Analysis

What Has Really Been on Nasrallah's Mind as Israel's Front With Hezbollah Heats Up

While Israel was convinced that Nasrallah was dumbstruck over the exposure of Hezbollah’s tunnels, he was actually busy with a different domestic issue of far greater importance to him

UN peacekeepers stand in front a poster of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah in the southern village of Kfar Kila, Lebanon, December 4, 2018
Mohammed Zaatari,AP

Lebanon is currently embroiled in a digging scandal. Not the digging of tunnels, but of water wells.

The last UN survey, in 2012, found that more than 60,000 unlicensed wells had been dug in Lebanon, plus another 20,000 that were licensed by the state. In the almost seven years that have passed since then, thousands of additional wells have been dug, most of them unlicensed.

>> A Hezbollah blitzkrieg: Tunnels on Israel-Lebanon border reveal attack plan | Analysis ■ Tunnel demolition operation: Hezbollah is in no hurry to battle Israel | Analysis

Almost every new residential building in the capital includes a well, and not to raise its value on the real estate market. Anyone who doesn’t have a well is periodically forced to buy water from tankers controlled by the “water mafia.”

The mafia sets the price, and nobody has any power to complain. That’s because the water mafia, just like the “electricity mafia” that has taken over the installation of generators in Beirut, has protectors in the government, who make sure they get paid on the side.

“Nobody can supervise the illegal wells, because they aren’t registered,” said the head of Beirut’s water department, Jean Gebran, in an interview with the Lebanese news site Al Moudon. And without supervision, it’s also impossible to know what the quality of the water is, how polluted it is or how it can be purified.

>> IDF reveals it found another Hezbollah tunnel crossing into Israel, asks UN to help destroy it 

“Anyone who can afford it fills his house with mineral water,” a Lebanese man wrote on his Facebook page this week. “The poor have in any case already gotten used to pollution.”

But mineral water isn’t cheap. In cafes and restaurants, a bottle sells for more than $2 – though that’s less than coffee, which can reach $8 or even more.

Strick and Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col on Thursday, December 6, 2018
Israeli army Spokesperson's Unit

“Two issues interest us now, electricity and the cost of living,” a Lebanese journalist, who can’t be named lest he be indicted for the crime of “normalization” with Israel, said in an email to Haaretz. “Hezbollah’s tunnels are your problem, not ours. What happens down south doesn’t interest anyone, unless war breaks out.”

Admittedly, Israel’s discovery of the tunnels and its efforts to seal them have hit the headlines. But aside from the water and electricity crises, ordinary Lebanese are much more interested in the vicissitudes of domestic politics, which have already delayed the establishment of a new government for the last six months.

The latest hot story, which threatened to ignite a violent armed brawl that could have escalated into a civil war, as Hezbollah warned, began with a video clip. The clip showed Wiam Wahhab, the leader of the Druze party Arab Unification, cursing Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his father, Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, though without naming either of them.

Wahhab has denied that his curses were in fact aimed at the Hariris, but the Lebanese don’t need any explanations. Saad Hariri, at least, understood that he and his father were the targets and demanded that Wahhab be indicted for insulting him and the country.

The chief prosecutor hastened to obey the prime minister’s order and summoned Wahhab for questioning. But Wahhab – whose party belongs to the March 8 bloc led by Hezbollah (other members include the Amal party, the Lebanese Democratic Party and El Marada) and who has strong ties with Syrian President Bashar Assad – never dreamed of obeying this summons.

Hariri didn’t give up. Last Saturday, he ordered the domestic security agency’s intelligence branch to bring Wahhab in for questioning – and thereby opened the gates of hell.

Relatives carry the coffin of Mohammed Abu Diab, a bodyguard of the former Lebanese minister Wiam Wahhab, during his funeral in the village of al-Jahiliya, in Mount Lebanon, December 2, 2018
AFP

An armed force of 150 soldiers deployed around the village of Jahlieh, where Wahhab lives, to arrest the former minister, who is also very close to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. The commander of the force personally went to the village mukhtar to ask him to summon Wahhab.

While the mukhtar was explaining to the commander that Wahhab wasn’t home, heavy exchanges of fire erupted between the soldiers and Wahhab’s supporters, who sought to prevent his arrest. One of Wahhab’s bodyguards, Mohammed Abu Diab, was killed in the shootout.

The situation would have exploded with a bang had the commander not decided to retreat from the village. But the bedlam didn’t end there.

FILE PHOTO: Syrian President Bashar Assad with Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt in Damascus, Syria, March 31, 2010
AP

Wahhab accused Hariri of having been sent by Saudi Arabia to murder him – a charge the Saudi Embassy in Beirut naturally denied. According to one of Wahhab’s associates, there’s no way to explain “this illegal assault on the village, which was unprecedented in its scope” except as an assassination attempt.

Admittedly, it’s hard to recall any precedent for such a showy arrest of a senior politician. Even Hariri’s associates consider this an unnecessary move that harmed the prime minister.

But this wasn’t just an arrest sparked by a personal insult. In Lebanon’s rococo politics, stories are never that simple.

Shortly before the arrest, Wahhab had organized a long convoy of cars packed with dozens of his armed supporters that drove toward Moukhtara, the hometown of Walid Jumblatt. The latter, who heads the Progressive Socialist Party, is considered the Druze community’s preeminent political leader. Wahhab, a bitter political rival of Jumblatt’s, wanted to mount a show of force and prove that he could appear in Jumblatt’s territory and challenge his leadership over the Chouf Mountains, the Druze heartland.

Jumblatt, who supports Hariri, immediately declared that “Moukhtara is a red line” – meaning if someone wants war, he’ll get it. This threat wasn’t aimed solely at Wahhab, but also at Hezbollah, Wahhab’s political partner.

Jumblatt, incidentally, is convinced that Wahhab is an agent employed by Assad to create a schism in the Druze community, or at least reduce Jumblatt’s influence. Though Assad has plenty to keep him busy at home, he evidently hasn’t forgotten to tend to Syria’s future in Lebanon.

Then came the arrest itself, which left Hezbollah with two options. Either it could exploit the incident to heat up the political arena, send its forces to protect Wahhab, confront the government forces and set Lebanon on fire, or it could try to calm the situation. Nasrallah chose the second option.

“We’ve saved Lebanon from civil war,” the organization declared. “We were the main driver of the political moves that prevented an escalation in Jahlieh.”

There’s no reason to doubt this. Not long after the battle in Jahlieh, Jumblatt, who is no fan of Hezbollah, sent a delegation to the organization’s headquarters in Beirut’s Dahiyeh neighborhood to say that he and his party had no part in the attack on Wahhab and the killing of his bodyguard.

But he also has to maintain his relationship with Hariri. Therefore, he gave full backing to the decision to arrest Wahhab.

The person who wasn’t in any rush to intervene was Lebanese President Michel Aoun. On one hand, he’s considered Hezbollah’s ally. But on the other, he accuses the organization of thwarting the establishment of a government, at a time when Lebanon needs a government urgently to make critical economic decisions and extricate the country from its severe crisis.

Hezbollah was furious over what it termed the president’s “indifference” toward the incident and is already trying to determine whether Aoun plans to betray it later on. Paranoia is essential for any Lebanese politician, and Nasrallah is no exception.

If he doesn’t manage to form a bloc of 11 ministers (out of a total of 30), he won’t be able to dictate the government’s agenda. That could theoretically make him irrelevant – not only to Lebanon, but also to Iran and, to a lesser extent, Syria. But the latter, unlike Iran, could build a base of influence for itself in Lebanon even without Nasrallah.

Hezbollah, which in the early 1990s debated whether to enter politics at all, can no longer survive without it. Politics has become its principal source of power, for which it has been forced to pay a heavy price in blood, including by participating in Syria’s civil war.

The battle in Jahlieh, which is shaking the Lebanese political world, shows the diplomatic acrobatics in which Hezbollah must engage to navigate its political path. Who should it support and who should it accuse? What narrative should it create? Should it use force or diplomacy? What can it gain from either decision?

Nothing is self-evident in a country where yesterday’s allies become today’s traitors – where a Christian president who fought the Syrians and was therefore exiled from his country for 15 years subsequently became Hezbollah’s ally; where the Druze leader, Jumblatt, has reversed course repeatedly in his relations with Syria; and where the prime minister, who was supported by Saudi Arabia and also forced to resign by it, continues to conduct political negotiations with Hezbollah over forming a government.

During a week when Israel was convinced that Nasrallah was dumbstruck over the exposure of Hezbollah’s tunnels, he was actually busy with a different issue of far greater importance to him. At least judging by the videos Israel has released, these tunnels – which after years of digging should have already been finished, fully equipped and ready to go – look like a project that was abandoned.

Beirut is currently Hezbollah’s battlefield, and it intends to emerge victorious.