Learning from Nasrallah

After the 'success' of his war with Israel, the Hizbullah chief shifted his attentions to the government of Lebanon.

sderot terror 298 (photo credit: AP)
sderot terror 298
(photo credit: AP)
After the 'success' of his war with Israel, the Hizbullah chief shifted his attentions to the government of Lebanon. Now Hamas is taking an increasingly defiant stance against PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. For three weeks, the encampment in the Grand Serail has been thronged by thousands who answered the call to battle. Some are Muslim and some are Christian; the hodgepodge of colors reflects a menagerie of groups and interests assembled for the siege on the government compound in downtown Beirut. Yet these are Hizbullah's conscripts, unmistakably serving Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's purpose. Facing disarmament or, worse, irrelevance, the mastermind of Lebanon's main Shi'ite militia has orchestrated a stunning reversal of a potential disaster after this summer's confrontation with Israel - by taking aim at his own government. Behind rows of barbed wire and armed guards since December 1, Prime Minister Fuad Saniora remains barricaded in his offices while the crowd below shouts slogans authored by Nasrallah. "These are the people of Lebanon, not those men in expensive suits sitting in that building," one protester told a reporter for the Guardian. "Saniora is Washington's man, not the leader of the Lebanese people. The Arabs and the Americans support him, but what is the point if he has lost the Lebanese people? We will succeed here today; this government will fall." Not satisfied with controlling 14 of the parliament's 128 seats, Nasrallah has forged an unconventional alliance with Michel Aoun, a former anti-Syrian leader turned pro-Syrian ally of Nasrallah, that is spilling violent rhetoric on the government and demanding that the traitors make way for a "national unity government" instilled with the "democratic" values of the Hizbullah-led forces. A compromise proposal mediated by the Arab League at the end of last week that would expand the cabinet to 30 seats - 11 of which would effectively be controlled by Hizbullah, the "Party of God," giving Nasrallah veto power - still hangs in the air, waiting for both sides' approval. DETRACTORS? ENEMIES? Hizbullah has plenty. But it has admirers, too. American officials recently disclosed that Hizbullah has been training Shi'ite fighters bound for Iraq, and the report of the Iraq Study Group notes that Iraqi Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr is "following the model of Hizbullah in Lebanon: building a political party that controls basic services within the government and an armed militia outside the government." If that formula sounds familiar, it is because Hizbullah's methods have also inspired a Sunni group on Israel's doorstep: Hamas. Both groups share an abiding hatred of Israel. And now, as Hizbullah stands to make political hay from an unprovoked, unjustified attack on the Zionist enemy, Hamas is likely to feel emboldened in its own rejection of international demands to moderate. Hence, it would seem, Hamas's defiance this week of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's call for early elections, and the consequent deadly gun battles with Fatah in Gaza. The two groups are, however, different, for more reasons than their religious beliefs. Hamas leaders are even careful not to allow the visage of Nasrallah to overshadow their own. But for several years, Hamas has been closely studying the lessons that its northern neighbors learned in guerrilla warfare against Israel, and it has tried - often successfully - to copy them in the Gaza Strip. One example is the way that Hamas has used massive explosives buried under the Gaza sand to shatter IDF armor, killing dozens of soldiers, in the past few years. Like other Palestinian terrorist groups, Hamas watched very keenly as Hizbullah and Israel waged war this summer. What impressed them was the Lebanese group's use of tunnels and the ability of its rockets to sow panic and destruction (if not much death) in Israel. The implications of these developments are not lost on the IDF, which knows it must prepare accordingly for a similar situation in Gaza. There is also a similarity between the two groups that appears in current events. "There is no question that there's a parallel between the way Hizbullah and Hamas portray Saniora and Abbas, respectively, as partners of the West," said Dr. Mark Heller, of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. Both men are bespectacled and bookish, unaggressive types. Saniora is a banker by training, and Abbas was a teacher and student of law and history (although his doctoral thesis, The Secret Connection between the Nazis and the Leaders of the Zionist Movement, has but a tenuous relationship with history). They make excellent targets for charges of being tied to the West because, well, they are both supported by the Western powers which are busy isolating Hizbullah and Hamas for being radical, terrorist organizations. Hizbullah and Hamas are also both solidly under the influence of Iran. The Islamic Republic exerts its power by dispensing strategic weapons to Hizbullah and hundreds of millions of dollars to both groups. After the war this summer, Iran funneled huge sums to Hizbullah to win the hearts and minds of those hurt most by Israeli munitions. Iran has pumped some $120 million into the cash-strapped PA led by Hamas, and pledged further riches during PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's recent trip to Teheran, where he met with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and hailed Iran for providing the Palestinians with "a strategic depth." According to the IDF, Iran trains fighters from both Hizbullah and Hamas. "Iran today is the oxygen line to all kinds of organizations that propagate its Islamic ideology and antagonize the West and America's allies," said terrorism expert Moshe Marzuk. A former head of the Lebanese and Palestinian desks in Military Intelligence, Marzuk is now a researcher at the International Policy Institute for Counterterrorism in Herzliya. "Iran says openly that Hizbullah is not merely an organization but is their arm in Lebanon." HOW FULLY the smaller, more geographically limited Hamas can emulate Hizbullah remains to be seen, though. "Hamas is on the defensive right now. It is not in a position to make demands but rather is the object of demands by others," Heller noted. "It is probably fair to say that Hamas hasn't done everything it is capable of doing [against Israel], but I think it's also concerned about not only Israel's reaction but also popular reaction to Israeli military moves. So if the threat of an Israeli response led to restraint, and intensifying political debate led to further restraint, then I think the possibility of a positive outcome would be great," he added. "And, if somebody were to deal effectively with Iran, that would be a good thing, too." In the meantime, the masses camped out in front of the Grand Serail remain, steadfast and hearty despite the cold, inspired perhaps by the promise that pro-Syrian former prime minister Omar Karami made this week: "This situation cannot continue. There will be an escalation." What escalation may come is difficult to predict, but the situation as it stands is already bleak for commentators like Jameel Theyabi, of the liberal, pan-Arab Al-Hayat. "Nasrallah has placed a burden on the Lebanese people. As soon as the war with Israel was over, he transferred the battle to the Lebanese streets. Now Lebanon is on the verge of a civil war. Nasrallah has contributed to triggering it because of what he planned and calls for," Theyabi wrote recently. "What [Nasrallah] calls 'sound democratic demands' is the spark that first lit the fire of strife and division, increased sectarian disputes among the Lebanese people... There is no doubt that the regional forces allied with Hizbullah are foreshadowing misfortune after misfortune, warning about a new explosion in the region. Meanwhile, the victim is Lebanon, and the loser is its population!" Lebanon's Shi'ites 'You can't understand what is happening today in Lebanon without understanding the history of the Shi'ites there," said former head of the Lebanese and Palestinian desks in Military Intelligence, Moshe Marzuk. "Shi'ites have always been the lower class, on the periphery - in the South and the Bekaa - with all kinds of complaints about oppression and disenfranchisement and whatnot. Even today, Shi'ite politicians say, 'We are no longer willing to be the trash collectors of Lebanon!'" The Shi'ite station in Lebanese political life is cemented in the 60-year-old "National Pact," which sought to preserve a fragile peace amongst Lebanon's sharply divided religious groups. The country's prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim and the president must be a Maronite Christian, while Shi'ites make do with the position of parliament speaker. The breakdown was reinforced by the Taif Accords, which ended Lebanon's devastating 15-year civil war in 1990. But it is also based on census figures from 1932 that are now a mere fictional representation of Lebanon's true demographic situation. Shi'ites, for example, now make up more than a third of the population - up to 40 percent, by some counts - whereas Sunnis total only about a fifth. Thus far, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah has been able to collect more than a few Sunnis and Maronites to join him in his campaign against Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's anti-Syrian government. "Under the slogan of Lebanese independence, etc. he has, unfortunately, hoodwinked Christians like Michel Aoun and others," Marzuk said, "but most Sunnis and Christians already know that that's not what he's about, that he's the proxy of the Syrians and the Iranians in Lebanon. His game is all about an internal Lebanese struggle to improve the position of the Shi'ites within Lebanon." If Nasrallah's appeal in the Sunni and Christian camps proves too limited, Marzuk noted, the Hizbullah leader can fall back on Shi'ites' frustrations. In fact, he said, that may be Nasrallah's true goal. "A senior Hizbullah figure recently announced that they would 'settle accounts' with Sunnis who did not come to the group's aid during the summer," Marzuk said. "The specter of Shi'ite terror is scaring Sunnis."