As the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) completes its withdrawal this week from southern Lebanon, there are fears in Israel that the Hezbollah movement is consolidating and even expanding its arsenal, in contradiction to UN resolution 1701, which calls for the Shiite group to disarm. Hezbollah continues its anomalous position as Lebanon’s only armed political faction. The other movements disarmed according to the Ta’if Accords after the conclusion of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990. At the time, Hezbollah was engaged in a guerrilla struggle against the IDF occupation of south Lebanon. The continued possession of its Syrian- and Iranian-supplied weapons has brought Hezbollah into conflict with Lebanon’s anti-Syrian “March 14” political alliance.
The 15,000 UN peacekeepers to be deployed in Lebanon are intended to play an important role in preventing Syria and Iran from rearming Hezbollah. In practice, however, the UNIFIL force views its mandate as simply supporting the efforts of the Lebanese Army to restore security and sovereignty over south Lebanon. The Lebanese Army, for its part, has come to a private agreement with Hezbollah whereby only those arms carried in public will be confiscated. The poorly equipped Lebanese regulars will not be carrying out any “search-and-seizures” for supplies. Thus far, the only arms collected have been weapons abandoned during the fighting. UNIFIL’s commander, French General Alain Pellegrini, made it clear that the UN peacekeepers will not be mounting patrols, but merely manning checkpoints in south Lebanon (Jerusalem Post, September 26). If arms are carried openly, the peacekeepers will report the infractions to the Lebanese Army for action.
Israel’s expectations are rather different, as it looks to the Lebanese Army to “initiate efforts to locate arms depots and armed Hezbollah fighters and disarm them” (Haaretz, September 20). Israel threatened to postpone its withdrawal from south Lebanon until Hezbollah was disarmed (at least south of the Litani River), but completed its pullout under international pressure even though it became apparent by the end of September that no such disarmament was imminent. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has outlined three issues that must be resolved before disarmament:
1. A prisoner exchange with Israel.
2. A favorable resolution of the dispute over the Shebaa Farms and Kfar Shouba Hills districts.
3. The creation of a strong central government in Lebanon capable of resisting foreign aggression.
At a September 22 “victory rally,” Nasrallah claimed that Hezbollah still has 20,000 rockets (a number far beyond intelligence estimates) and was stronger militarily than it was before the war. Blocking the supply routes from Syria was meaningless as Hezbollah’s armed wing, al-Moqawama al-Islamia (Islamic Resistance), was already fully armed. The Hezbollah leader denied that the arms would be used internally, characterizing them as weapons designed to preserve the independence of all Lebanese. Nasrallah warned UNIFIL against any attempts to disarm al-Moqawama, saying that “any talk about surrendering the resistance weapons under this state, this authority, this regime and the existing situation means keeping Lebanon exposed to Israel so it can kill as it wants, arrest as it wants, bomb as it wants and plunder our land and waters. We certainly cannot accept that” (al-Manar TV, September 22).
Nasrallah’s efforts to create a unity government are opposed by the newly freed Christian leader of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt (both strong opponents of Syria). At a rally, Geagea charged that Hezbollah says “that there is no army in the world capable of making them drop their weapons. We say that there is no weapon that can make us accept that as the reality” (al-Ahram Weekly, September 28-October 4). Jumblatt describes Hezbollah as a totalitarian party, claiming that “Iranian oil is buying arms and rockets for Hezbollah” (Naharnet, September 24). According to Jumblatt, Iranian arms are now shipped through tunnels on the Syrian border built with the connivance of Lebanese security officials (Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, September 25).
Lebanese Army helicopters have begun flying over the Lebanese-Syrian border region, while some 4,000 troops on the ground have built crude stone and dirt roadblocks over some of the 60 main smuggling routes. A German naval group has started patrolling Lebanon’s coastal waters in search of arms smugglers. There are unverified reports that Hezbollah has begun moving arms into storage inside Palestinian refugee camps in south Lebanon. Neither the Lebanese Army nor UNIFIL have the authority to search these camps. Israel sent a Foreign Ministry delegation to Moscow in mid-August with evidence that Russian weapons supplied to Syria (especially RPGs and Kornet anti-tank missiles) were in use by Hezbollah during the war. The Kremlin disclaims any knowledge of these arms transfers, but Israel expects Russia to ensure a halt to such transfers (Ekho Moskvy Radio, September 5). Under the current rules of engagement, UNIFIL has only a limited ability to prevent the rearming of Hezbollah. Nasrallah is in some ways a captive of the success of his own movement. Disarming the “glorious resistance” will only be possible if Nasrallah can guarantee material gains for the Shiites in exchange.
Hezbollah’s demands have some political support in Lebanon, especially from Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, the leader of Amal (Lebanon’s other Shiite party). Christian leaders Michel Aoun (leader of the Free Patriotic Movement) and Suleiman Franjieh are considered Hezbollah allies in the establishment of a pro-Syrian unity government. In a September 26 New York Times interview, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested a split between Hezbollah and Amal. Berri refuted Rice’s claims, arguing, “I am surprised the American understanding of the political scene in the Middle East is still so superficial after all their experiences, the latest being the lost Israeli war on Lebanon” (Daily Star, September 28). Speaking to the European Union, Fouad Siniora, the Lebanese prime minister, stated: “We have to put an end to [Lebanon’s] occupation…then there won’t be any arguments for weapons in the hands of Hezbollah” (Haaretz, September 28).
Hezbollah’s weapons give the movement enormous political weight in Lebanon’s domestic politics, but the unfortunate lesson being given to the country’s many political factions is that they should rearm as well if they wish to compete in Lebanon’s political arena. There is every reason to believe that Hezbollah, with a new core of confident combat veterans and an undiminished arsenal, will remain a regional military power for the foreseeable future.