Hezbollah youth holding Katyushas near Nasrallah portrait
Young Hezbollah supporters holding mock ups of Katyusha rockets in front of a portrait of group leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. Photo by AP
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Ten years ago a large group of men, women and children stood on the shore of Lake Kinneret. Some of them munched on sandwiches that had been provided by the Israel Defense Forces, and most did not know yet what the future had in store for them. Just a few hours earlier they had left Lebanon together with the retreating IDF forces, after having helped Israel in Lebanon for many years. Buses were already waiting to drive these refugees - members of the South Lebanon Army and their families - to guesthouses and kibbutzim in the Galilee, on their first day in their new country.

"What now?" I asked one of the men, who was still dressed in his SLA uniform.

"We'll do whatever they tell us. In any case, Lebanon is gone," he replied.

That was not what the majority of Lebanese thought back then: After 15 years of civil war, from 1975 to 1990, in which tens of thousands of civilians were killed and hundreds of thousands fled the country, and after south Lebanon was ruled by Israel for 18 years (1982-2000 ), they thought the time for real independence had arrived. Now, they believed, Lebanon would also be freed of Syria's grip. But another five years passed before the Syrian army left Lebanese soil - which it had invaded in 1976 - and even after that Damascus did not stop influencing events in the land of cedars.

Israel's unilateral withdrawal, though celebrated in Lebanon, did not necessarily have a unifying effect on the country. In a three-hour television program that was broadcast a short while afterward, minister Mohammed Beydoun, representing the government's position, explained that the continued Syrian presence in the country "is intended to protect the quiet in Lebanon." He was referring to the danger of civil war breaking out again.

"Do you not have faith in the government you are serving in ... and in the Lebanese Army, to the point where you require a foreign army to safeguard Lebanon against civil war?" lashed out Gebran Tueni, founder and editor of the pro-Western newspaper An-Nahar.

Beydoun had a ready answer: "Is this the time to discuss the Syrian army's departure, when the Palestinians are fighting for their existence? This is an Israeli plot to foment controversy on this matter in Lebanon and to weaken the Syrian position."

Tueni did not take this lying down. "Are we taking part in the intifada? Was a decision made to fight Israel?" he asked sarcastically, and suggested that the fight against Israel be expanded also to the Israeli-Syrian border on the Golan Heights. Then he added: "Why doesn't the Lebanese Army deploy along the border [with Israel] ... to impose Lebanese sovereignty?"

Beydoun responded with a characteristic Syrian answer: "We do not want to serve as Israel's border guard," he said.

"Ah," Tueni replied, "in that case, let's also tell the Syrian army to keep away from the border with Israel on the Golan Heights, and tell the Jordanians, Egyptians and Palestinians to keep away from the border with Israel, lest they appear to be defending Israel's border."

'Not pleased'

A few months earlier, when Syria's longtime president Hafez Assad died, Tueni was quick to send the new president, his son Bashar Assad, an open letter in which he reminded the him that "there are many Lebanese who are not pleased with Syria's policy in Lebanon." It was a thundering protest, later seconded by 99 Syrian intellectuals who signed a petition calling on the new regime to improve the human rights situation in Syria and promote democracy. Predictably, they could not publish the petition in their own country, so it appeared in Tueni's newspaper.

Five years later Tueni was murdered on his way to the office, and the prevailing suspicion in Lebanon fell on Syria (which denied it ).

In the summer of 2000, after Israel's withdrawal, Lebanon seemed to be on the brink of change. Tremendous pressure from public opinion, newspaper articles, and anti-Syrian rallies, put Syria in a defensive stance. In view of the fierce protest, Assad finally decided to withdraw some of his country's forces stationed in Lebanon, and even to loosen slightly the restrictions on freedom of speech in Syria.

Syria, which to a certain extent had opposed the IDF's unilateral withdrawal for fear of harming its standing in Lebanon, got a dressing-down from the Arab League, which could not understand how an Arab country could object to an Israeli withdrawal from occupied land.

In those days, Hezbollah too was unclear about where it was headed, because the Israeli withdrawal had ostensibly eliminated its reason for existing as a military organization. The Iranian foreign minister at the time, Ali Akbar Velayati, announced that "Hezbollah will have to decide on its future path." That was a most unusual pronouncement, which showed that the withdrawal had also prompted new thoughts in Iran regarding Hezbollah's purpose and role in the system of outposts Iran had developed in the Middle East.

In time, at an academic conference that drew scholars from Middle Eastern countries, an Iranian scholar told me that the IDF's withdrawal from Lebanon caused a difference of opinion among the Iranian leadership: The then-president, Mohammad Khatami, thought it would be best to persuade Hezbollah to become a political party, whereas the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Yahya Rahim Safavi, aspired to turn Hezbollah into a more sophisticated army.

The landslide victory of the pro-Western Rafik Hariri in the elections held that year in Lebanon made it clear to the Syrians, the Iranians and Hezbollah that the IDF withdrawal was about to generate the "new order" in Lebanon that Israel had failed to bring about in 1982. Except that this time around, it would be a new order created by Lebanese for Lebanese. Assad faced an important strategic decision: Two months after taking office, surrounded by his father's advisers, he had to decide whether to give up Lebanon or tighten his hold on the country.

The first to regain composure was actually Hezbollah, which hit the jackpot and made itself into the hero that debunked "the Israel legend." Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah's uncharismatic deputy, Sheikh Naim Qassem, later wrote, in his book "Hezbollah: The Inside Story," that "the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon was a victory beyond the organization's wildest expectations." To his mind, the crux of the victory was the fact that the Lebanese Army did not deploy along the border, leaving Hezbollah in place as landlord of southern Lebanon.

However, the withdrawal did pose a new problem for Hezbollah. From now on, the organization had to compete on the domestic-politics front in Lebanon, without being able to rely on the Israeli occupation to leverage its standing. So Hezbollah changed strategy - from a focus on attacks against the Israeli occupation to gaining public legitimacy by claiming to protect Lebanon. This strategy split Lebanon into two "countries": the one that benefits from investments and growth, north of the Litani River, and the armed border region that lies to its south. To this day, that is the claim Hezbollah employs to justify remaining armed.

Six years after the withdrawal, Hezbollah also was able to eliminate the internal Lebanese dilemma as well, and notch up another important political success: The Second Lebanon War in 2006 made it clear who controls Lebanese politics.