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Hezbollah's Newest Threat

Lee Smith

Hezbollah’s goal, in the words of its senior officials, has always been to create a society of resistance among Lebanese Shiite Muslims—one that would share in the setbacks as well as the victories of the militia’s fighters. So, why is Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah now complaining that Israel committed war crimes against civilians? In a culture of total resistance, surely no one is an innocent bystander.

Yet at a celebration this past Friday for the rebuilding of portions of Beirut’s southern suburbs destroyed in the 2006 war with Israel, Nasrallah asked his followers: “Why wasn’t [Israel] content with the killings in the battlefield, or with bombing military bases? Why did it expand its aggression to destroy homes and schools?”

Nasrallah apparently wants it both ways. He runs a guerrilla organization that stores its arms in homes and schools and hides among a civilian population that supports Hezbollah’s brand of asymmetric warfare. At the same time, he seeks to prick the conscience of the international community in order to have Israel sanctioned for crimes against the same population that his group uses as human shields.

But there’s something else behind his Friday remarks: Nasrallah is more sensitive than ever to the devastation to which he has exposed the Shiite community because he fears that the culture of resistance Hezbollah has cultivated may be on the wane. Or, as anti-Hezbollah Shiite activist Lokman Slim told me “The shelf-life of the resistance has reached its expiration date.”

Last week in Beirut I found that many Shiites, even those not actively opposed to Hezbollah, are becoming increasingly anxious about the role that the party has designed for them—as cannon fodder in the next round of warfare with Israel.

***

I spoke with Slim at a reception he was hosting last week in Beirut in honor of a dissident Shiite cleric, Sheikh Hassan Mchaymech, once a part of Hezbollah’s leadership and now imprisoned for challenging the party’s doctrine. In his writings over the last two decades, Mchaymech has promoted democracy and criticized the notion of guardianship of the jurist (wilayet al-faqih), the theory handed down by the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which confers on Iran’s supreme religious leader supreme political power as well.

Guardianship of the jurist is also what gives Tehran command and control over Hezbollah, an organization that it seeded more than 30 years ago in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley and continues to fund lavishly. The result is that the fate of Lebanon’s entire Shiite community—whether or not they’ve signed on to the culture of resistance—is in the hands of the Iranians. Hezbollah and its allies in Syria have accused Mchaymech of collaborating with Israel in order to silence him and anyone else who thinks of stepping out of line. But Slim contends that it is Hezbollah that is collaborating—with Iran—at the expense of Lebanon’s Shiites.

Slim is hardly alone in his criticism of Hezbollah. Recently there have been a number of signs—including books, like the recently published volume of Mchaymech’s, as well as newspaper articles from Shiite journalists explicitly attacking Nasrallah—that suggest Hezbollah is feeling the heat at home.

Hezbollah may control the Lebanese government, but the party hasn’t distinguished itself for its stewardship. Even in its own Shiite regions, like Beirut’s southern suburbs, the community, according to knowledgeable inside observers, is plagued with a growing crime rate, drug usage, and other sociological problems that Hezbollah has proven incapable of managing.

Perhaps worst of all, the situation unfolding in neighboring Syria has left Hezbollah and its constituents in a bind: If the Assad regime is toppled, Hezbollah will lose one of its two patrons, Iran being the other. And yet Nasrallah has openly sided with the regime in Damascus and perhaps even sent fighters to assist Assad. And now many of Lebanon’s Shiites are asking themselves: Why is a resistance movement that is supposed to champion justice taking the side of a regime that slaughters other Muslims?

In short, it’s not a great time to be Hassan Nasrallah. Indeed, even last Friday’s celebration for the southern suburbs is evidence of the challenges the Hezbollah chief faces.

“The party was supposed to be held this coming July,” said Ali al-Amine, editor of a monthly Arab-language magazine called Shu’un Janubiya, which focuses on the concerns of the country’s Shiite community. “They pushed it up two months for a reason. Hezbollah is trying to show its supporters that they’ve done something good for the community and this is the only occasion it has to bring good news.”

This gathering for Mchaymech, which brought together notable Shiite figures including clerics, like Sheikh Sayyed Muhammad Hassan Al-Amine (the editor’s father), politicians, and journalists, suggests that while Hezbollah still commands the loyalty of much of the Shiite community, there is a small yet growing resistance toward Hezbollah.

“Some of the Shia community benefited from the 2006 war with Israel and wants to hold on to its gains,” said Slim, referring to the money that poured in from Iran and elsewhere during the conflict. He argues that this has created a level of affluence that has the potential to be damaging to a movement whose members used to rate themselves according to their sacrifices, not the size of their SUVs.

Slim has his own resistance credentials. In the Lebanese civil war, he fought alongside the Palestinians against Israel and promised to himself that if he lived through Ariel Sharon’s 1982 invasion he’d leave the war as well as Lebanon. In the early ’90s, he returned from Europe to the southern suburbs of Beirut to stand up to Hezbollah in one of its own strongholds and has seen the damage that the party has done to the Shiite community. “Those Shia who lost their homes and money in 2006 don’t want to go through it again,” Slim said. “As far as they’re concerned, Hezbollah checked off that box labeled resistance with the 2006 war. It’s over.”

***

In the likely scenario detailed by Israeli, American, and other Western strategists, if Israel attacks Iranian nuclear facilities, Tehran will unleash Hezbollah to retaliate. Now that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has formed his unity government—what some are calling a war Cabinet—it’s clear that the Shiites are anything but eager to bear that burden in Iran’s fight with Israel. Moreover, it appears that the Jewish state isn’t even Hezbollah’s biggest concern at present. “The Israel issue is secondary right now,” Amine, the editor, told me. “The Syria issue is primary.”

Hezbollah’s big concern is that the 14-month-old uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could cut off its main arms route and strip the Lebanese militia of its strategic depth. The Shiite community also fears the uprising, but for a different reason: If a Sunni ruler replaces Assad’s Alawite regime it would jeopardize the political and financial prestige that many Lebanese Shiites have come to enjoy under the dispensation of Hezbollah. As Hezbollah leaders have quietly let on among their followers, a Sunni regime will represent an existential threat to the Shiites. “They don’t talk about it in public speeches,” Amine said. “But their internal communications are all fixated on the Sunnis. They talk about the threat coming from al-Qaida and the Salafis.”

Naming Israel as the enemy is easy, said Slim. But identifying the Salafis as their main concern poses a delicate problem for Hezbollah. “These are fellow Muslims,” Slim explained. Moreover, playing the sectarian card may well backfire on the Shiite resistance movement. But right now, Hezbollah’s main goal is to keep the reins tight on its own community. As Amine said, “Hezbollah is using this fear of the Salafis to control the Shia.” And most Shiites, he added, “live and breathe because of Hezbollah. They can’t exist outside of this culture.”

And yet there are other members of the Shiite community who are in the midst of a full-scale insurrection against the party of God. Slim told me that he’s been waiting for this moment. “I saw the birth of Hezbollah,” he said. “It is not divine, but a human thing, which means it has a lifespan. I will see its end as well.”

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