Hezbollah vs. the international community – by Hanin Ghaddar

Lebanese soldiers watch as protestors burn tires in Beirut on May 7, 2008 during a general strike that turned into a confrontation between the Hezbollah-led opposition and the Western-backed government. (AFP Photo/Ramzi Haidar)

Last Thursday, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah declared an open war against the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). He set a new stage in the Lebanese political scene, whereby any Lebanese citizen who supports or cooperates with the STL or its investigation team is considered a traitor.

This happened after a group of women charged at investigators from a UN probe into the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri at a clinic in Beirut on Wednesday, snatching a briefcase but causing no injuries.

This weekend, Loyalty to the Resistance bloc MP Ali Ammar said Hezbollah will protect officials who refuse to cooperate with the tribunal.

Hezbollah knows more than anyone else in Lebanon that the STL was initiated by the UN Security Council and can only be stopped by the council. No one else, in Lebanon or elsewhere, can stop the STL from accomplishing its mission.

But how is Hezbollah going to implement Nasrallah’s demand, which is considered a threat today by many Lebanese who are willing to cooperate with the STL? And if Hezbollah knows that the STL will not stop, what is really the end-game of this tension?

Unfortunately, the answer to the first question is street violence. Last Wednesday’s incident eliminated any hope among the Lebanese that the rising political tension will not be reflected in the streets. But now, although the Syrian-Saudi rapprochement, which is supposed to secure Lebanon’s stability and avoid clashes, has not been declared dead, it is clear the street will be the place where political tension is vented.

The women who invaded the doctor’s clinic and attacked the investigators were not official armed Hezbollah soldiers, and they were referred to in Hezbollah’s statements and media reports as citizens who just wanted to express their objection against the tribunal.

This reminds us of a similar incident when “the people” attacked UNIFIL troops in July of this year. One day before UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued his 13th report on UN Security Council Resolution 1701, residents of 22 villages in the South took to the streets, blocked roads and attacked UNIFIL troops with stones to protest the increased presence of the UN peacekeepers in South Lebanon.

The incident was seen then as both an attack against the international resolutions and a message against the international community because of the imposed sanctions on Iran.

However, the parallels between the two incidents is that Hezbollah was sending these messages to the international community through “the people,” hence, building around itself a shield of loyalists who will do anything to protect the party.

The problem is that Hezbollah has put itself today on the defensive. They have moved against the STL before knowing the findings of the investigation or who will be indicted.  This has raised some questions among many Lebanese about the party’s position. Being on the defensive is not a strong point for Hezbollah, because this has never been their approach.

But unfortunately, this could also mean that more desperate measures might be taken during battle, such as moving the conflict to the streets where it can be fought by “the people.”

Al-Akhbar daily, affiliated with March 8 forces, published a report on Monday that within two hours of an STL indictment against members of Hezbollah, the party will implement a non-violent scheme to “hold a security and military grip on large areas of Lebanon.”

Many analysts and politicians believe that this is a threat that cannot be implemented, because Hezbollah cannot afford to handle a coup d’état of this scale. That is why another scenario is possible. This scenario is related to recent talks about “changes in the government.”

Without Syria’s allies, Hezbollah will not be able to topple the government. Alone, the Party of God does not reach 11 ministers in the 30-minister government. However, with Syria’s allies, such as the Shia Amal Movement and the recently “converted” Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, this plan seems plausible.

Nevertheless, this would still not influence the STL, but it might lead to major changes in Lebanon. Today, Hezbollah stopped warning us and moved to implementing its threats. All other attempts failed: stopping the Lebanese government’s funding to the STL, withdrawing the Lebanese judges from the court and settling the issue of false witnesses. It became obvious that none of these steps will stop the work of the tribunal.

Using the street would probably lead to the desired changes in the government. However, the question remains: how would these changes influence the tribunal? It probably wouldn’t. No decision taken internally would affect the STL’s work; however, other decisions could be a cause of fear for the Lebanese.

For a while now, mainly since the Doha Agreement that stopped the violence of  the May 7 events of 2008 – when Hezbollah-led militias attacked Beirut and the Druze mountains – Hezbollah and the Amal Movement have been calling for reconsidering the Lebanese political “system,” which is currently based on the equal division of power between Christians and Muslims. The two parties have repeatedly hinted at a new equation, sometimes under the pretext of abolishing sectarianism based on a three-way power sharing system among the Christians, the Sunnis and the Shia.

Christians in Lebanon are already divided and are thinning demographically. Moreover, the Taif Accord transferred many of the Maronite president’s privileges to the Sunni prime minister. If the current equal division of power in the parliament between Christians and Muslims were to be abolished, Christians would lose even more of their standing.

However, by using the street and the people to its advantage, Hezbollah is ironically placing itself in a vulnerable position, as the problem of its arms will resurface. After the formation of the “national-unity government” in 2009, all Lebanese factions agreed to solve the issue of arms internally. However, although Hezbollah did not use its arms against the investigators, recent developments seem to have brought back the discussion of UNSCR 1559, which stipulates the removal of all armed militias in Lebanon.

Hezbollah wants to create a political situation where no one would dare approach the party in case an indictment is issued against any of its members. This is a fight against the international community, and it might backfire because it will be very difficult to separate Lebanon from the rest of the world. Not only do many Lebanese not want that, but also the international community hasn’t yet given up on Lebanon. Or so it seems.

Hanin Ghaddar is managing editor of NOW Lebanon