Hezbollah’s demographic problem explains its restraint

Israel felt compelled to do the same as it had been doing for nearly two years in Syria, in Lebanon as well.

Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah and Amal movement gesture as they ride in a car in Marjayoun  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah and Amal movement gesture as they ride in a car in Marjayoun
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel’s alleged three-pronged attacks in the last two weeks in Syria, Iraq and above all, in Dahiye, the vast Beirut Shi’ite neighborhood where the Hezbollah is headquartered above and below ground, was met with a very limited Hezbollah response. An IDF truck was stuck by two missiles with the obvious objective of killing Israeli soldiers in retaliation of the killing of two Hezbollah soldiers in an Israeli attack on Syria. The limited response against military personnel only sent a strong signal, acknowledged by the Israeli side that Hezbollah wanted to avoid escalation that could lead to all-out war.
Presumably, the attack violated Hezbollah’s redlines in order to destroy equipment that would have facilitated the local manufacture of precision-guided missiles that could render Israel’s key strategic infrastructure – power plants, airbases, sea and air-ports – so vulnerable.
Israel, then, felt compelled to do the same as it had been doing for nearly two years in Syria, in Lebanon as well.
There are several reasons why Hezbollah is restrained, but probably, the most important has to do with Hezbollah’s demographic predicament.
Despite pretenses of being an all-encompassing Islamic resistance movement – direct reference to Shi’ites almost never appears in the rhetoric of the organization’s leaders or its rank-and-file and instead, conjured Pan-Islamic enemies, most prominently, Israel, are its focus – Hezbollah is perceived in Lebanon and beyond in almost strictly sectarian terms as an exclusively Shi’ite organization.
Only Shi’ite organizations feature on their opening pages the photos of Ayatollah Khomeini and present day spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, as well as supply direct links to speeches they make; carry in detail news of Sunni regime suppression of Shi’ites in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia; and carry articles that advocate the rule of the Supreme Jurist, which Khomeini propagated but arouses antagonism not only among Sunnis, but among a considerable segment of Shi’ites in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon as well.
Hezbollah has also been at odds, often violently, against the Sunni community, especially in Tripoli, Lebanon, where Hezbollah has – since 1984 – sided with the small Syrian-backed Alawite community against the Sunni majority at the bidding of the Syrian regime. The Hezbollah-Sunni rift widened to include suppression of Sunni fundamentalist organizations in the South and later still to the mainstream Sunni political organizations, culminating in the assassination of Sunni Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri in 2005.
Relations are equally tense with most of the Christian and Druze communities, though Hezbollah has succeeded in allying with Maronite former Lebanese Armed Forces General and current President Michael Aoun and his supporters.
WHAT THIS all means is that Hezbollah’s recruitment pool is strictly limited to the Shi’ite community in Lebanon.
And there is the rub. Not only is the Shi’ite community relatively small, between a million to a million-and-a-half souls, it is suffering from a rapidly declining birth rate very much similar to the declining fertility rate in Iran, the only large country with a Shi’ite majority.
This declining Shi’ite birth rate, from five to six children per woman of child-bearing age in the 1980s to less than the 2.05 that is needed to maintain the existing population 25 years later, has many implications.
By far, the most important restraint for Hezbollah is that small families are reluctant to sacrifice what is all too often their only son in a society where the two child family becomes the norm.
We know this from Israeli data. Every year, the IDF identifies the high schools with the highest percentages of male graduates that volunteer in fighting units. Five to seven of these high schools are both religious and situated in Judea and Samaria and seven to nine of the 10 belong to the National-Religious sector. The common denominator is these high schools is that these recruits come from larger families than from secular schools.
Hezbollah has been sacrificing Shi’ite blood for the last 37 years, with only a brief hiatus to such blood-letting for five short years between the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011.
The ardor to sacrifice is hard to maintain. A look at how hard Iran strives to get non-Iranian Shi’ites to do its battles after suffering hundreds of thousands of dead in its prolonged war with Iraq over 30 years ago demonstrates this simple fact. This was what 1973 was to many Israelis many times over.
Hezbollah is up against a similar problem.
It’s also a problem Hezbollah hardly can counter. Declining birth rates are the result of urbanization. Most Lebanese Shi’ites live in the multi-storied apartment buildings of Dahiye as opposed to the small villages and towns in the past, to which they are bused in on Election Day to vote on behalf of the organization.
In the city, children can no longer help on the farm, becoming consumers rather than producers. The parents want them educated, professional and many want to see them in Canada and Australia rather than fighting Iran’s wars in Syria, Iraq and in Yemen.
Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah also knows that the declining reservoir of recruits will also be needed on the domestic front.
The balance between Sunnis and Shi’ites has grown in favor of the former as hundreds of thousands of Syrian Sunnis found refuge in Lebanon. Essentially, the Alawite regime has exported its problem to Lebanon, and more specifically to the Shi’ite areas on Lebanon’s eastern border.
Hezbollah, then, has not only paid in blood to prop up the Syrian regime, it faces a more uncertain future in Lebanon itself as a result of that support. Under such circumstances, Hezbollah’s relatively minor attack was a reasonable response.
The writer is a professor at Bar-Ilan University’s Departments of Political Studies and Middle Eastern Studies.