Across the Bay

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Hizbullah Snubs the Lebanese

I can't say I'm surprised by Hizbullah's latest stunt. HA launched a series of attacks in the Shebaa Farms area and northern Israel (Metula). Apparently, Israel wasn't surprised either, as its intelligence had been warning that such an attack was imminent, and that such an operation has been in preparation for a while. The Israelis struck back at the source of fire, and bombarded HA bases in the south.

Apparently, the operation, which may not be the last, was aimed at abducting Israeli soldiers in the Shebaa Farms area. Abducting Israeli soldiers to gain the upper hand in the bargaining for Lebanese prisoners in Israel (see below), and revive their dying image, has long been declared by Hizbullah. The file of the prisoners is important to HA and their image and prestige. One prisoner, Samir al-Quntar, is of particular interest to the Party.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz remarked on the attacks:

Mofaz said the latest escalation is a result of the pressure exerted on Syria over the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, as well as international pressure on the Hizbullah.

"The Hizbullah action is an attempt to draw Israel into an escalation and divert attention to our region," he said.

Meanwhile, IDF sources said Hizbullah has been facing heavy pressure recently aimed at ending its existence as an armed group. Accordingly, the Lebanese group is attempting to stir trouble in order to create legitimacy for its action through false claims, the sources said.

A senior IDF officer told Ynet Monday’s events show the Hizbullah is again spitting in the face of Lebanon’s government by "carrying out such operation on the eve of the Lebanese Independence Day."

It is indeed hard not to make that connection, as it's so consistent with the Party's rhetoric and positions since the March independence movement. Nasrallah and HA have been singing (solo) the tune that the "real" enemy and occupier is Israel, not Syria. Meanwhile, the focus of the rest of the Lebanese scene has been, naturally, on Syria. It was also obvious that the speeches in the celebrations of Independence Day were going to be focused on Lebanon's independence from Syrian occupation, and the recently restored sovereignty and freedom. Indeed, PM Seniora delcared that "Syria has to get used to the fact that Lebanon is an independent sovereign country." Furthermore, as I noted in my post yesterday, Walid Jumblat again emphasized the need for border demarcation with Syria, and its official recognition of the Lebanese ownership of the Shebaa Farms (which it still has not done, and the Farms remain officially Syrian territory. More on that below.)

So it was expected that HA would refocus attention on itself and its agenda, in order to try and dictate domestic discourse: independence is from Israel, not Syria. The Farms are Lebanese. The "Resistance" will continue. The UN and Seniora (with emphasis on Seniora), should never forget who has the final say and who has the weapons. It also falls in line with HA's campaign against Seniora, and its pressuring him to reject UNR 1559. HA's attacks have prompted UN undersecretary-general for political affairs, Ibrahim Gambari, to urge the Lebanese government to extend its control over all its territory (which is stipulated in UNR 1614, and also in 1559). They seek to embarrass Seniora, and to push him on 1559. If they don't like it, they could always leave government, as they keep threatening. That would also mean Amal's withdrawal, which would mean, thanks to the horrible 2000 election law, the absence of Shiite representation in the cabinet.

In the face of growing domestic isolation, increased tension with Seniora, and lately a strong rebuke by Jumblat (who had given them most cover up to that point. A good analysis in Arabic can be found here), HA fell back (it never really changed) on its trademark: violence. This came after playing its other characteristic card: demagoguery. That's what HA is, afterall. All those praising the supposedly "democratic" behavior of HA should take note at how HA operates in government: it blackmails it and undermines it through demagoguery and extra-state violence (see Dalal al-Bizri's devastating piece. English synopsis here). That's why its weapons destroy the domestic political balance and are a direct affront to the state, as Christopher DeVito recently pointed out: "Democracy can’t work while Hezbollah remains an armed faction holding everyone hostage."

Before his latest brush with the Party, Jumblat had been constantly making statements about their weapons and the state of the conflict with Israel. Those statements ranged from the maximalist, pro-HA "the weapons are a guarantor of protection against Israel," to the most recent, post-Bashar speech, opposite: the weapons are not a guarantor of protection. National consensus and dialogue are.

This came after HA made it clear that it would work in coordination with Syrian interests in seeking to undermine the Seniora government, and thereby Lebanese stability and sovereignty. It started especially on HA's "Jerusalem Day" parade, which Jumblat and all his party's MPs did not attend. Nasrallah's speech that day was particularly offensive, and clearly outside Lebanese consensus. It was hammered by commentators in Lebanon, and negatively received by Jumblat himself. That's when Jumblat started his shift back to his earlier position in March. Now, he's repeating his earlier position (which was at one point also voiced by Aoun) that the situation with Israel should be governed by the 1949 armistice agreement.

He also included this caveat for HA: before returning to the armistice, the Shebaa Farms (once officially acknowledged to be Lebanese by the Syrians, and after demarcating the borders) should be restored, the Lebanese prisoners held in Israel should be set free, and Israel should hand Lebanon a map of all the landmines left over in southern Lebanon. Essentially, Jumblat had previously floated this proposal in late October, and he presented the armistice as a stipulation of the Taef Accord.

Today, the Daily Star quoted Seniora's spokesman Aref Abed as saying:

"Hizbullah has implied in its declarations it would be ready to discuss wars to protect Lebanon from Israel and 'maybe' disarm if a series of conditions were met." According to Abed, those conditions were: "Israel withdrawing from the Shebaa Farms, releasing the Lebanese prisoners from Israeli jails and providing the maps of the mines placed by Israel in the South of Lebanon during the occupation."

Abed said Siniora has mentioned these conditions to Javier Solana, the EU high representative for common foreign and security policy, during his visit to Lebanon, adding Siniora also asked Solana to convey this to Washington.

According to Abed, Siniora is waiting for Hizbullah to "propose a framework for national dialogue over the issue of the resistance's arms."

There's not much to go on there, and it's been like this from the beginning. This so-called "dialogue" was never even explicitly defined. Seniora is now pushing to define and finally start it. HA is still pushing the PM to reject UNR 1559, and pressuring him on other UN-related matters, such as the mission of Gere Pedersen. It's also currently opposed to the calls for border demarcation with Syria.

Speaking of which, this report in al-Hayat says that Damascus has agreed to Lebanon's request to demarcate the border. But, as you might have expected, it will be done "in stages," and will start from northern Lebanon southward. Oh, and Shebaa is off the table "until the Israelis withdraw from it and from the Golan in full" (emphasis added)! And the cherry on top: the Farms' identity will not be clarified until Israel withdraws! So it's all a bunch of hot air and typical Syrian maneuvering.

HA's attacks also come after the UN prosecutor, Mehlis, had reportedly rejected Syria's choice of venue for the interrogation of six Syrian officers, including Bashar's in-law, Asef Shawkat. This will add to the general perception in Lebanon that HA is indeed working in tandem with the Asad regime.

Walid Choucair wrote recently in al-Hayat that while there is certainly a convergence with Syria, the ultimate reference for the Party, as is well known, is Iran. Choucair notes that the Syrian situation is now a card in Iran's hand, to use in Iran's own confrontation, regionally and internationally. Choucair believes that this new development is a main reason why HA altered its dealings with the Future Movement and Jumblat's PSP. The Party's Iranian reference point has been a theme in recent commentaries, including al-Bizri's.

Whatever the reasoning behind the move, everything the Party does now is outside Lebanese consensus, and is viewed as serving Syrian attempts at destabilizing Lebanon and its government, and functioning as Iran's proxy in its regional battle with Sunni powers, as well as its international battle with the West. It will increase its isolation domestically, increase calls on the full implementation of 1559, and heighten tensions.

This is what HA thrives on. Moderated by participation in government? I think not. HA was advised that national consensus is the only option. Today's move shows exactly what they think of that and of the rest of the Lebanese. It was a response to Jumblat and Seniora. Now HA's alone. This attack was not against Israel. It was against Lebanon (Seniora in particular). Al-Bizri put it well: "...anxiety [is] not about the Party's danger to Israel, but its danger to life in Lebanon. ... [HA chants] 'Death to Israel!' In other words, death to us."

Critical times lay ahead.