The stated objective of the Hezbollah-coordinated press tour of southern Lebanon was to see new Israeli defensive installations on the border – indications, according to the powerful Shiite Lebanese militia, of Israeli fears of Hezbollah’s growing military might.
But as the convoy of vehicles carrying a large group of Lebanese and foreign reporters reached the outskirts of this village on the Mediterranean coast, around a dozen uniformed Hezbollah fighters came into view in an orange orchard on the side of the road. Clutching rifles, machine guns, and grenade launchers, their faces streaked in black cream, the fighters stood still and silent, in a frozen tableau.
The unprecedented spectacle appeared to be a deliberate and calculated breach of a UN Security Council resolution that bans non-state forces from bearing arms in southern Lebanon, and it illustrated the unmatched sway Hezbollah wields, and the impunity it enjoys throughout the country. That is the culmination of more than a decade in which Iran's key ally amassed influence and power to defend its military priority against those who wish to see the group disarmed.
Viewing Hezbollah fighters in the field is rare enough, but this brief, subtly-delivered roadside display served to signal Hezbollah’s defiance and autonomy to multiple audiences. They included Israel, the Lebanese government, and UNIFIL, the United Nations peacekeeping force deployed in south Lebanon, whose headquarters lay less than a mile away from the orchard.
The display of defiance was staged at a time of growing Hezbollah-Israel tensions. Hezbollah’s main strategic objective, analysts say, and one of its guiding principles in the complex arena of Lebanese politics, is to preserve its right to bear arms and its military prerogatives vis-à-vis Israel.
“Hezbollah wants to protect its right to fight Israel at a time of its choosing, and to secure its Shiite base’s political and economic rights in an antiquated sectarian political system,” says Randa Slim, a Hezbollah expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “To do the former, it needs a secure strategic depth in Syria, maintain and fully control its weapons arsenal in Lebanon, and a home-front that is not at war with itself.”
On the border
Opponents of Hezbollah say the border tour was another example of the party behaving above the law and holding the country hostage to its anti-Israel agenda.
“The tour … is considered an insult to the Lebanese state's standing and a new threat to Lebanon's relationship with the international community,” said Sami Gemayel, leader of the Kataeb Christian party.
UNIFIL was clearly unaware of the nature of the tour, although it acknowledged that shortly before it began, the Lebanese Army had informed it of a media visit to the border.
The reporters, many of them laden with cameras and video equipment, marched along a narrow path that weaved through an old Israeli minefield to reach within 100 yards of a large Israeli Army listening post bristling with antennas and containing giant golf-ball-shaped radars.
The location is usually out of bounds to the public, and the sight of dozens of reporters entering the area to film the Israeli outpost caught nearby Italian peacekeepers by surprise.
“No, no, no,” admonished an Italian UNIFIL officer, running up to the reporters with his finger wagging in the air. But a Lebanese Army officer accompanying the tour took him by the shoulder and walked him back down the path. More stony-faced Italian soldiers looked on as the reporters departed the scene shortly afterwards in their vehicles.
“This was an assault on UNIFIL’s credibility and ability to operate along the Blue Line,” says Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, referring to the UN’s name for Lebanon’s southern border.
Overture to the UN
Stung by Hezbollah’s bold display, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri hurried to Naqoura the next day to meet with UNIFIL officials and reassure them that it is Lebanon’s government that controls the southern border, not Hezbollah.
“What happened yesterday is something that we, as a government, are not concerned with and do not accept. So I came here to emphasize that our role as a government is to preserve Resolution 1701,” Mr. Hariri told reporters, referring to the UN Security Council resolution that helped end the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, in part by the ban on non-state weapons near the border.
Hariri, accompanied by the minister of defense and the commander of the Lebanese Army, added that his trip was intended “to tell the Lebanese armed forces that they and only they are the legitimate force in charge of defending our borders.”
The rare Hezbollah-arranged tour was held amid growing concerns in some quarters since January that a new war between Hezbollah and Israel may be imminent. The election of President Trump and his administration’s vow to roll back the influence of Iran, Hezbollah’s sponsor, across the Middle East has given rise to feverish speculation that the Lebanese group, which has gained invaluable battle-field experience in Syria’s civil war and amassed thousands of new surface-to-surface missiles, could come under attack by Israel.
Furthermore, Israel has repeatedly warned that the growing influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon since the two-month 2006 war means that in the next conflict the Jewish state will treat Lebanon as the enemy, rather than limit its operations to Hezbollah alone. With that threat in mind, Hariri, while at UNIFIL headquarters, called on the UN to help turn the current cessation of hostilities with Israel into a permanent cease-fire to offset the chances of another highly destructive war.
Ali Fayyad, a Hezbollah parliamentarian, nevertheless dismissed “exaggerated interpretations” of the tour and insisted in a statement that “the resistance [Hezbollah] is in a defensive position and that it is seeking to consolidate … stability in the south based on the equation of deterrence with the Israeli enemy.”
Hezbollah’s opponents say the party controls the levers of power over the Lebanese state in order to safeguard its own interests. While that is generally true, such criticism can ring hollow in a country where politicians of all political persuasions are widely seen as routinely exploiting state resources either for personal enrichment or to fund patronage networks on which their popular support rests.
And while Hezbollah’s influence within the Lebanese state today reaches into political, economic, security, and judicial spheres, analysts say its principle motive is less the acquisition of power but to defend and sustain what it calls its resistance priority – the anti-Israeli military component that lies at the heart of the party’s ideology.
Still, Hezbollah’s determination to hold onto its formidable military assets and the attempts by its opponents to de-fang the party have caused more than a decade of political divisions between the Hezbollah-led March 8 parliamentary coalition, oriented toward Iran and Syria, and the rival, pro-Western March 14 coalition, headed by Hariri. Sectarian tensions have soared and on occasions the country has come close to collapse.
When Hezbollah spent the 1990s battling Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon, its armed status was sanctioned by successive Lebanese governments and guaranteed by neighboring Syria, then the dominant force in Lebanon. After Israel withdrew its troops in May 2000, Syria continued to provide cover for Hezbollah’s military wing despite growing calls in Lebanon for its disarmament.
String of domestic victories
But that fig leaf was removed with Syria’s political disengagement from Lebanon in April 2005, two months after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the current premier's father, for which Damascus was blamed by many.
With Syria gone, Hezbollah had to take a more proactive stance to defend its weapons even as its domestic enemies sniffed new opportunities to have it disarmed. Hezbollah struck alliances with Shiite and Christian parties, joined the government for the first time, and used its weight to block legislation that threatened its interests.
It even resorted to taboo-breaking violence in May 2008, storming the western half of Beirut in response to a government decision to shut down its private telecoms network. The action triggered several days of sectarian fighting that brought the country to the brink of civil war before the government was humiliatingly forced to rescind its earlier decision.
More recently, Hezbollah was able to secure the election of its Christian ally, Michel Aoun, as president. The previous incumbent left office in May 2014 and both sides submitted candidates. But Hezbollah and its allies refused to attend parliamentary sessions to elect a new president unless assured that Mr. Aoun would carry the vote. Hariri and his allies sought a compromise by dropping their own candidate and nominating another Christian ally of Hezbollah.
Still Hezbollah dug in its heels, insisting on Aoun. After a two-and-a-half-year deadlock, Hariri yielded to Hezbollah’s demand and Aoun was elected last November in a deal that saw Hariri appointed prime mininister. The result has effectively left the March 14 coalition shattered beyond repair, its leaders either marginalized or compelled into reluctant cooperation with Hezbollah.
That has left Hezbollah effectively the victor of the political battle that shaped post-2005 politics in Lebanon with no serious domestic challenge to its armed status.
“So far, Hezbollah’s assessment is that it can achieve its interests and the means to achieving them without ruling Lebanon – especially now that Michel Aoun is the president,” says Ms. Slim, the Hezbollah expert. “The moment any of these means are threatened, as we have seen in the case of [the anti-regime uprising in] Syria, Hezbollah will fight back.”