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Southern Exposure

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

Hanin Ghaddar
November 18, 2010
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)
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)

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 Friedmann Visiting Fellow at the Washington Institute for the Near East Policy. Her Twitter feed is @haningdr.

Hanin Ghaddar is a Friedmann Visiting Fellow at the Washington Institute for the Near East Policy. Her Twitter feed is @haningdr.