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The Domestication of Hizballah


Hizballah’s Domestic Growing Pains

Marlin Dick, 13 September 2010
(Marlin Dick is a freelance journalist based in Lebanon.)

For background on the 2009 elections, see Heiko Wimmen, “Old Wine in Older Skins: Lebanon Elects Another Parliament,” Middle East Report Online, June 3, 2009.

For background on Hizballah’s domestication, see Mona Harb, “Deconstructing Hizballah and Its Suburb,” Middle East Report 242 (Spring 2007). Order the issue here. See also Lara Deeb, “Hizballah: A Primer,” Middle East Report Online, July 31, 2006.

The term dahiya (suburb) is a staple of Lebanese political discourse, practically shorthand for Hizballah, the Shi‘i Islamist party seated in its infamous headquarters just south of Beirut. Before the civil war, the suburb, or more precisely suburbs, consisted of several small towns surrounded by orchards that began where the capital ended. Today, it is a heavily congested urban sprawl replete with higher-income neighborhoods, such as Jinah, where international chains such as Burger King, BHV, Monoprix, Spinneys and the Marriott have opened since the end of the civil war in 1990. Administratively, the dahiya lies in a half-dozen municipalities, and only one of these, Harat Hurayk, home to Hizballah’s party offices, is usually the “dahiya” that politicians and pundits have in mind.

The area’s portrayal as a mini-Islamic republic under absolute Hizballah domination is a caricature. While there is less open public consumption of alcohol than in other parts of Beirut and women tend to dress more modestly, such conservative pockets exist elsewhere in Lebanon. Most women living in the dahiya wear some sort of head covering, but many do not and none are legally compelled to do so. Moreover, the dahiya contains substantial numbers of non-Shi‘i Lebanese, non-Shi‘i Arabs (primarily Palestinians, Syrians and Egyptians) and other foreigners (mainly Africans and Asians). But it remains Hizballah’s home turf, along with the party’s strongholds in the northern Bekaa Valley and much, but by no means all, of southern Lebanon. Hizballah’s security presence is strict near its party offices and institutions in Harat Hurayk, where its vigilant street personnel detain and question curious camera wielders or others who show up unannounced to poke around. The party’s supporters cite fears of information being gathered and funneled to Israel, while critics call it the state-within-a-state syndrome. Whatever the case, more than 160 suspected Israeli agents have been arrested in only the last 16 months, whether by Hizballah or state police and intelligence bodies, with the southern suburbs as a key target.

Clans, Guns and Money

In late 2009, the fatal knifing of a young Christian by Shi‘i youth in the neighboring suburb of ‘Ayn al-Rummana brought the dahiya’s “beyond the law” atmosphere to a boiling point, but a bubble of crime and disorder had existed long before the incident. Confronted by state law enforcement organs or others, many thugs would falsely claim that they enjoyed political cover from the party. As one observer in the party’s orbit put it, the mere claim of “I’m Hizballah,” brandished by a local, could deter any further questioning by a policeman. A former Hizballah member described a situation wherein neighborhood freelancing za‘ims (leaders) exploited the chaotic dahiya environment to engage in illegalities, extorting money from residents for electricity and satellite television services, generating resentment and sometimes violence. Just after the knifing incident, on-the-ground responsibility for security and public order in the dahiya began to shift in favor of the Lebanese state. In November 2009, Hizballah blessed a long overdue clean-up operation, as personnel from the Internal Security Forces (a centralized police force) and various intelligence bodies established a presence in the dahiya to root out the criminals. The party dubbed the campaign al-Nizam min al-Iman (“public order is a part of faith”), and it covered everything from regulating traffic and use of sidewalks to sanitation and discouraging the theft of state electricity supplies via illegal connections to the network.

Meanwhile, Hizballah has largely washed its hands of the tuffar – outlaws in the northern Bekaa Valley involved in cannabis cultivation. The tuffar have remained aloof from both the government and Hizballah, having retreated to the outer reaches of Lebanon, where they represent more a voice of protest than a plan of action. The popularity of their cause stems from corruption and waste in the central government, the lack of profitable alternatives to drug farming and the specter of nearly 40,000 outstanding warrants hanging over the heads of Bekaa residents. Hizballah leader Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah has demanded an amnesty or another solution to the warrants issue.

During and after the civil war, Syrian military and intelligence officials managed the unruly clans in the northern Bekaa, whose turf battles had a propensity for violence, and since Syria’s 2005 withdrawal, Hizballah has not filled the vacuum. While continuing to sponsor reconciliation between the area’s clans, it has not acted to end the disturbances once and for all. Hizballah is not pulling the strings of the tuffar movement, but rather eyeing it warily as an offshoot of the network of Bekaa tribes it has yet to fully coopt. Perhaps because of the charged sectarian climate of recent years, the party has not lobbied hard for the canceling of outstanding warrants — a move that would benefit the Shi‘i community. Meanwhile, Hizballah has refused to condone the acts of violent Shi‘i clan members or criminals, or to protect the mini-industry of car theft centered in the village of Barital. Clashes between the Lebanese army and outlaws have become more frequent since Syria’s withdrawal and Hizballah has generally offered its tacit blessing for army intervention in towns like Baalbek, where clan members have engaged in shootouts in the streets, sometimes with rocket-propelled grenades.

While Hizballah has not used the last five years to coopt the entirety of the Shi‘i population, it continues to cultivate its core constituency. The large-scale and usually efficient provision of social services to the public is a pillar of Hizballah’s drive to gain the support of the majority of the Shi‘a. The party provides schools, medical facilities, agricultural assistance and support for widows and orphans. But Hizballah has been unable to secure the Health, Education or Social Affairs Ministries in the three governments formed since Syria’s withdrawal. Such “service” portfolios would grant Hizballah secure channels of patronage to be directed at needy urban and rural communities. Meanwhile, the July 2006 war with Israel required the party to rebuild the swathes of the southern suburbs destroyed by Israeli raids. Hizballah established the firm Waad (Promise) alongside its long-time arm for such endeavors, Jihad al-Bina’ (Jihad Construction), to oversee reconstruction, and the results have been slow but positive; an observer said that even virulently anti-Hizballah engineers and technicians were enthusiastically participating in the reconstruction projects, due to the professionalism of the effort. In contrast, the government’s performance can be summed up by its sole significant project in the suburbs, the airport bridge-tunnel in Ghubayri, which inches toward completion more than four years after the war. Accusations of official mismanagement of reconstruction funds, which were donated by a number of countries, abound. The likeliest explanation is that the government used part of the money to pay down the national debt, rather than channeling it to reconstruction.

In securing services and projects, Hizballah has honed its lobbying skills as it interacts with the Lebanese state, foreign governments and local communities. A union official observed: “When Christian MPs visit a government minister, they usually ask for favors, personal things, related to prestige, like a vanity license plate for a constituent. The Hizballah MPs are all business. They always have a request for some civil defense center or hospital in some village. They’re always asking for such things.” Critics castigate Hizballah for relying on Iranian subsidies, but the party also obtains funding from the Shi‘i diaspora and services from state bureaucratic channels, and raises no objections to Arab Gulf countries earmarking reconstruction aid for individual villages in the south. Moreover, the money that is secured is sometimes used to create self-generating sources of revenue. The party’s showcase endeavor has been a massive open-air museum in the southern village of Malita in commemoration of Hizballah’s operations against Israel from 1982 to 2000, when the Israeli army occupied southern Lebanon. The Malita complex, dubbed “jihad tourism” by Western media, has attracted a half-million visitors in the three months following its May opening.[1] Malita was completed less than one year after a record year of tourism in Lebanon, while the government’s efforts to promote tourism have been reactive and slow to translate funding into impact.

Politicians regularly spout the rhetoric of sustainable development, but most of Lebanon’s political class is more intent on securing patronage in the form of a payoff and then skimming off a percentage before passing it along, if it gets passed along. Hizballah realizes the importance of both diversified funding sources and sustainable projects; it built the Malita complex itself, after encouraging private-sector supporters to build restaurants, hotels and other leisure establishments in various areas of the country, including a low-cost amusement park and paintball field in the dahiya.

‘Izz al-Din “Madoff” vs. Fanayish and Co.

Hizballah’s standing took a hit in June 2009, when the public became acquainted with one Salah ‘Izz al-Din, a businessman, financier and confidante of Hizballah, and reportedly an investment partner of several top party officials. ‘Izz al-Din was apparently unable to cover the huge sums he owed, thanks to a Ponzi scheme he allegedly ran to the tune of $200-400 million. ‘Izz al-Din and his partners are now before the courts and the event was seized upon, briefly, to highlight Hizballah’s purportedly shady finances and corruption. The repercussions will likely be limited to the upper reaches of the party, however, and Nasrallah has reportedly relayed a strict internal message: Halt corrupt activities immediately.

In contrast, a more favorable reputation for the party is being built thanks to Hizballah’s ministers in the executive branch. On regional and international policies, Nawwaf al-Musawi is Hizballah’s leading spokesman, while on purely domestic issues, Muhammad Fanayish has been the party’s most prominent face. Fanayish, who served as energy minister, was the only one of Hizballah’s partisans named to the 2005 cabinet, though the party also selected a minister of labor, Trad Hamada, an ex-leftist and now Islamist-oriented figure.

After a disappointing performance as labor minister, Hamada was replaced by Fanayish in the 2008 cabinet. When he assumed office, Fanayish wrested control of the labor movement file from Hizballah’s official Labor Bureau, but declined to use the General Labor Confederation (theoretically in the party’s hip pocket) as a tool to pressure rivals in the divided cabinet. Fanayish also ended the reign of notorious middlemen who processed paperwork at the ministry by tendering the job out to LibanPost, a private firm. The majority of these several hundred middlemen were supporters of Hizballah or its fellow Shi‘i party Amal, but under Fanayish’s reforms, people now turn in their forms at local post offices, instead of going to the Labor Ministry in the dahiya and paying a middleman to facilitate the process. During his short tenure at the Energy and Water Ministry, prior to 2008, Fanayish had instituted a nationwide addition of plastic wrapping to butane canisters, used commonly in home heating and cooking, in order to prevent rampant tampering. Such good governance initiatives are rare and often ineffective, due to opposition from powerful entrenched interests.

Fanayish’s dynamic but low-key approach stood out in a government riddled with underperforming ministers, whether from the Western-backed March 14 coalition, so named for the date of a massive demonstration against the Syrian “presence” in Lebanon in 2005, or from among its rivals. The March 14 parties had won the May 2005 parliamentary elections after the departure of Syrian troops, but had formed a “national unity” cabinet with its opponents, including Hizballah and Amal. While serving as energy minister, Fanayish had attempted reform but was blocked by the March 14 prime minister, Fuad Siniora; the issue finally became public when Fanayish’s successor and ally disclosed the stalemate and Siniora’s alleged bureaucratic foot dragging on revamping the mismanaged state electricity sector.

Whether or not a minister can be completely “clean” is a something of a moot question in Lebanon, where the entire range of political parties, Hizballah included, are believed to divert money and resources from government channels or profit from illegal enterprises. The judiciary’s exposure of corruption has been extremely selective. The vast network of intertwined interests and trading of favors in national politics hints that a comprehensive revelation of who exactly is involved in illegalities would produce a very long list, meaning that everyone has an interest in keeping things relatively quiet.

A challenge now awaits at the Agriculture Ministry, to which Hizballah official Husayn Hajj Hasan was named in the government formed by Saad al-Hariri in November 2009. The ministry lacks significant state funding and has been awash in corruption, but if anyone is under pressure to make it work, it is Hizballah, which has long criticized the government neglect that hurts the party’s rural bases of support in the Bekaa and the south. A long-time MP for Baalbek-Hirmil, Hajj Hasan had served for years as the vocal chairman of Parliament’s Agriculture Committee; he holds a doctorate in chemistry and physics and is one of the few ministers who appears qualified for his portfolio.

Hajj Hasan’s short tenure has spread cautious optimism. While he began by repeating his predecessors’ tactic of decrying insufficient government funding, Hajj Hasan also exposed the corruption that plagues the ministry, where he says three quarters of bureaucrats are implicated in taking bribes and other illegalities, and customs declarations for wheat shipments involve rampant forgery. More recently, he has taken disciplinary action against employees allegedly responsible for allowing spoiled foodstuffs into the country and legal action against importers. Hajj Hasan’s ambitious four-year reform plan might fail to defeat the sector’s cartels of pesticide merchants and promoters of traditional, low-value crops, who inhibit dynamism and growth. But his latest achievement, in July, was to broker a first-ever soft loan program for farmers, courtesy of the country’s private banks, in an attempt to generate funding rather than merely register complaints.[2] The last two decades of Hizballah’s service provision to rural residents, among them many farmers, appear to have had only a limited impact, despite the considerable amount of aid disbursed. On the other hand, the services might have prevented a total collapse of conditions for Shi‘i farmers.

Both Fanayish and Hajj Hasan have helped to polish Hizballah’s domestic political aura of seriousness and anti-corruption, or at least its reputation as a party that abstains from significant official chicanery. The two ministers may not be charismatic, but they can hold forth on their respective policy domains on nightly political talk shows for several hours without causing Lebanese viewers to roll their eyes in disgust, as they do when more divisive and corrupt figures are on camera.

The National Cup

To mark the thirty-fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war in 1975, Lebanese ministers and MPs gathered on a soccer pitch in the dahiya on April 13 to play a 30-minute match for civil peace. Detractors faulted the upbeat, nationally televised game for starring the very political class that many blame for sectarian unrest, political corruption and economic mismanagement. Not surprisingly, the evening was heavy with symbolism. Organized by Minister of Youth and Sports ‘Ali ‘Abdallah, from Amal, the match pitted two teams made up of a mixture of players from the March 14 forces and their political foes in the March 8 coalition, so named for the large rally “thanking” Syria on the eve of Syrian troops’ exodus from Lebanon. One team was captained by Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and the other by Hizballah’s ‘Ali ‘Ammar, an MP for Baadba.

One of the most divisive figures in the March 14 camp, Metn MP Sami Gemayel, a young Phalange Party official, scored both goals in the match. He put the ball in the net guarded by goalie Qasim Hashim, an MP for Marjayoun-Hasbaya and a member of the Baath Party. In attendance was President Michel Suleiman, whose status as a neutral or “consensus” head of state excused his direct participation. By state protocol, the speaker of Parliament, Amal head Nabih Berri, should have been number two in the match’s pecking order and the prime minister number three, but instead the captains were selected from the two parties commonly seen as leading each of the March 14 and March 8 camps: Hariri’s Future Movement and Hizballah. On their flanks were more hardline types, such as the Phalange, who regularly criticize Hizballah and its allies Syria and Iran, and the Baath, which marches in lockstep with Damascus.

The principals and their post-game comments reflected the schizophrenia that plagues the political class: On one hand, politicians say Lebanese should “forget” the sectarian conflicts of the past; on the other hand, they say, “We can’t forget,” lest the conflicts return. Referring to Hizballah’s self-titled “national defense strategy” for confronting Israel, in large part with Hizballah’s weapons, goal-scorer Gemayel said of his opponents, captained by ‘Ammar, “The defense strategy of Hajj ‘Ali was pretty bad,” before erupting into laughter. For his part, ‘Ammar smilingly explained his side’s loss by saying that since Hariri was the captain of the other team, and since Hizballah was a part of the cabinet, it “didn’t want to embarrass the government.”

Forty-eight hours prior to the game, Gemayel had told a political rally that the day would come when Hizballah’s arms would be confiscated, piled on army trucks and sent from the dahiya to the Defense Ministry in upper Baabda. The March 8 coalition also has its hardliners: A few days after giving up the goals, MP Hashim turned to the attack on the border with Israel. He rallied locals in a village and led them a few feet into disputed territory, removing Israeli barbed wire and hoisting Lebanese flags. Echoing a similar incident that took place in 1999, spontaneously led by leftist and other secular students,[3] this round of tit-for-tat on the border also saw the Israelis quickly remove the paraphernalia. The Phalange rally rhetoric and the Baath-led action were examples of political freelancing, while in an official soccer game, Hizballah was in effect put on a par with Hariri, a situation that did not exist prior to 2005. In the “old days,” Hizballah MPs regularly voted no confidence in governments led by Hariri’s late father, Rafiq; today Hizballah is in the government. A decade ago, Hizballah did not enjoy this central role in the system, whereas today it often performs the function of playing the middle rather than representing the extreme.

Managing Stalemate

Tensions in Lebanon are high as the Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigates the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri by car bomb on February 14, 2005. Sectarian resentment also persists since the 2007 Hizballah-led tent city protest in downtown Beirut. Much of this period saw parliamentary life in limbo and the cabinet paralyzed by the boycotts of Hizballah and Amal ministers. In May 2008, three weeks of bloody civil strife broke out in several parts of Lebanon between the March 14 and March 8 camps, with Hizballah providing the most efficient shock troops.

The bitterness of many people about the bloody civil strife of May 2008 continues to generate ever-ready accusations that “Hizballah turned its guns against Lebanese.” One response by Hizballah was to direct its public relations efforts beyond the converted, stepping up the number of guided tours of the former Israeli-occupied zone in the south for students from elite universities, in an effort to reinforce the concept of resistance to Israel. Helping Hizballah stay afloat politically during this period was its alliance with the Free Patriotic Movement, led by the Maronite Christian Michel Aoun — a partnership that has helped to temper sentiment that only Shi‘a support Hizballah. Rather than effortlessly dominating the national arena in the aftermath of Syria’s withdrawal, Hizballah has focused on forging alliances, and unlike in the pre-2005 period, the party’s charismatic leader, Nasrallah, now frequently uses televised addresses, speeches and interviews to tackle domestic and foreign affairs. To mobilize public opinion against the Tribunal, he has made a series of media appearances and released what he says is sensitive information about the plot to kill Hariri, promising even more revelations to come. Nasrallah’s rhetoric might anger Hizballah’s political rivals, but his efforts are calibrated to build support and win allies, and the boyish, 50-year old cleric appears to be using more and more colloquial Arabic in his appearances, perhaps in an attempt to cast a wider net. Hizballah will not compromise on “security,” by which the party means its weapons, but on other matters it lobbies and repeatedly argues its case, sometimes reaching compromises. If Lebanese politics in the 2005-2010 period has been a stalemate, it has been a very fluid one.

Hizballah’s performance has not been spotless in the eyes of its base. Ahead of the May municipal elections, the party announced an ironclad alliance with Amal, to ensure winning coalition tickets. Prior to the polls, Nasrallah was obliged to intervene, publicly telling freelancing cadres who were promoting themselves as candidates in the name of the party to get in line and fully support the officially sanctioned Hizballah-Amal slates. In the same speech, he told the wider public that voting against the coalition candidates was in effect a vote against resistance to Israel, an argument that many apparently found excessive. The public in various Shi‘i villages and towns fought back quite loudly, trying to form counter-lists. Ultimately, only a handful of upset wins were scored, but the people had spoken: They rejected the tried-and-true Hizballah strategy of selecting lesser known and uninspiring figures and passing them off as authentic representatives of leading families. Officially, the party maintains that it did well, but if the previous municipal election performances by Hizballah deserved an eight out of ten, one cadre reportedly related, the most recent effort deserved a six.

The New Maestro?

Prior to Syria’s withdrawal, Hizballah reveled in its outsider role in national politics. The late Rafiq al-Hariri consulted the party face to face on certain domestic issues, but his son Saad now coordinates at least weekly with Hizballah officials. Hizballah and the Future Movement have participated in the cabinets since 2005. As one of the system’s top players, Hizballah has generally avoided any attempt to take the country’s political system in a radically different direction without a consensus across parties.

Whether or not Hizballah prefers to engage in domestic politics is irrelevant; it is under pressure to perform from its core constituency and the system, even if matters are supposedly deadlocked. Prior to 2005, Syria’s presence could be blamed for postponing a decision on, for example, how to reform the moribund state bureaucracy, but this excuse is fading. In Saad al-Hariri’s government, the point man for drafting guidelines for the appointment of senior civil servants on the basis of merit and seniority rather than sectarian and political affiliation is none other than Hizballah’s Fanayish, who was named minister of state for administrative reform. Fanayish’s portfolio means that he is in regular contact with diplomats from many countries. Some might belittle the scope of the evolution in Hizballah since its official coming-out in February 1985, but back then the party certainly did not worry about its stances on privatization, pesticide use, local elections, social security and reforming the bureaucracy. Nor was it obliged to hold meetings with foreign diplomats eager to jump on a bus and talk about funding a capacity-building initiative in southern Lebanon.

For now, the party is benefiting from its expanded civil, political and state responsibilities while managing to trim one of its more odious duties, namely policing the entirety of the dahiya. It has largely ignored wide-impact socio-economic issues, but has managed to run its ministries without becoming tarred with accusations of corruption and squandering of resources. Hizballah’s critics contend that its military-security activities demonstrate a flagrant disregard for the Lebanese state; in the cabinet, the party’s minister is tasked with coordinating positions on launching the reform of this state, and few eyebrows are raised. Ironically, the rhetoric about Hizballah being “outside the state” has escalated at a time when its interface with this state is becoming more routine and at least partly institutionalized. While Hizballah retains the greatest influence over “decisions of war and peace” (outbreaks of conflict with Israel), it has informally conferred with the Lebanese Army and state security institutions since the end of the civil war — an interplay that has become even more complex following the Syrian withdrawal. There have been ups and downs in Hizballah’s relations with the army, but these are usually limited to fluctuations in the level of cooperation or competition, and do not deteriorate into out-and-out strife.

Hizballah is not comfortable holding too much power; it has willingly given up a number of ministerial portfolios to its allies in the parliamentary minority. The party finds itself coordinating with two principal allies, Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement. The parliamentary minority camp is not in Hizballah’s iron grip except on matters concerning resistance to Israel. On everything else, Hizballah might allow its partners to lead the fight against March 14, or watch them go at each other, due to the poor relationship between Berri and Michel Aoun. On some occasions, the party even sides with elements of the “enemy” camp, as it did on the issue of legislating civil and humanitarian rights for Palestinian refugees, which split MPs in the summer of 2010 along Muslim-Christian lines before a compromise was reached.

For many of Hizballah’s rabid critics, the party’s Islamist inclination is a threat to the Lebanese state and political order. Its military and intelligence capabilities give it an edge, the argument goes, that is used to “hold the country hostage” to Iran and Syria. While Hizballah refuses to surrender its arms until the conflict with Israel ends, and remains committed to the end of a Zionist political entity, it has been forced to compensate politically for the dramatic downturn in resistance operations against Israel. From 1990 to 2000, Hizballah launched thousands of attacks. In the decade since, the number has dropped to several dozen, even though Hizballah insists that slivers of Lebanese territory, the Shebaa Farms, are still under Israeli occupation. Among the attacks were one in October 2001, which eventually led to a prisoners-for-bodies swap, and one in July 2006, which ignited a devastating 34-day war. Though Nasrallah claimed a “divine victory” in the latter conflagration, he and his colleagues know that many Lebanese have scant patience for border actions that provoke the Israeli military. Amid the steep reduction in the activity of the resistance, the party’s energy has flowed into the spheres of politics, the media, tourism, agriculture, social services, reconstruction, development and governance. During local and parliamentary elections, Hizballah behaves like a Chicago political machine, like other Lebanese parties, and not like a branch of the Revolutionary Guards.

With Syria no longer in the picture to act as mediator, there has been multi-faceted bargaining among the parties of Lebanon on a wide array of issues, such as how to conduct elections, reform and privatization, and not just big-ticket items like national sovereignty and Hizballah’s arms. The political landscape is fragmented and marred by weak state institutions. The “national unity” cabinet and the national dialogue process periodically discuss the most sensitive issues but implement little. There are also contentious debates over the legality of political guidelines: UN resolutions, Syrian-sponsored treaties and the 1990 Ta’if Agreement that defined the post-civil war political system. Syria used to regulate matters and contain the possibility of grinding stalemate or civil strife. Questions of who is now Lebanon’s maestro with Syria gone, whether a domestic player or foreign party can play the role, and whether the country requires the infamous dabit al-iqa‘ (rhythm keeper) in the first place, continue to bedevil those who follow events in Lebanon. Hizballah might be incapable of becoming the new maestro, but its reconstruction, albeit incomplete, of the dahiya after the July 2006 war signals that the party remains ahead in the governance game compared to the woeful Lebanese state.


[1] Independent, August 15, 2010.

[2] Daily Star, August 26, 2010.

[3] Hassan Marwany, “Liberating Arnoun,” Middle East Report 211 (Summer 1999).

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