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Southern Exposure

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent visit to Hezbollah reveals the deepening isolation of the Shia in Lebanon

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Pins, bearing portraits of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, for sale in the southern Lebanese border town of Bint Jbeil last month. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)
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There is no concrete boundary that separates the south from the rest of Lebanon. Yet the socio-political border is not very difficult to detect.

On the highway that connects Saida, a major city in the south, to Tyr, further down along the Mediterranean coast, posters of countless martyrs and huge banners accentuating the need for resistance signal that leaving Beirut is like entering another country. “You are the most honorable people,” one banner tells the people of the south. The posters welcoming Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on the occasion of his visit to Lebanon last month, have not yet been removed.

The Iranian president’s visit came as Hezbollah launched an aggressive campaign against the United Nations’ Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up to prosecute people responsible for the death of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Ahmadinejad termed it an Israeli tool to destroy the resistance. With this rhetoric, Hezbollah managed to mobilize its Shia base around their collective identity as a sect threatened by everyone else in Lebanon.

While most of Lebanon seemed to be on hold during Ahmadinejad’s visit, the streets leading to the south filled with supporters holding Hezbollah and Iranian flags. Lebanon seemed like two entities: those who preferred to stay indoors, nervously watching the events unfold on TV, and those who gladly went out to greet Hezbollah’s guardian.

That division, however, was not as clear-cut here as it was portrayed in the Western media. Those who were cheerfully greeting Ahmadinejad were Hezbollah supporters, but they did not represent the whole Shia community. Many in the south were as anxious as other Lebanese in Beirut and the north. My aunt, for example, had her suitcase ready in case she had to flee the south in a hurry, and my grandmother, a huge Hezbollah supporter, had mixed feelings of excitement and fear. Ahmadinejad’s visit was a high moment in her monotonous daily life, but the timing of the visit carried major concerns for her, as it did for other Lebanese.

After the liberation of the south from Israeli occupation in 2000, Lebanese Shia regained both their land and a sense of political power. But due in part to Hezbollah’s aggressive rhetoric and practices toward other communities in Lebanon, this power backfired on the Shia. The 2006 war, the 18-month sit-in against the government that followed, and the strikes and protests of May 7, 2008 led to a huge rift between the Shia and Lebanon’s large and influential Sunni community.

Now the special tribunal, which most observers agree will soon accuse as-yet-unnamed Hezbollah members for the killing of Lebanon’s former prime minister, is widening that rift.

Nobody knows when the tribunal’s indictments will be announced, or who they will target, but some media reports cite sources that say that several Hezbollah members will be accused. In Lebanon, this was enough to put Hezbollah and its supporters on high alert.

In The Hague, meanwhile, tribunal staff try to keep out of the political bickering and threatening rhetoric of Hezbollah and its media by stressing confidentiality, reliance on evidence, and the need for justice to achieve long-term peace and security. But in Lebanon, Hezbollah argues for security over justice, and ignorance of the tribunal’s proceedings and structure allows divisive politicized rhetoric to consume any kind of logical thinking.

The deepening isolation of the Shia community within Lebanon makes the likelihood of a violent response to the tribunal’s findings all the more threatening. Samer, a 40-year-old man who owns a small restaurant in Tyr, said that he recognizes Hezbollah’s protecting role. (Samer and other local Shia quoted in this article preferred not to provide last names, for fear of reprisal for expressing opinions on Hezbollah.) “But we all know that Israel will strike again, and when they do, it is not going to be the same as in 2006,” he said. “The problem is that this time, we cannot escape to other areas in Lebanon. The Sunnis will not receive us like they did in 2006, and no one knows if the rest of Lebanon will be safe.”

Samer worries that the Shia will be treated like the Palestinians were treated after the 1982 Israeli invasion that led to the end of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Lebanon. “Everybody will eat us alive,” Samer said. “It has already started. We cannot find jobs outside the Shia-owned institutions. We cannot buy property outside Shia areas.”

Amira, a 35-year-old woman from Nabatieh, a village in the south, agreed. Her husband used to work at a company owned by a Sunni businessman in Beirut. After May 2008, he was fired and had to settle for a low-paying job in the south. “I have never felt so insecure,” Amira told me. “Israel is waiting around the corner, the international tribunal will indict Hezbollah, and we will be more fragile and more isolated than ever. Our children are leaving the country to look for life elsewhere. There is nothing left here.”

Amira lived all her life in the south of Lebanon. She witnessed the 1982 Israeli invasion as an 8-year-old child, and during the 2006 war she lost friends and family members who died only because they lived in the south. Israeli military planes still fly over her village every day, reminding her that the war is not really over.

Hezbollah is not perfect, she said. “But at least it is the only force that is resisting the Israelis. Without Hezbollah, the Israelis would have taken over Lebanon a long time ago.” Amira said she has no choice but to stay and expect the worst. She has little hope of emigrating or leaving to safer areas of Lebanon. “I cannot live in peace,” she said. “Anything can happen any day, and I feel stuck here. I am suffocating.”

Amira is like many Shia in Lebanon, who still support and vote for Hezbollah but on the other hand feel that they cannot take the tension anymore. “It is true that the Shia are today more critical of Hezbollah’s practices and politics, but we really don’t have anyone else,” she said. “There is no guarantee that other political leaders will take care of us. It is a sectarian system, and each leader cares about his own sect. That’s why we cannot but stick to Hezbollah.”

According to Mona Fayyad, a writer and professor of social psychology at the Lebanese University, the Shia are afraid but helpless. “It is too late for them now to leave Hezbollah,” she said. “There is no one else ready to receive them, and Sunni street sectarian rhetoric is not helping.”

The Shia are afraid of losing power because everyone will turn against them, but they know that any street violence by Hezbollah will make the situation worse for them as Lebanese. “The Sunni-Shia conflict has already started in the street, and there is no way to stop it if no real effort is made to resolve the political problem,” Fayyad said. “On the other hand, the Israeli government is becoming more and more uncompromising, and this gives the Shia no choice but to stick to Hezbollah, leading to more isolation of the community. And this is exactly what Hezbollah wants.”

But the isolation is intensifying, and the stereotypes are becoming more rooted. A few weeks ago, a local TV channel aired a report alleging that an Islamic educational organization headed by Agriculture Minister Hussein al-Hajj Hassan—who is one of Hezbollah’s ministers—is buying land tracts in the northern Beirut suburb of Jdeideh. This started a dangerous Christian-Shia quarrel over who controls which part of Lebanon, which in turn revealed deep-rooted sectarian resentments.

Christian politicians say transactions like the one in Jdeideh are taking place all over Lebanon. In some neighborhoods of Beirut, such as Hadath, Christians have agreed not to sell property to Shia buyers in order to “preserve their community.” But the agreement also applies to Shia members who don’t support Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, some Lebanese complain that certain neighborhoods in Beirut, considered Hezbollah strongholds, are controlled by party-led militias. “After May 7, 2008, the edges of Beirut’s neighborhoods became more apparent,” said Kamal, a liberal independent Shia who lives in Beirut. “You don’t see arms in Beirut’s Shia neighborhoods, but you know they’re there, so if you get bullied by a guy in the street over a parking space, it is advisable to avoid the confrontation. As for resorting to the rule of law, forget it. Security forces do not interfere with these people.”

Both the Lebanese army and the Internal Security Forces prefer to sit back and watch each time street clashes erupt in a Sunni-Shia neighborhood. Instead, and in an attempt to reassure other citizens, they deploy in Christian areas such as Achrafieh, in eastern Beirut, or other upper-class neighborhoods where people never clash. This is understood to be a way of protecting the institutional integrity of the army, which suffered severe division during the civil war.

The army, like any other state institution, cannot impose its authority on Hezbollah, which is the main representative of the Shia community. This means that the Shia, living outside the authority of the state, can overstep the rule of law. It also means that the Shia are becoming more and more isolated in a self-made sectarian ghetto.

Iran took very good care of the Shia in Lebanon when no one else did. Now it is the time for repayment. When Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to Lebanon, many Shia were afraid of an Israeli reaction, but only the cheerful welcoming crowd was heard and reported in the media.

“Eventually, we will have to pay the price, because Hezbollah will not remain that powerful forever,” said Maha, a 40-year-old woman from Dahiyeh, Beirut’s southern suburb. “We sometimes overlook the problematic connection of Hezbollah to Iran. The money that poured from Iran after the 2006 war was never for free.”

Hanin Ghaddar is a Lebanese journalist based in Beirut.

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I’m amazed that these people are so dense as to not understand that Hizbullah is simply a branch of Iran and the last thing that interests it is the welfare of the people of Lebanon. All this talk about resisting Israel would be absurd if it wasn’t so dangerous. Israel has absolutely no quarrel with Lebanon and if Hizbollah were to dissolve there would be peace. Unfortunately, as has been documented, Hizbollah is pouring arms into Lebanon and using civilians as human shields.
The only people not ever mentioned in all these articles about Lebanon are the Jews who all fled for their lives.

MAVERICK says:

BRAVO AND FULLY AGREE WITH CARL

The dense ones here are people like Carl and Maverick who swallow the Israeli line that the Zionists who are now in power have no designs on South Lebanon. If you believe that, you have to be very gullible. Hanin Ghaddar has described a situation that anyone who knows people from South Lebanon will recognise as completely authentic.

Bekaa Man says:

Tony,

Why don’t you help poor Carl and Maverick out by providing objective evidence that Israel actually “has designs” on South Lebanon? Seriously, if the Jews wanted to annex this land, there would be mountains of quotes from Israeli political and military leaders, there would be public discourse on the pros/cons of extending their national border across the blue line, there would be talk of settlements, etc. Aside from Hezbollah rhetoric, WHERE is the proof that this is Israel’s intention?

dani levi says:

Tone’s a Hezb man. If you believe Israel has any territorial interest in Lebanon you must also believe that Elmo is a living monster.
Well, you go play now, and play nice Tony.

Miryam says:

Israelis love Lebanon. They have together biblical history.
It would be wonderful if Hezbolah could disapear and let this two countries live in peace forever. It would be wonderful if the frontiers of those two countries was open for their citizens.
HEZBOLLAH AND IRAN ARE THE ONES WHO CONSTANTLY THREATENS ISRAEL. ISRAEL WILL DEFEND ITSELF, FOR SURE !!!!

Sure, Dani, I must be a Hezb guy if I think Israel’s the bogeyman. I’m not allowed , I suppose, to say anything about what I know to be the perceptions of friends and family in South Lebanon if that doesn’t tie in with the Zionist picture of a happy peace loving Israeli people who only want to come over and share hummus recipes. Israel is desperate to control Lebanese water resources and you know it. You just don’t get it, do you? In the absence of a functioning state, Hezbollah has been the only reliable provider of education and medical and social services for the people of South Lebanon and the Bekaa for years. Everybody else has spouted their rhetoric but Hezbollah is the only group that has reliably delivered over the years. That is why the majority of people in S Lebanon would hesitate before coming out against Hezbollah – even the Shia members of my family, who have suffered targeted assassinations by Shia extremist groups in the civil war. Nobody’s going to take Israel’s word for anything. Evidence, Bekaa Man? Read the history of the Zionist movement – it’s all there – and I don’t mean the Elders of Zion crap. Evidence of Israel’s bad faith? Try the non disclosure of where you carpeted South Lebanon with cluster bombs to stop the people returning to their land. Any more simplistic theories about how to solve this?

Tony–How do you explain the filmed encounters where we see villagers in Southern Lebanon preventing Hezbollah from entering their villages? As to your water theory–Israel was sitting in Lebanon for years and never diverted a drop to Israel. Now suddenly we have designs on their water? The only thing that Hizbullah has delivered is arms caches in civilian homes which turn them into targets.

Carl,
I haven’t seen any pictures of villagers preventing Hezbollah from going anywhere but they would have my admiration for having the guts to try. I have seen villagers stopping UN observers from moving and know of instances where the Lebanese armed forces have been delayed until the coast was clear and yes, Hizb was probably behind those actions. There is no way I would condone the coercion of the people by extremists with a foreign agenda. However, you should bear in mind that all factions in Lebanon are supported by people with a foreign agenda but also that anyone who lived through the terror – yes terror – of the occupation years of South Lebanon has an automatic distrust and, sad to say, hatred of anything Israeli. All I am saying is that there is something approaching unanimity in South Lebanon that Israel is not to be trusted and nothing they see in Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians gives them reason to think any other way. If they suddenly found the courage to stand up to the Hizb, it would not be to run into the arms of the Israelis. There are lots of anecdotes about the water issues and conspiracy theories abound but again, when they look at what access a Palestinian farmer gets to water compared with the “make the desert bloom” brigade, they have to wonder.

Tony–I’m not saying that the Lebanese should have any great love of Israel. Just as I have no love for Lebanon having been subjected to 2 months of rocket fire in 2006. What I am saying is that if no more rockets were shot into Israel and no more Israeli soldiers were kidnapped the Lebanese could simply ignore Israel. Hizbollah, as a proxy of Iran, is simply fanning the flames of conflict, which is not in the best interests of the Lebanese.

If I can make a more general statement–The situation in S. Lebanon reflects the situation in almost all the Arab world. Abysmal leadership that is not interested at all in serving the people. This leadership uses Israel and the West to distract the people from realizing what terrible leaders they have, and as is usual in the Arab world there is very little self-criticism which might lead to changes to correct the situation.
The Lebanese should wake up and realize that Iranian involvement will lead to a war that will make the 2006 war look like a Sunday school picnic.

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Southern Exposure

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent visit to Hezbollah reveals the deepening isolation of the Shia in Lebanon

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