If Hezbollah believes that an essential dimension of its resistance against Israel is a Lebanese environment friendly to the party and its aims, then nothing in the past two years has shown that it is implementing this idea. Since the uprising against the political class in October 2019, Hezbollah has made numerous errors that have only led more Lebanese to oppose its standing in the country.
In the past two weeks the party has faced several challenges, showing that not all is well. Two weeks ago, party members clashed with armed members of a Sunni tribe at the southern entrance of Beirut. The fighting followed a tribesman’s revenge killing of a Hezbollah member accused of shooting the tribesman’s brother. At the party member’s funeral, tribesmen ambushed the convoy, killing several people. Soon both sides were involved in a pitched battle. Rather than allow an escalation that would have had sectarian repercussions, Hezbollah asked the army to intervene and end the violence.
Days later, Hezbollah responded to an Israeli air attack against southern Lebanon by firing rockets around Israeli military positions in the occupied Shebaa Farms and Kfar Shouba hills. However, when a party truck loaded with rockets drove through the Druze village of Shouwayya, villagers stopped it, roughed up the Hezbollah members, and confiscated the truck. They were furious that the party was firing from near their village, and that Israel might retaliate against them. Subsequently, Shia-Druze tensions rose in other parts of the country.
Last Sunday, Maronite Patriarch Bishara al-Rai, in his weekly sermon, affirmed that the Lebanese state alone should have the right to declare war, implicitly criticizing Hezbollah’s rocket attack against the Israelis. He added that Lebanon was bound by the 1949 Armistice Agreement with Israel. Within hours, Hezbollah trolls launched a social media campaign in which they heaped abuse on the patriarch.
None of these events—involving a Shia party facing opposition from Sunni, Druze, and Maronite quarters—will change Hezbollah’s behavior. But if the party ignores what is happening, it could be showing once again that its default setting for dealing with domestic contestation of its power is to engage in hubris. And Lebanon has a way of punishing those who ignore its sectarian strictures, as many political actors who have dealt with the country can attest.
What the displeasure of the Sunni tribesmen, Druze villagers, and Maronite patriarch showed, above all, is that Hezbollah will face a hostile population if the party decides to carry Lebanon into a destructive war with Israel on Iran’s behalf. The party feels under increasing pressure amid Israeli pledges to target its precision guided missiles. Nor can it have missed the threat last week by Israel’s defense minister, Benny Gantz, that Israel was willing to attack Iran. The slow pace of negotiations in Vienna over a U.S. return to the nuclear accord with Iran has also raised the party’s sense of vulnerability.
Beyond that, Hezbollah has not looked kindly on increasing international intervention in Lebanon to help address the country’s metastasizing financial, economic, and social crises. The party wants to retain Lebanon as an exclusive Iranian resource, but signs that other countries want a say in what happens there—including Hezbollah’s ally Syria—agitate Hezbollah officials.
Much of what is taking place today is Hezbollah’s own fault. The party’s strong opposition to the uprising in 2019 lost it much sympathy in Lebanon. The party was seen as the prime protector of a corrupt political class. Since that time, Hezbollah has only exacerbated the dire economic situation by smuggling subsidized fuel to Syria. Many Lebanese also believe Hezbollah brought in the ammonium nitrate that exploded in Beirut port on August 4, 2020, to be used in its own missiles or for barrel bombs in Syria. When the party’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, declared last week that the investigation into the blast by judge Tareq Bitar was “politicized,” it was apparent that Hezbollah had something to hide. Bitar had sinned by asking to interview senior security officials, former ministers, and parliamentarians, many aligned with Hezbollah.
An increasing number of Lebanese are realizing that the concept of a Lebanese state cannot coexist with a powerful armed militia serving an outside power. That is why there is growing anger with Hezbollah, and a feeling that the party actually benefits from Lebanon’s economic and social breakdown, as this will allow it to impose its own preferences on the country. Hezbollah doesn’t seem to care much about this negative mood, however, ignoring the warnings of even some of its staunchest supporters who have stated that “resistance” is about much more than weapons, it is also about creating the appropriate setting in which Hezbollah can operate.
Such dynamics are worrisome because they are the dynamics of civil war. When time and again the major representative of an essential national religious community shows its indifference to Lebanon’s unwritten red lines, when it is increasingly seen as being responsible for death and destruction in the country, the only thing that averts conflict is a fear of the ruinous consequences. But what is disturbing today is that more and more Lebanese are no longer scared of Hezbollah, as the three incidents in recent weeks have shown.
It is equally evident that Hezbollah doesn’t have the predisposition to alter its behavior. While the party is keen to avoid sectarian conflict, as this would undermine its contract with Iran to combat Israel, its natural reflexes work against making any concessions. The party won’t hesitate to antagonize its domestic partners if this is justified by Iran’s overriding interests. This creates risky dynamics: As Hezbollah gambles precariously on behalf of its Iranian sponsor regionally, the potential domestic dangers it faces will also rise.
Hezbollah’s willingness to accept this reality was evident in Nasrallah’s speech on August 7. In his remarks, the secretary general admitted that the rifts within Lebanon over the resistance were old as there had never been unanimity over the question in the country. This was an astonishing statement. After having long insisted that there was a national consensus over the resistance, Nasrallah admitted this was untrue. In other words, against the naysayers, it was up to him and his Iranian overseers to determine what was good for Lebanon.
Faced with such blatant disregard for any possibility of national consent, the Lebanese over time tend to react more violently. That is not to say that a war is inevitable, as it takes more than outrage to put the machine of conflict in motion, but the objective conditions for one are slowly coming into place. Such an outcome would be a disaster for Lebanon, all the more so as there are plenty of regional powers willing to fuel the fire. Hezbollah could not win such a war, but it is certain that all of Lebanon would lose.
Few Lebanese want war, and Hezbollah will try to reinforce this reluctance by playing brinksmanship and indicating it is willing to fight. The problem is that the Lebanese are reaching a breaking point, as their state is disintegrating. The levers the party once used to keep everyone in check—the army and the security services—are no longer as effective. In such a context Hezbollah has to be careful. Without the repressive bodies of the state as backup, the party could resort to the direct intimidation of its opponents. Were it to do so, other communities would likely take up arms in response.
If Nasrallah knows that Lebanon is divided over the resistance, he can guess the strength of the backlash a future war with Israel might provoke. Does Hezbollah really feel it can pursue an approach in which its wars have to be fought in duplicate—one against an external enemy, first, followed by another against its domestic rivals?