Taking the “Non” out of Lebanon

Clock rings 11 for Nasrallah

By Amir Oren

On the 11th day of the 11th month, when church bells all over Europe rang 11, the Great War – later to be renamed World War I – ended. It lives in memory even after the more devestating World War II, for at least two reasons, casualties and countries.

In the United Kingdom, which lost more than 800,000 uniformed personnel, it is being commemorated each November in solemn ceremonies and poppy emblems. The United States, which joined the war in its third year and lost some 115,000 men, set aside 11/11 as Veterans Day. In the Middle East, it has to do with birth rather than with death. As the Ottoman Empire collapsed, new states were created – Iraq, Syria, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, subsequently Israel out of the British Mandate of Palestine.

In Lebanon, which was then part of the French Mandate of Syria, November 11 has another meaning, though not for everyone. Hezbollah is annually dedicating it to those fallen as “Resistance Martyrs”. The date was chosen because on it, in 1982, the first major suicide bombing took down the Israeli military administration building in Tyre, with 76 soldiers, police and Shabak – the security agency interrogating suspects – dead, along with 15 Lebanese detainees.

This was and remains the single most lethal event in Israel’s military history. In 1968, the Navy lost 69 officers and sailors aboard its submarine, Dakar. In 1997, two helicopters carrying troops into Lebanon collided, killing 73 soldiers and aircrew. But these were accidents, while in Tyre, when the toll was even higher, the cause was hostile action – the first significant one by an emerging Shiite movement, backed by the Islamic Repubic of Iran and on course to overshadow both the Palestinian organizations which drew Israel into lebanon and the Maronite Phalange militia aiming ti install its leader, Bashir Gemayel, as the state’s President.

Hezbollah has other dates marking the death of its central figures. In February, it remembers the Secretary-General who preceded Hassan Nasrallah, Abbas Mussawi, and the organization’s top operative, Imad Mughniye, killed by Israel in 1992 and 2008, respectively. But 11/11 has become the occasion for a Nasrallah speech promising that the Resistance’s heroes did not die in vain and giving their survivors and followers a status report.

Nasrallah is now the Arab world’s longest-serving leader. In the Middle East at large, only his master, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, can pull seniority on him, by three years. Yet longevity in office does not translate into quality of life, in Nasrallah’s case. He is in permanent hiding, having to hunker down in a bunker for fear that Israel is out to get him.

This year 11/11 televised speech posed a unique challenge to Nasrallah. He is faced with enhanced pressures and can show very little to justify his behavior. Hezbollah was exposed to one and all as a central part for Lebanon’s problems, in the mishandling of the country’s economy, health and justice systems. It lost key Iranian strategist and tactician Kassem Soleimani, along with half the budget Tehran used to spend on its proxy before the Trump administration put the squeeze on it. But most of all, he has to come to terms with the very identity of the group he leads.

Hezbollah wants to have the best of all worlds, power without responsibility – a free lunch. It aims to pull the strings while pushing forward the puppet, claiming innocence. This will no longer do. If Hezbollah essentially runs Lebanon, it will be held accountable.

In 2006, when Nasrallah ignited the summer war with Israel, the Bush administration prevailed upon Jerusalem, per Fuad Siniora’s wailing, to distinguish between Hezbollah targets and civilian and state-held infrastructure. The next time around, there will be no such fine-tuning. And for what? Iran’s bidding? Why should the poor Lebanese suffer for a cause not his or her own?

So Nasrallah, speaking to at least four audiences at once – Lebanon, Iran, Israel and the US – is trying to put the best face on a difficult situation. He can’t very well admit that there is no legitimacy for continuing the fight against Israel, which withdrew from Lebanon 20 years ago and is now involved in maritime boundary demarcation talks with Beirut, under American auspices. Once all borders, at land and sea, are agreed upon, why should Lebanon risk its long-awaited peace, quiet and underwater resources for “resisting the occupation of Palestine”?

 

The first round of talks on the maritime dispute ended just as Nasrallah was about to speak. No progress, yet. An Israeli official even complained that the Lebanese side reverted to old and previously rejected positions. This, however, was an opening gambit, and the talks will resume next month, with all parties – even Hezbollah, behind the scenes – having an over-riding interest in eventually securing an arrangement satisfactory to all, including American energy giants investing in the area with the presumption of peaceful conditions.

Nasrallah is an avid reader of Israeli military affairs news and opinions, probably more current than most Israelis on what their government and armed forces are doing to prepare for today’s attack and next year’s campaign. In his speech, he referred to the recent exercise the IDF held in the Galillee, involving thousands of troops simulating a response to, and repulse of, a Hezbollah penetration of the Northern border. Nasrallah proudly pointed to it as proof of his achievement – forcing offensive-minded Israel, always springing into action by sending divisions into Lebanon to suppress missile launches, to devote assets to defense.

It was a clever way of saying that deterrence, which is mutual in the Hezbollah-Israel standoff, has merit no less than action. This may be obvious between nations, but needs salesmanship when the speaker heads an organization touting its Resistance brand. Passive resistance, rather than pro-active, read provocative, seems better suited to the time.

The evening grew late when Nasrallah finished his two-hour plus monologue. The clock raced towards 11 – PM rather than AM, this time, as this was Beirut, not Berlin or London or New York. Nasrallah was peering into the unknown, including the policy to be pursued by the incoming Biden administration vis-a-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iran. He was not yet ready to take the “non” out of (French-influenced) Lebanon and adopt a positive outlook, but in his effort to convince his viewers that there is no factual basis to speculation that his nation, too, is secretly negotiating terms for joining the regional trend for normalizing relations with Israel, he sounded as if he, himself, is not certain about it – and that even if it is somewhat premature, it may very well happen in short order.