Hezbollah Is Starting to Suffocate, but Escalation With Israel Could Divert Public Attention

The Shi'ite organization is working with the government to suppress critical voices, but Lebanon's need for economic aid could turn things around

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
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Lebanese army try to block supporters of the Lebanese Shi'ite groups Hezbollah and Amal as they gesture and chant slogans against anti-government demonstrators, in Beirut, June 6, 2020.
Lebanese army try to block supporters of the Lebanese Shi'ite groups Hezbollah and Amal as they gesture and chant slogans against anti-government demonstrators, in Beirut, June 6, 2020.Credit: REUTERS/Ali Hashisho
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun convened an extraordinary meeting on Thursday to discuss the country’s worsening crisis, and above all, to achieve what he terms “national agreement” – a rare commodity in Lebanese politics. Invitees include former prime ministers and presidents, as well as the members of the serving cabinet under Prime Minister Hassan Diab, to consult with them on issues currently on the country's agenda.

As expected, most of them refused his invitation as they are all too familiar with these meetings, which produce nothing but tension and mutual anger. On top of that, none of them wants to bear collective responsibility for the government’s failures. The very fact that the meeting is being held at all – “in the presence of whoever will come,” as the presidential announcement phrased it – is testimony to a loss of direction in the face of the deadlock and the severe economic crisis in which Lebanon is mired.

The crisis morphed into a security threat in recent weeks, with demonstrations and violent clashes between protesters and security forces erupting in Beirut and Tripoli. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested, and the authorities fear that this is only the start of a wave of dissent. The government has no instant solutions and lacks sufficiently deep pockets. To offset its outlays somewhat, the government decided to cancel the subsidies for electricity and fuel oil. Yet, at the same time, basic commodities cost 55 percent more than they did a year ago, unemployment stands at 40 percent and no new funding sources have been found.

Lebanese security forces arrest a man during an anti-government demonstration against dire economic conditions in downtown Beirut, June 12, 2020.
Lebanese security forces arrest a man during an anti-government demonstration against dire economic conditions in downtown Beirut, June 12, 2020.Credit: ANWAR AMRO/AFP

In addition, the banks and the money changers have limited the amount of dollars that can be withdrawn. The Syndicate of Money Changers as well as banks issued detailed guidelines on the subject earlier this week. For example, the salary ceiling for a foreign worker will be $300 a month, the maximum price of a plane ticket to go abroad will be $1,000, and the allocation for studies overseas will be $2,500 plus another $1,000 to cover the student’s rental costs.

The Central Bank announced that it would pump more dollars to the banks, and the government promised that low income earners will not suffer from the subsidies cuts. But these measures are not enough to allay the fears of depositors, who for many months have not been able to withdraw their full deposits in the form of dollars.

The Lebanese intelligence community, which was mobilized to combat money smuggling abroad, published this week a phone number that people can call to report money changers who are setting exorbitant exchange rates for the dollar. However, that hotline is unlikely to be used. Lebanese citizens are willing to pay any price in order to be in possession of dollars, whose exchange rate has soared to almost 7,000 Lebanese pounds, compared to the official rate of 1,507 pounds – set back in the 1990s.

The situation was compounded this month by new sanctions that the United States imposed on Syria within the framework of what’s known as the “Caesar Act,” which aims to punish every company, country or private individual who does business with President Bashar Assad's regime. That is liable to have far-reaching consequences for the Lebanese banks and for the scale of the trade, already dwindling, between Syria and Lebanon. Concurrently, the government, together with Hezbollah, is waging a grim struggle against its critics and adversaries, and is investing considerable efforts to suppress the protest movements.

Last week, social activist Kinda al-Khatib was charged with visiting Israel and maintaining ties with Israeli activists, but she denies having gone on to Israel after visiting Jordan. The real reason for her detention is apparently her acerbic tweets against the government and Hezbollah. In April, she wrote that even though the bodies of Israeli soldiers are returned from Syria, Lebanese citizens who are incarcerated in Syria have yet to be returned, and “that is an affront to everyone who calls for resistance against Israel and defends Assad.”

A youth walks past a burnt down branch of a Lebanese bank after it was set on fire and vandalized by protesters earlier, in al-Nour Square in Tripoli, June 12, 2020.
A youth walks past a burnt down branch of a Lebanese bank after it was set on fire and vandalized by protesters earlier, in al-Nour Square in Tripoli, June 12, 2020.Credit: AFP

Another target of harassment is the senior Shi'ite religious sage Ali al-Amin, against whom a complaint was filed this week because of “his meetings with a Jewish rabbi during an interfaith dialogue held in Bahrain.” Al-Amin denies having met with or spoken to a rabbi at the December 2019 conference. However, his denial was of no avail to him: the Supreme Islamic Shi'ite Council in Lebanon stripped him of his authority to issue religious rulings, and he is now liable to be tried for being in contact with the enemy, an offense that carries the death penalty or life imprisonment.

Like al-Khatib, al-Amin is a fierce opponent of Hezbollah and of its secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, and for years preached against Iran’s involvement in Lebanon. The social networks and the opposition media in Lebanon are up in arms over the two episodes. They see the cases as a Hezbollah front against its rivals and as a threat to the protest movements, which are accusing Hezbollah of responsibility for Lebanon’s grim situation.

The Hezbollah dilemma

“Hezbollah wants to silence its foes and prepare for war with the outside,” is the title of an article by Mounir al-Rabih on the opposition website Al-Modon. According to Rabih, Hezbollah is issuing threats against its domestic rivals, even in the case of a senior Shi'ite cleric, in order “to prepare the country for the worst to come, in the light of the assessments that anticipate a shortage of basic commodities in the months ahead.” Hezbollah, the analyst added, “will not be able to remain silent in the face of that development, because it means prolonged suffocation. That situation will require the organization to turn to the option of military escalation alongside Iranian escalation.”

That gloomy forecast is not yet borne out on the ground, but it reflects a widespread view that echoes the calls heard in the demonstrations against Iran and Hezbollah. As a member of the Diab government, Hezbollah cannot shake off responsibility for the struggle against the coronavirus either, as the health minister belongs to the organization.

A demonstrator raises a Lebanese flag while standing between soldiers, during a protest near the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon June 25, 2020.
A demonstrator raises a Lebanese flag while standing between soldiers, during a protest near the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon June 25, 2020.Credit: REUTERS/Aziz Taher

Some commentators in Lebanon believe that Hezbollah might exploit the Israeli attacks in Syria against Iranian or pro-Iranian targets to threaten war against “the Israeli aggression” and thus to mobilize public support, or at least to curb the efforts of its opponents to get Hezbollah to disarm.

As such, Hezbollah is confronting Lebanon’s decision makers with a serious dilemma: to obey the demands of the United States in order to receive financial aid, including a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund; or to back Hezbollah in order to avert a war which Lebanon cannot afford either economically or militarily. This is not a new dilemma – Hezbollah’s equation of force, amid the threat of “activating” Israel to further its cause, has been on the cards for Lebanon’s governments for decades.

Now, though, the political and economic elite faces an existential danger from the public, which cannot, and is no longer willing to, accept the absence of an economic horizon. At the same time, the international circumstances have created a conjunction of interests between Israel, Russia and the United States – all of which want to expel Iran from Syria – and European pressure on Lebanon to remove Hezbollah from the government. Germany, for example, has placed Hezbollah on its list of terrorist organizations.

These domestic and external developments might force the government and President Aoun to force Hezbollah’s hand in order to save the country from total bankruptcy. This does not mean that there is at present any political or military force that can get Hezbollah to disarm. But if the government and public are able to make it clear to the organization that the threat of the use of force will be met by a broad public and perhaps also governmental response, Hezbollah might begin to grasp the limits of its power.

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