Foreign interference, conflicts and Hezbollah (2005–2008)
The UNSC Resolution 1559, issued in September 2004, underlined ‘the importance of free and fair elections according to Lebanese constitutional rules devised without foreign interference or influence’. This, in itself, was considered ‘a foreign interference’ by part of the Lebanese public opinion, which was outraged. The resolution further divided the pro- and anti-Syrian camps, such as Hezbollah‘s partisans and opponents, as it urged ‘all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon’, and insisted on the ‘disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese’. By ‘foreign forces’ the Security Council meant Syrian troops. The Israeli troops, which had occupied southern Lebanon since 1978, had finally left in June 2000, after Ehud Barak had become Israel’s Prime Minister. Only the disputed areas of the Shebaa Farms and Ghajar, both on the Syrian border, remained under Israeli control.
In the spring of 2005, the remaining Syrian forces, whose number had already dropped from 40,000 in 2000 to 14,000 in 2004, finally withdrew, thus ending 29 years of military presence. Foreign involvement did not end here, however. Observers have said that Lebanon exchanged the Syrian tutelage for a Western umbrella or stepped-up Iranian interference. Many foreign eyes were – and are – scrutinizing the country, starting with the United Nations and its various interventions – resolutions, envoys, assistance by UN organizations, from UNDP to UNRWA and UNIFIL. A Core Group – the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, the European Union, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UN and the World Bank – was installed to coordinate Lebanon’s economic future and – in return for aid – to review a reform programme that should alleviate Lebanon’s huge debt (in 2005, almost twice its GDP, and in 2009, still 150 percent of its GDP) and make its economy healthier. Lebanon’s progress, in this respect, did not impress the donor countries, which stressed that economic growth had been stagnant since 2000 and that government spending still exceeded revenues.
Both Israel and Hezbollah continued to make incursions into each other’s territory, each staging its operations in retaliation. In July 2006, Hezbollah killed eight Israeli soldiers and captured a further two. Israel struck back by bombing Beirut’s airport, Lebanese harbours, key roads and other infrastructure, as well as Hezbollah’s strongholds – mainly civilian, densely populated areas – in southern Lebanon, the Beqaa Valley and South Beirut. Hezbollah fired rockets onto Haifa, Tiberias, Afula, and even Nazareth. The escalation led to what became known as the 33-Day War. The outcome of this war in Lebanon: 1191 people killed, several thousand injured, up to one million displaced. The infrastructure (roads, bridges, power plants) and some 15,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, plus hundreds of factories, markets, farms, offices or shops. In Israel, 43 civilians were killed, tens of thousands displaced. Estimated economic losses amounted to USD 12 billion in Lebanon and USD 4.8 billion in Israel, according to UN documents.
The war was ended by UNSC Resolution 1701, requesting once more Hezbollah’s disarmament and ‘full respect for the Blue Line by both parties’ – the Blue Line being the demarcation line in the south of Lebanon, as defined in 2000, which should not be crossed, neither by the Israeli forces nor, in the opposite direction, by Hezbollah or – initially, the Syrian forces. The resolution also called for the border disputes to be ended, referring in particular to the Shebaa Farms. Another of Hezbollah’s reasons for not disarming is that it sees itself the only force capable of defending Lebanon – and in particular its Shiite inhabitants in the south, far better than the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). Yet, Resolution 1701 implied that the LAF would ‘deploy throughout the South, including along the Blue Line’, protecting the border and the Lebanese territory inside it, assisted in this by UNIFIL whose forces were increased to 15,000 troops. This development – the deployment of LAF and UNIFIL troops in Hezbollah territory, hampered Hezbollah’s military operations, though it claimed victory over Israel and gained much in popularity.
From then on, the political situation in Lebanon deteriorated. Hezbollah increasingly fell out with the rest of the government and ended up by withdrawing its ministers. The March 14 Movement blamed Hezbollah for provoking an unnecessary and costly war with Israel, and Hezbollah accused the March 14 leaders of selling out. One of the main contentions was the Special Tribunal charged with the investigation of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. In the beginning, Hezbollah was very much opposed to this UN-appointed tribunal, as it appeared to point an accusing finger in the direction of Syria, which was and is, with Iran, Hezbollah’s main supporter and arms supplier. On the other hand, the 2006 war convinced Hezbollah that the Unites States were just as great an enemy as Israel. The Fouad Siniora government, on the other hand, was western-oriented, and very much under pressure to remain so, if only for economic reasons. All the existing international tensions – between the Unites States on the one hand, Iran and Syria on the other; between the pro–Western Sunni Arab regimes and the militant Shiite, between Israel on one side, Syria and the Palestinians on the other – all these again seemed to converge in Lebanon.
Exacerbated by the international imbalances, the rift between religious communities, never completely healed after the Civil War, widened again and paralyzed the government. This led to huge demonstrations on each side. Verbal violence transformed into physical violence. Two prominent March 14 MPs were murdered.
The main contentious matter remained Hezbollah’s armament. Hezbollah had always said it would only use its arms against Israel, not against the Lebanese. But in May 2008, the Shiite parties – Hezbollah and Amal – ‘used their arms to defend their arms’, as they put it. Tensions had worsened between Hezbollah and the government, the latter having announced that it wanted to dismantle Hezbollah’s telecommunications network. To make things worse, the airport security chief – supposedly close to Hezbollah and said to be a spy for this organization – was fired. Hezbollah and Amal briefly took over (Sunni) West Beirut, and fought the Druze in their own territory, the Chouf Mountains. There were dozens of deaths and many more wounded. The attackers also hit the media and in particular those owned by Hariri’s Future Group. Future News TV was besieged and blacked out by Hezbollah militants, the archives and the offices of the daily al-Mustaqbal (15,000 circulation) and the al-Sharq Radio Station were set alight.
To put an end to this violence, Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, invited the political leaders to a conference in Doha, in the presence of other representatives of the Arab League. The Doha Agreement, signed on May 21, declared not only the prohibition of weapons but also announced – after several months of delay – the election of a new President, former general Michel Suleiman, who was held in high esteem by all parties. Moreover, the Agreement entailed additional rules for forming cabinets, now to include not only all confessional groups but also striking a balance between March 14 / March 8 forces.
Still, there was more violence to come. Later in 2008, Tripoli was the scene of a series of deadly clashes between Sunnis and rivals from the Alawite community who support Lebanon’s Shia movement Hezbollah. As a result, 23 people were killed. In September, high-ranking officials of both parties signed an agreement, offering to hand over Tripoli’s security to the Lebanese army in order to secure civil peace.
Palestinian camps, too, have regularly been the theatre of clashes between different factions, and clashes with the Lebanese army. In 2007, there was a series of violent incidents ending in a full-scale war in the northern camp Nahr al-Bared, near Tripoli. It started with a shoot out between the Salafist Fatah al–Islam and the Lebanese army. Nahr al-Bared soon became the central arena of confrontation, which lasted for over three months. Later, this camp was partly closed for renovation. The Ayn al-Hilweh refugee camp in southern Lebanon, the largest in the country, has also seen frequent internal deadly clashes between rival factions, in particular between the Salafist Usbat al-Ansar and Fatah.
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