January 5, 2024 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 561

Occasional Sovereignty: Lebanon In The Hezbollah Grey-Zone

January 5, 2024 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Lebanon | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 561

The Middle East is no stranger to ridiculous statements but the official reaction by Iran and Hamas to the purported Israel strike killing senior Hamas leader Saleh Al-Arouri was particularly odd. Both Hamas and their patron in Iran condemned the attack, of course, but also condemned it as "a violation of Lebanese sovereignty"[1] and Lebanon's "territorial integrity."[2] These are odd statements. Perhaps Lebanon's sovereignty or integrity is like that thought experiment in quantum mechanics with the cat. Like Schrödinger's cat, this sovereignty is both alive and dead. Alive when it is useful to Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran and dead when it is not.

The reality is that Lebanon's sovereignty has been repeatedly violated by Palestinian terrorists, by Iran and Syria for decades (by Israel too, responding to these adversaries).[3] For the Palestinians, their armed violation of Lebanon's sovereignty was a major element in the Lebanese Civil War. Beirut was Arafat's self-described Arab Stalingrad and South Lebanon was "Fatahland." The PLO welcomed terrorists from Nicaragua to Germany in their Lebanese safe haven.

The Syrian military entered under Arab League cover in 1976, to prevent a Palestinian/Lebanese leftist takeover and Syrian near hegemony endured for 29 years, becoming particularly onerous from 1990 after the bloody defeat of the anti-Syrian Christian camp. For decades, Lebanon was more like a property for the Assad regime in Syria to squeeze for profit and political influence.

Iranian Islamist revolutionaries, like Mustafa Chamran, first entered Lebanon in the early 1970s – even before the fall of the Shah – and were sheltered by the Palestinians. And it was from inside Lebanon, from the Sheikh Abdullah Barracks in Baalbek that Iran used its local proxies to attack the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, and French and American peacekeepers, all in 1983, all acts of war.

Lebanon's sovereignty or lack thereof was on display in the comments of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah after the Al-Arouri assassination. Nasrallah, a man with no official government position, warned Israel on January 4, 2024, that "yesterday's crime will not go unpunished," In an earlier speech on November 3, 2023, Nasrallah claimed to have been fighting Israel from the beginning of the Hamas War, "Some claim Hezbollah is about to join the fray. I tell you: We have been engaged in this battle since October 8." About 150 Hezbollah fighters have been killed since then, a not inconsiderable number. In his new speech, he took it upon himself to decide what is in Lebanon's national interest and indeed what constitutes full-scale as opposed to limited war, adding that "if war is waged in Lebanon, the Lebanese national interests require that we engage in the war until the end without regulation."[4]

When Lebanese who are not beholden to Hezbollah speak of neutrality or of wanting peace or say that Lebanon cannot afford another war, they are vilified by pro-Hezbollah propagandists. A particular target over the past few years seems to be the leadership of the influential Maronite Catholic Church, its Patriarch Bechara Butros Al-Ra'i, and recalcitrant Lebanese Christians in general.[5] When not killing people, Hezbollah and its allies use lawfare or the threat of legal prosecution in government military courts to intimidate, as was attempted recently against two Lebanese Catholic bishops tending to their flock inside Israel.[6] The Lebanese Forces party defended the bishops, especially Maronite Musa Al-Hajj, who was briefly arrested and interrogated in 2022 by the military at the behest of Hezbollah. One online mocker called for partition in Lebanon, adding that "later they will set Mass hours for us or replace the ringing of bells with a loudspeaker calling for Nasrallah Bek."[7]

If Lebanon was truly sovereign then the Lebanese Army and the UNIFIL peacekeeping force would secure the country's southern border. But the South is controlled by Hezbollah, which not only fires into its neighbor from there but also allowed Palestinian groups and even Iraqis to come to the border and join the fight. If Lebanon was sovereign, it would have elected a new president using the parliamentary rules already established rather than having the position vacant since November 1, 2022.[8] Hezbollah and its allies block the process until they can secure a malleable, puppet president.

Hezbollah's preference is for Lebanon to be firmly in the gray-zone where nothing is quite clear and everything is possible. In 2006, Hezbollah plunged Lebanon into war over the supposed Israeli occupation of the tiny "Lebanese" (actually formerly Syrian) Shebaa Farms border region. That was the ostensible casus belli for that war that came and went when Hezbollah decided to end that conflict. Today, Lebanon is somehow not at war with Israel despite dozens of attacks since October 8 but politically is at war when it comes to anyone objecting to a wider conflict.

The real reason for Hezbollah's ambiguity is Iran's ambiguity. Iran does not seem to be fully convinced or fully ready (perhaps waiting for when it will announce that it is a nuclear power) for a generalized war with Israel. A real Hezbollah war, the one Nasrallah threatened in his latest speech, would be "very, very, very costly" for Israel but also for Hezbollah and Lebanon.

So, the Hezbollah weapon is one that can be devastating for Israel but also devastating for the terror group's hegemony over Lebanon. It is a deterrent power that can only be fully launched one time. Hezbollah's power seems to be in its potential rather than in its full use with Lebanon functioning as a rocket base rather than a country. It is an Iranian weapon always to be threatening, always pending in its full implementation but not actually arriving until that zero hour that Iran wishes finally dawns. That could be tomorrow or ten years from now. Maintaining Lebanon in low level simmering crisis mode is part of the Hezbollah waiting game until the green light comes from Tehran. What an irony that a war that could fatally weaken Hezbollah could also fatally weaken Lebanon itself. The reckless actions of the parasite are likely to strangle its host.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1], January 2, 2024.

[2], January 3, 2024.

[3], January 3, 2024.

[4], January 3, 2024.

[5],%D8%B6%D8%AF%20%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8%D8%B7%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%B1%D9%83%20%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%88%D9%86%D9%8A%20%D8%A8%D8%B4%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%A9%20%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%B9%D9%8A%20%D8%8C%20%D9%88%D9%88%D8%B5%D9%81%D8%AA%D9%87%20%D8%A8%D9%80%22%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B5%D9%87%D9%8A%D9%88%D9%86%D9%8A%22, November 20, 2023.

[6], December 27, 2023.

[7], December 27, 2023.

[8], January 4, 2024.

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