In the days leading up to May 25, the twenty-third anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon, Hezbollah engaged in a series of highly-visible wargames. The demonstration of force included hundreds of fighters with live ammunition and sophisticated weaponry typically used by national armies. Except it was not the Lebanese Armed Forces that carried out the drills but a mere political party with an armed wing. For many in Lebanon, the events constituted a blatant disregard for state authority and international law. The question of what to do about Hezbollah’s weapons is consistently being put on the back burner out of fear of internal unrest. Hezbollah claims it needs its weapons to defend Lebanon from Israel. Yet others say this is nonsense and that the group wants to keep its arms to maintain its impunity from state rule.
This debate has gone on for decades and, indeed, it is nowhere near being resolved. Supporters of Hezbollah cite Israel’s eviction in 2000 as a sign of the Shia group’s justification to keep its guns. One person from the south told The National Interest, “I don’t remember the Lebanese army fighting Israel. Only Hezbollah.” Others remember Hezbollah’s action on May 7, 2008, when the group seized half of Beirut in defiance of the government’s attempt to subdue its telecommunication network, and point to it as an example of why the group cannot be trusted.
Domestic response to Hezbollah’s actions
The politicians and members of various political parties that oppose Hezbollah and advocate for state sovereignty have denounced the military drills. The caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati, acknowledged that these maneuvers challenge the government’s role in defending Lebanon, but followed up by stating that the situation is too complicated for the state to act alone. The Lebanese government “rejects any act that infringes on the state’s authority and sovereignty, but the issue of Hezbollah’s arms requires a comprehensive national consensus,” Mikati said.
Some have further questioned the motive and the timing behind Hezbollah’s drills. Najat Saliba, an independent member of parliament, inquired why Hezbollah would display force now if Lebanon and Israel agreed last year not to use violence as part of a negotiated maritime deal. “I would like to ask Hezbollah if this drilling is in line or conflicting with the deal they signed for the maritime border. Didn’t they sign an agreement that they won’t use force? If so, why are they showing off their forces inside Lebanon?” Although it was not a peace agreement, Lebanon and Israel signed a maritime accord in 2022 that was mediated by the Biden administration. Thus, some are interpreting these exercises as Hezbollah’s way of reminding its domestic opponents who wields the real power in Lebanon.
Michel Moawad, a presidential candidate with the highest number of votes in parliament, is regarded as both a reformist and a strong opponent of Hezbollah. Moawad condemned the wargames and expressed that they only make Lebanon’s crisis harder to recover from.
“How can Lebanon get out of the tunnel of collapse, rebuild the state, institutions, and economy, and implement the required reforms while Hezbollah continues with the logic of subjugating the state and violating the constitution and laws of the Lebanese Republic?” Hezbollah regards Moawad as too confrontational and “anti-resistance” because he stands against their strategic goals, even if just symbolically.
However, Moawad is not alone in his thinking. Ashraf Rifi, a retired general of internal security, said he and others from the opposition bloc will continue to support Moawad for president. “We will only elect a president who looks like us and Moawad so far fits that description.” Rifi is a member of parliament who represents the North II list, which is aligned with the Lebanese Forces (LF) party. Like Moawad and Rifi, the LF also has condemned Hezbollah’s moves in the south, while its leaders have said that Hezbollah is an anachronism.
“The days of militias are over,” declared LF party member and former minister Richard Kouyoumjian. “We have a national army with the responsibility of defending the country.” Indeed, it was the era of militias that destroyed Lebanon through the 1970s and 1980s until the signing of the Taif Agreement in 1989. All sides’ militias then relinquished their weapons, and the gradual rebuilding of the Lebanese Armed Forces began. All except for Hezbollah, which was allowed (or tolerated) to continue on as a resistance movement against Israel in the south. But once the Israeli army left, Hezbollah made itself the master of the region and “protector” of the Shia community.
The security situation in the south
The south is where Hezbollah draws its base of internal support, which means that the region must be addressed if the “Hezbollah question” is going to be resolved. One source spoke to TNI about the security situation in the south today: “The south is stable and will be like this for a long time. Unless we face a prompt miscalculation from any side. No one has an interest or is ready to change the rules there. It is not appropriate for any party to have military forces, for many reasons. But Lebanon is in a hostile situation with Israel and has the right to defend its territory, including by resistance, especially when this resistance is legal and legitimate according to the ministerial statements for decades and United Nations Charter.”
It is true that for many in the south, Hezbollah has served their interests by defending them against Israel, whether they were a Hezbollah supporter or not. Like on so many fronts, the Lebanese state must earn the trust of its people of all sects and serve them equally.
What is required now is for a new leader to put the question of Hezbollah’s arms on the table for discussion. This is why Parliament needs to resume its role by becoming the legal representation of the people’s will and electing a new president. But when that will happen is anybody’s guess.
Adnan Nasser is an independent foreign policy analyst and journalist with a focus on Middle East affairs. Follow him on Twitter @Adnansoutlook29.
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