As the war escalated in Lebanon last month, the country's weak and fractured government put aside its differences to condemn Israel's extensive use of force in response to the capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hizballah. Over the course of the war, initial grumblings from parts of the pro-western axis of the Lebanese government gave way to a unified voice calling for an end to the war.
Now, with a ceasefire in place, political tensions within Lebanon's fragile government that simmered beneath the surface during the war are threatening to explode. A US-backed coalition of the March 14 forces, which forced Syria out of Lebanon last year, has emerged weaker and furious at Hizballah for dragging their country into war. The country's pro-Syrian camp, which is aligned with Hizballah and is backed by Iran and Syria, has emerged stronger. Increased hostilities between the two sides will likely once again focus on the issue of disarming Hizballah.
This week, leaders of the pro-US March 14 forces accused Hizballah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah of forcing the country into a war it did not want and imposing Iranian and Syrian interests onto Lebanon's domestic scene. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, one of the coalition's most outspoken leaders, accused Hizballah of being a "tool of the Syrian-Iranian axis". More moderate voices like that of the parliament majority leader Saad al-Hariri dealt indirect blows to Hizballah by calling on the country to rally around the government and the Lebanese army.
Hizballah's popularity has grown sharply in the Arab and Muslim world and among Lebanon's Shi'ite community merely because of its ability to stay standing in the face of Israel's military might. And inside Lebanon, Hizballah has proved in the past that it can use its political clout to protect its arms.
But late last year, Hizballah also proved that it can rely on more than just its arms to wield power. In December, Hizballah members of parliament walked out and effectively closed down the government for seven weeks. The move paralyzed Lebanon. If the country's March 14 coalition decides to push for a disarmament of Hizballah, the movement can opt to play this card again.
Hizballah's swift response to help victims of the country's war-torn areas by handing out large sums of cash or sending bulldozers to clean up debris has also overshadowed the slow response of the US-backed Lebanese government.
Maybe more than Hizballah's strength, the conflict with Israel reaffirmed the weakness of that government. As the war raged, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora tearfully pleaded for an immediate ceasefire to no avail. Washington's ears were closed. Instead, the US backed Israel's decision to continue its extensive raids and bombardments of Shi'ite areas throughout Lebanon.
Meanwhile, US President George W. Bush promised Lebanon a mere $230 million in aid to help rebuild Lebanon. The Lebanese government has estimated the damage at around $3 billion. Even during reconstruction, Hizballah has been quicker than the Lebanese government to tend to the needs of Lebanon's victims.
Thus far, the ceasefire negotiated through UN resolution 1701 remains fragile. The Lebanese army is not being allowed within two kilometers of the Israeli border. Israel continues to break the ceasefire agreement and continues to threaten the assassination of Nasrallah. UN officials are struggling to implement a plan to send a mere 15,000 members of a United Nations force to Lebanon. With the possibility of continued war with Israel, any chance of opening discussions on Hizballah's arms becomes nearly impossible.
Much of Lebanon's woes come from the fact that it has long been a country subject to foreign meddling because of its 18 different sectarian groups. In this case, the US and Israel have their sights set on disarming Hizballah, while Syria and Iran are intent on having Hizballah keep its weapons as a way to confront the US and Israel. A weak central government, meanwhile, has created a country where Lebanese leaders have long paid homage to the interests of their country's specific sectarian groups. And foreign powers have always been able to play off the country's divided factions.
Lebanon's Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has put the issue of national unity at the top of his agenda by saying that Hizballah will not be disarmed by force and calling the issue an internal matter to be determined by Lebanese players. He has played the role of mediator between the March 14 forces and Hizballah and its allies. Earlier this week, he toured devastated areas with Hizballah ally and Shi'ite leader Nabih Berri.
To strengthen Lebanon and its government, the international community must deal with the root of the problem. By pushing for negotiations between Israel and Lebanon on the Shebaa Farms area and assuring an exchange of prisoners, Hizballah would lose its reasons to retain its weapons. The movement would have to finally choose whether it is indeed a political party or an Islamist group bent on fighting Israel. If at that point it chose to disarm, Hizballah might gain greater popularity inside Lebanon, but it would be transformed into a political party like any other.
Opening up negotiations between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights would also neutralize Syria by splitting it from the Hizballah-Iranian alliance, leaving Lebanon finally free of Syrian control and Iran isolated.
What is certain is that Hizballah will not be disarmed by force. The price would be too big for a country that has long known the consequences of internal sectarian strife that have been fueled by proxy wars. Any attempt by the international community to enforce the last remaining point of UN resolution 1559 by force could lead to a breaking point in Lebanon that no one would like to see.- Published 24/8/2006 © bitterlemons-international.org