Is there any hope for Lebanon?

The economic situation in Lebanon and the international sanctions placed on it have not affected Hezbollah’s capabilities in Lebanon. Op-ed.

(Res.) Lt. Col.Sarit Zehavi ,

Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon
Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon

On August 18th, it seemed as though the final nail was hammered into Lebanon’s coffin: The International Court of Justice in The Hague gave the verdict that exonerated Hezbollah and Syrian leadership from involvement in the murder of Rafic Hariri, former Prime Minister of Lebanon.

The Lebanese people waited 15 years for justice, and alas, it did not come. Saad Hariri, Rafic Hariri’s son and former Prime Minister of Lebanon, who fears for his life, hesitated in admitting so publicly, but expressed his disappointment and demanded that all his father’s murderers be turned over to the court.

The Lebanese people are alone. Without clearly placing blame on Hezbollah for the murder, it will be much more difficult to fight Hezbollah’s immense power in Lebanon. The verdict’s influence is first and foremost psychological – what hope does it leave the those Lebanese who oppose Hezbollah? It is clear to everyone that Hezbollah is responsible for Rafic Hariri’s murder, named “the father of the new Lebanese nation”. The camp of Hezbollah’s supporters is very much satisfied and even stated that the only person who was found guilty is no more…

The country has been suffering from a severe economic crisis even before the COVID19’s outbreak. Its leadership is corrupt. Hezbollah conducts itself as a state within a state and has an additional army that operates in coexistence with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and with the support of President Michel Aoun of Lebanon.

The tremendous blast in Beirut Port on August 4th left approximately 300,000 people without a roof over their heads, and the young ones among them without hope as well. Beirut Port, a vital source of income for Lebanon, was reduced to rubble. The main food warehouse in the port, which was near the place of the explosion, was severely damaged.

Until now, the cause of the blast is unclear, and there are numerous theories in the Lebanese media, as among the Lebanese leadership. Most of them claim an accident was caused by the authorities’ negligence.

The result: The Western countries, which up until a moment before the explosion were strict with Lebanon with regard to Hezbollah’s demilitarization in return for the continued support of the IMF, now freely give financial and humanitarian aid to Lebanon. Even Emmanuel Macron, President of France, arrived in Beirut and personally promised the demonstrators that “we will make sure the aid will go directly to the people.” We will come back to this statement…

Over the past two months I have been thinking about what my grandmother would say about her birthplace: “Beirut is the pearl of the Middle East”, and with pain she would also add – “and look at her today…”.

As someone who was born on the Israeli side of the border, I was quick to begin to evaluate – where is all this going? At Alma Research and Education Center, we sketched out 3 scenarios:

The first possibility is a terror attack by Hezbollah on Israel, intentionally causing escalation to divert attention, both in Lebanon and outside it, to somewhere else. Our assessment, especially after Hezbollah’s win in court – is that this assessment is possible but less likely. At the very least, it is so as long as Beirut is licking its wounds, and Hezbollah itself is occupied with damage control of its missile storage facilities in the city, while simultaneously aiding the populace via the Islamic Health Organization that is subject to it.

The second scenario is Lebanon’s descent into civil war. Over the course of Lebanon’s history, this issue has always on the table. Hezbollah made sure to keep it this way. Every time someone in Lebanon tried to undermine Hezbollah’s power, Hassan Nasrallah threatened with civil war – and not only verbally. For example, in May 2008, the Lebanese government tried to nationalize Hezbollah’s private media outlet and replace the person responsible for the security of Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport, who was a member of Hezbollah and allowed Hezbollah’s activity in the airport, specifically the smuggling of weapons into Lebanon. Hezbollah took to the streets in what is called until today “the events of May 2008” – a codename for “we almost descended into civil war, and it is highly advised to be careful not to do so.”

There is nothing that terrifies the Lebanese people more than civil war. They have experienced it twice in the past and were witnesses to Syria’s destruction in the past decade in its own civil war, that certainly affected its neighbor, Lebanon. A civil war will worsen the negative net migration rate in Lebanon that began in the previous civil war from 1975-1990. In this scenario, Lebanon will be empty of the young university students that took to the streets for the demonstrations and of the elite upper class and will be left with only the middle and lower classes that support Hezbollah.

Out of fear of civil war, the Lebanese people were willing to make exaggerated compromises, and basically removed from their daily schedule what used to be called the “National Dialogue” – a mechanism that dealt with reform in Lebanon after Hariri’s death, including Hezbollah’s demilitarization. This fear made Hezbollah what it is today – the most powerful military, political and social power in Lebanon. In this regard it is important to emphasize that despite the demonstrations against Hezbollah over the past few weeks, Hezbollah retains its power among the Shiite population in southern Lebanon and in Beqaa, where Shiites do not have any other options.

All of this leads us to the third scenario, the one that we think is the most likely – the preservation of the status-quo in Lebanon and essentially Hezbollah’s continued strengthening despite the sharp rebuke it is receiving. Let us not be mistaken – the economic situation in Lebanon and the international sanctions placed on it have not affected Hezbollah’s military capabilities in Lebanon.

Sadly, the International Court of Justice’s verdict has only strengthened our assessment. Afterwards came Macron the French president and insisted on preserving the dialog with Hezbollah and that way, legitimizing the terror group, ignoring its responsibility for the crisis in Lebanon.

The last events that transpired in Lebanon pose a great threat to the Lebanese people and to us – their neighbors in Israel. If there is escalation with Israel, many Lebanese people will be harmed because Hezbollah will use them as human shields. The scenario of continued strengthening of Hezbollah in Lebanon will sooner or later cause escalation with Israel.

And despite all this – there is not much we can do. The events in Lebanon turned it into “ground zero”. The blast in Beirut is Lebanon’s September 11th. However, it also brings opportunities with it, and taking advantage of them is in the hands of the Lebanese people themselves, with the assistance of the countries that support Lebanon.

Remember Macron, who made a promise on Lebanon’s soil that the aid will go directly to the Lebanese people? This is the key principle. Large sums of money now flow into Lebanon – money that the Lebanese people desperately need. But it is of extreme importance to supervise these funds and make sure they do not go to the hands of Hezbollah’s civilian organizations, under the guise of aid to the people.

Remember – these organizations have one objective – to create the infrastructure that allows Hezbollah to turn the Lebanese people into human shields. For the same reason Hezbollah and the Amal Movement insist that the treasury office will stay in the hands of the "Shiite block" during the negotiations to form a new government, that accompanied with the personal involvement of President Macron.

Until now, a number of flights transporting humanitarian aid from all over the world have landed in Beirut, including from Iran. How do we make sure these planes are not used also for military aid purposes? Lebanon’s government should be required, as a condition for receiving aid, to allow the planes to be examined beforehand by an international entity or a 3rd party country, in which these planes will land prior to arriving in Lebanon, to make sure the flight is not used also for transporting weapons to Hezbollah. The fact that civilian flights that landed in Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport were used to transport weapons from Tehran to Beirut was already published in the past. Hezbollah and Iran are experts in this type of disguise.

But supervision alone is not enough. The Lebanese people themselves have much work to do. They took to the streets even before the COVID19 crisis and called for the government’s replacement. After the explosion they “hung” cutouts of the corrupt leaders in nooses and shouted, “everyone including everyone”.

But who will lead? How will lead the protestors? How will a new local leadership rise and develop? One of the protestors even begged France to recapture Lebanon. It is obvious that the Lebanese people will need to cultivate a new leadership that will pull them out of the muck. Alongside this, Western countries will need to support the Lebanese people’s efforts to establish civilian organizations in Lebanon – people who are rich enough, willing enough and even sectorial enough to turn first to the Shia population and offer them an alternative to Hezbollah and everything it offers them: education, medicine, welfare, and structure in terms of community and ethics, that correlates with its language and culture.

If the whole world, especially the Lebanese people that left Lebanon (of whom there are millions all over the world) and those who still live there, come together, they will be able to show Nasrallah that he is not the only one that knows how to turn the threat into an opportunity. They will bring hope to Lebanon, and from “ground zero” something new will grow.

There are many professional arguments at Alma Research and Education Center about the likelihood and the ability to implement everything mentioned above – the supervision of funds, flights and humanitarian aid and cultivating civilian alternatives to Hezbollah’s civilian activity.

Frankly, as long as Hezbollah exists there is no chance for significant change in Lebanon, and if there is, the change will only be made in Hezbollah’s interests (and its patron – Iran), and it will probably not be in the interest of the Lebanese people and the region.

I hope that the Lebanese people have the courage to bring about change, and I believe it is possible.

Lieutenant Colonel (Res.) Sarit Zehavi is the CEO and founder of Alma – a nonprofit and an independent research and education center specialized in Israel’s security challenges on its northern border. Sarit holds an M.A. in Middle East Studies from Ben-Gurion University. Sarit lives in the Western Galilee, northern Israel.