unilateral Withdrawal

Statements by senior Syrian and Lebanese officials reveal that Syria intends to allow the continuation of military activity against Israel from Lebanon in order to pressure Israel to withdraw from the Golan. However, an Israeli withdrawal from its security zone in southern Lebanon robs Hizbullah of the perceived legitimacy of its struggle as resisting Israeli occupation. Therefore, after the Israeli cabinet's decision to unilaterally withdraw from Lebanon by July, 2000, Syria, hoping to deter such a withdrawal, has publicly warned that it could cause an outburst of violence which could amount to war. Syrian Foreign Minister, Faruq Al-Shara claimed that such a withdrawal "will lead the Israelis to suicide."[9] Lebanese President Lahoud told Assad biographer and confidant Patrick Seale that "a unilateral Israeli withdrawal will lead to an additional war."[10]

The Syrians are intent on defining the prospective Israeli withdrawal as a "redeployment" that does not implement UN Security Council Resolution 425, which calls for Israel to withdraw from Lebanon, in order to stress that it does not justify a cessation of Hizbullah operations. Moreover, elements in Hizbullah demand that Israel's withdrawal include seven Shiite villages that are on the Israeli side of the international border and which have been part of Israel since 1948 on the basis of the international borders delineated in 1923.[11]

But the main Syrian effort appears to focus on preparing a Palestinian alternative to Hizbullah as the leading force to continue the struggle against Israel. Syria believes that Palestinian operations, which would be fighting on behalf of the Palestinian refugees whose problem will not be solved by Israeli withdrawal, might still be considered internationally justifiable after the withdrawal. Bashar Al-Assad, the Syrian heir-apparent, told Patrick Seale, "If the Israelis withdraw without a just and comprehensive agreement, the Palestinians will fight."[12] Lebanon's president Emile Lahoud explained: "How can we protect the borders with Israel while in the Palestinian camps [in Lebanon] there are tens of thousands of armed refugees who demand the right of return and who do not get a [positive] answer? Lebanon cannot protect its border with Israel on a daily basis."[13]

Recently, there have been enhanced contacts with Palestinian elements that reject the Oslo process and might serve in this strategy. Syria's Foreign Minister met with Hamas leadership in Damascus[14] and with the Head of the PLO Political Bureau, Faruq Qaddoumi[15], who is known to be close to Syria within the PLO. Syrian Minister of Defense, Mustafa Tlass met with the Secretary General of the PFLP[16], a Damascus supported Palestinian Marxist terrorist group that rejects the Oslo process. Al-Shara's confidant, Journalist Ibrahim Hamidi, pointedly explained the meeting with Hamas as a message to both Israel and the US that Syria has "alternatives" to the peace process.[17]

Conclusion

Israel's prospective unilateral withdrawal from South Lebanon will not end the violence it faces from Lebanon. Syria will continue to pressure Israel in Lebanon to force Israel out of the Golan. Because Hizbullah lacks sufficient international justification to continue the struggle against Israel after its withdrawal from Lebanon, Syria is preparing for renewed Palestinian armed activities against Israel in the hopes that the Palestinian refugees' struggle will be viewed as internationally legitimate.

However, in order to avoid a strong Israeli reaction and a general escalation, Syria might not grant Hizbullah or the Palestinian organizations a free hand. The armed struggle against Israel from Lebanon will be conducted in accordance with the Syrian interests in their negotiations with Israel and their bilateral relations with the US.

*Eli Carmeli is a Research Associate at MEMRI. Yotam Feldner is MEMRI's Director of Media Analysis.


[1] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), February 1, 2000.

[2] Ha'aretz (Israel), October 29, 1997. On another occasion, Nasrallah said, "Hizbullah will never forget that Israel is the enemy, that Palestine belongs to all Palestinians, and that Jerusalem should be returned from Israel, which is a plundering, cancerous, thieving, illegal, and illegitimate entity which must disappear. These are axiomatic beliefs for Hizbullah." Al-Istiqlal (PA), February 2, 2000.

[3] Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 15, 2000.

[4] Al-Mushahid Al-Siyassi (London), April 25, 1998.

[5] Hizbullah has a political party named "Loyalty to the Resistance" with representatives in Lebanon's Parliament.

[6] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), December 28, 1999.

[7] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), September 9, 1999.

[8] Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 14, 2000.

[9] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), March 2, 2000.

[10] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), March 11, 2000.

[11] Middle East Insight (US), February 2, 2000.

[12] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), March 11, 2000.

[13] Al-Quds (PA), March 9, 2000.

[14] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), February 16, 2000.

[15] Al-Safir (Lebanon), February 22, 2000.

[16].Al-Safir (Lebanon), February 29, 2000.

[17] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), February 20, 2000.