Hezbollah's formidable weapons arsenal under fresh scrutiny
Lebanon's new government is slated to review the militant Shiite party's weapons as part of a national defense strategy once it takes office. The prisoner swap with Israel has given Hezbollah new leverage.
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"There are many pretexts that they can use to evade this process [of disarmament]," says Joseph Alagha, an associate professor of Islamic studies at Radboud University in Nijmegen in the Netherlands. "What can be done is to discuss how Hezbollah can be merged into the Lebanese Army, but this will take a long time to achieve."Skip to next paragraph
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Hezbollah says it is open to discussing its weapons, but insists that even if Israel withdraws from Lebanese territory and ends the overflights, the organization's weapons will remain a key component of national defense against future threats from Israel.
"Our main and only concern is to defend our country, land, water, and sovereignty," said Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah at a speech to welcome the five freed Lebanese on Wednesday.
Hezbollah also has to contend with heightened sectarian tensions in Lebanon, particularly between Shiites and Sunnis, an outcome of the organization's brief armed takeover of mainly Sunni-populated west Beirut in May, which triggered a week of deadly clashes.
Hezbollah's leaders have long championed intra-Muslim unity, believing that the schism between Shiites and Sunnis only benefits the enemies of Islam. Yet, since May, Hezbollah has been slow to reconcile with moderate Sunni leaders, who were left looking weak and helpless before the Shiite party's military machine. Angry, humiliated, and frightened by the May clashes, Sunnis are clamoring for weapons and training, a step that the moderate Sunni leadership is unwilling or unable to take. That leaves an opening, however, for Sunni extremists to move in. And there are mounting indications that Al Qaeda-inspired militants are mobilizing. A previously unknown group called the Sunni Resistance recently circulated a list of names of Sunnis cooperating with Hezbollah, calling for their assassination.
"It's a very dangerous atmosphere. We see these tensions happening everywhere," says Abdullah Tiryaki, leader of the Fajr Forces, a Sunni armed group allied to Hezbollah.
On a regional level, Syria is engaged in indirect peace talks with Israel, a move that threatens the durability of the so-called "resistance front" grouping Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas among other anti-Israel groups dedicated to confronting Western ambitions in the Middle East. Syria is the geostrategic linchpin connecting Tehran to Hezbollah and the main conduit for the flow of weapons to the Shiite group.
Hezbollah has not commented publicly on the Syria-Israel talks, but party officials have made it clear in off-the-record conversations that they see no imminent threat from the negotiations. They believe that it will take a long time before a peace treaty is reached, assuming that the talks do not collapse, as they did in 1996 and 2000.
Regardless of the outcome of the Syria-Israel negotiations, Hezbollah insists that its weapons are a source of strength for Lebanon and therefore must be retained, arguing that they will provide Lebanon greater negotiating leverage in any future peace talks with Israel.
"There is a long way to go before Lebanon can negotiate peace with Israel, but Lebanon is in a better position [to eventually negotiate] than any other [Arab] country because of the strength of the resistance," says Ibrahim Mussawi, a political lecturer at the American University of Beirut and editor of Hezbollah's Al-Intiqad newspaper.