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With Rising Influence, Hezbollah Stands Ready to Exploit Chaos in Lebanon

avatar by Steven Emerson


A supporter of Lebanon’s Hezbollah gestures as he holds a Hezbollah flag in Marjayoun, Lebanon May 7, 2018. REUTERS/Aziz Taher/File Photo

Lebanon is going through one of the gravest economic depressions in modern history. More than half of the country’s population now lives in poverty, and the country’s currency has plummeted by 90%. Fuel shortages have led to fights at gas stations and the shutdown of critical power stations.

The Middle Eastern state is now on the brink of a “social explosion.” This dire warning from caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab was issued on July 6 as he desperately called for international help to save “the Lebanese from death” and “prevent the demise” of his country.

Instead of taking some responsibility for Lebanon’s economic crisis, Hezbollah — the country’s most dominant political force — is looking to exploit the crisis and further expand its influence.

Israel has answered Diab’s call for help and formally offered humanitarian assistance to Lebanon through the United Nation’s peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon (UNIFIL). But Hezbollah is expected to block any form of Israeli assistance to Lebanon, further illustrating the terrorist organization’s obedience to Iran’s extremist Shia ideology, to the detriment of the Lebanese population.

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“As an Israeli, as a Jew, and as a human being, my heart aches seeing the images of people going hungry on the streets of Lebanon,” Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz said earlier this month, adding that Israel is “ready to act and to encourage other countries to extend a helping hand to Lebanon so that it will once again flourish and emerge from its state of crisis.”

Instead of focusing on how to remedy his country’s woes, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah deflected blame towards the United States during a July 6 event called “Palestine is Victorious,” and highlighted his group’s main goal of fighting Israel, the Jerusalem Post reported.

“When in the Axis of Resistance, we talk about the ‘liberation of Palestine,’ we are not talking about dreams or fantasies,” Nasrallah said, adding “we do not exaggerate our goals, and this is one of the most important elements of the resistance force.”

Nasrallah also dehumanized Jews and Israelis: “There are no people in the Israeli entity, they are all occupiers and settlers.”

As a terrorist organization that is heavily involved in Lebanon’s governance, Hezbollah reaps the benefits of receiving state-like legitimacy while lacking accountability to its people. This is the assessment of a new report published last month by Lina Khatib at the United Kingdom-based think tank Chatham House.

Hezbollah has gradually increased its power and influence over Lebanese institutions and society, taking advantage of various crises and vulnerabilities in the state system in recent years. Should the Lebanese state collapse, Hezbollah is in a strong position to assume even more control.

Other political parties similarly jockey for power, Khatib wrote, but Hezbollah is better at exercising control among its political partners.

Unlike other power brokers, Hezbollah has de facto control over key border crossings and critical infrastructure. On Saturday, Israeli security authorities announced that they foiled an effort to funnel 43 weapons and ammunition (worth roughly $820,000) through a Lebanese border crossing that Hezbollah controls into northern Israel.

Hezbollah also uses Beirut’s port to facilitate drug trafficking and arms shipments, including explosives material, without state oversight of its activities or storehouses.

Last August, a massive quantity of ammonium nitrate detonated in Beirut’s seaport, killing more than 200 people and injuring more than 6,000. Hezbollah has been accused of corruption and negligence following the blast, given that the group maintains significant control over Lebanon’s ports. A Lebanese government investigation into the blast has failed to bring any senior official to account, and is marred by a justice system plagued by corruption.

Beyond territorial and institutional control, Hezbollah has attained the unique right to keep its own arsenal of weapons and is enabled to “use force at its own discretion under the pretext of national security,” Khatib wrote.

In May 2008, for example, the Lebanese government attempted to disband Hezbollah’s independent telecommunications network. The terrorist organization responded with an armed takeover of Beirut, which lead to a government crisis and a new unity administration.

For the first time, Hezbollah and its partners were given formal veto power in government affairs. Since then, Hezbollah has regularly relied on force to suppress its political opponents, and increasingly pursued independent operations that serve its narrow interests. A prominent activist who was openly critical of Hezbollah, Lokman Slim, was assassinated recently in an attack widely seen as the terror group’s way of silencing its critics.

Hezbollah’s decade-long intervention in Syria’s civil war is another case in point. The terror group sent fighters to Syria largely at Iran’s behest, seeking to secure its regional arms supply route. The organization has consolidated an arsenal of more than 130,000 rockets and missiles that directly threaten Israeli national security. The IDF anticipates that Hezbollah could launch between 1,000-3,000 missiles daily for over a week in the first week of a future war between Israel and the terrorist group.

But intervening in Syria has invited jihadist attacks and higher refugee flows into Lebanon, further destabilizing an already fragile country. Instead of prioritizing Lebanese domestic concerns, Hezbollah expanded its external operations across the region, including in Iraq and Yemen.

Hezbollah similarly continues to strengthen its presence internationally, using regions in Latin America and Europe as a base for drug trafficking, arms smuggling, fundraising, recruitment, espionage, and terrorist operations.

Hezbollah does not have an incentive to formally seize control over the Lebanese state, despite having the capabilities to do so, Khatib’s Chatham House report concluded. Hezbollah prefers maintaining a calibrated level of indirect influence to avoid full accountability.

However, as Lebanon continues to descend towards potential state collapse, Hezbollah’s incentives could change. The group’s leadership could take even more power instead of standing by. Western governments therefore need to prepare seriously for a scenario whereby an Iran-backed terrorist organization consolidates further control over a country on Israel’s doorstep.

Steven Emerson is the director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism.

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