Analysis: Lebanon government steps down. So what?

Analysis: Lebanon government steps down. So what?
The Lebanese people are demanding accountability and the replacement of their political and economic elite. (File/AFP)
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Updated 13 August 2020

Analysis: Lebanon government steps down. So what?

Analysis: Lebanon government steps down. So what?
  • Hassan Diab’s cabinet has resigned less than a week after explosions devastated much of Beirut
  • Without Hezbollah’s disarmament, the question remains whether anything will change in Lebanon

MISSOURI: So, Lebanon’s prime minister and leading government ministers announced their resignation on Monday evening. They evidently preferred to fall on their swords after demonstrations in Beirut featured effigies with nooses around the necks of Hassan Diab, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and others. The question is, will Lebanon get the change it really needs? 

The Lebanese people are demanding accountability and the replacement of their political and economic elite. In a country already beset by corruption, gross government mismanagement, hyper-inflation and other woes, the detonation on August 4 of some 2,800 tonnes of improperly stored ammonium nitrate in Beirut’s port does seem like the proverbial final straw. 

Even so, the core demands of the Lebanese are likely to remain unmet. Without Hezbollah’s disarmament, Lebanon is going to have different governments with the same problems. Not even a blast which has left hundreds of thousands homeless and whose shockwaves were felt as far away as Cyprus, is powerful enough to defang the Iran-backed organization on its own. 

Blame for the explosion and the economic crisis plaguing Lebanon falls especially, though not exclusively, on Hezbollah and some of its allies from the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).  These are, after all, the dominant political actors running Lebanon since around 2008. 




A Lebanese protester uses a tennis racket to throw back a tear gas canister during clashes with security forces in the vicinity of the parliament in central Beirut on Aug. 10, 2020 following a huge chemical explosion that devastated large parts of the Lebanese capital. (AFP)

Bahaa Hariri, the son of Lebanon’s slain former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, placed the blame squarely upon Hezbollah: “The question we have to ask is how come for six years this combustible material was allowed to remain in the middle of this city of 2 million people?” 

He then proceeded to offer an explanation. “It is crystal clear Hezbollah are in charge of the port and the warehouse where the ammonium nitrate was stored. Nothing goes in and out of the port or the airport without them knowing. Nothing. Their decision to put it there in the middle of a city of two million people was an utter disaster. And now we have a destroyed city center.” 

Bahaa’s father Rafic was killed in 2005 by a massive car bombing widely attributed to Hezbollah of course. The site of that attack was only a few hundred meters from the port where the latest explosions occurred. The 15 year-long UN investigation into the killing of the elder Hariri is supposed to announce its determination on August 18.

INTERACTIVE MAP: Check Hezbollah’s worldwide activity compiled by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Many contend that Hezbollah not only knew about the thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate dangerously kept at the port, but had a role in keeping it there for its own uses in the future. Unsurprisingly, a warning from the Israeli ambassador to the UN to the Security Council last year sounds a lot more ominous in hindsight: “Israel found that Iran and the Quds Force have begun to advance the exploitation of civilian maritime channels, and specifically the Port of Beirut. The Port of Beirut is now the Port of Hezbollah.” 

Although most Lebanese harbor little love for Israel, in the wake of the Beirut explosions their views of Hezbollah sound increasingly familiar. Journalist Dima Sadek published a video a few days ago in which she bluntly addressed Hezbollah: “You claim you're here to protect us. After all, your security people were at the port. You force us to accept you as a part of the state, but what did you do? Do you really want to say you did not know there were 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in the port? Israel has not done to us what you are doing.” 

Hezbollah may not have had any real role or responsibility for the explosions, however, beyond its almost certain knowledge of the ammonium nitrate’s presence in the port. The group has other sources for better explosives than poorly stored ammonium nitrate. If Hezbollah was not directly responsible, it nonetheless shares much of the blame for the government mismanagement that made such a terrible accident possible. 




A Lebanese boy jumps a fire during clashes between protesters and security forces near the parliament in central Beirut on Aug. 10, 2020. (AFP)

More broadly, since Hezbollah turned its guns on Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and other rivals in 2007, the group became the governing establishment in Lebanon. Using a few fig-leaf Christian allies from parties such as the FPM to avoid accusations of sectarianism, the Shiite Hezbollah calls the most important shots in Lebanon today. 

They do so thanks to their own militia, whose strength rivals that of the Lebanese Army. Every other party in Lebanon had to disband their militias as part of the 1989 Taif Accord that ended the Lebanese civil war. 

Hezbollah kept its militia under the initial pretext of fighting Israeli occupation of south Lebanon. Israel was compelled to withdraw from Lebanon 20 years ago, yet Hezbollah’s military wing endures — despite three UN resolutions (UNSC Resolutions 1559, 1680 and 1701) calling for the disbanding of all Lebanese militias. 

Hassan Nasrallah used that militia to embroil Lebanon in a needless war with Israel in 2006, sparking a conflagration that ravaged half the country. The next year he used the militia to outmaneuver and coerce other Lebanese parties and cement a dominant role for Hezbollah in Lebanon’s government.

Today Hezbollah uses its militia to veto any substantive changes that might threaten its interests. Besides its role in a corrupt governing system (with allies perhaps even more corrupt than themselves), those interests include control of smuggling at Lebanon’s ports and borders, obstruction of IMF economic rescue packages that could help make Lebanon’s budget accountable to the people, and the alignment of Lebanese foreign policy with Iranian preferences. 

The latter has proved especially damaging for Lebanon. With its corrupt Ponzi scheme of a banking sector, Lebanon depended on continuous infusions of cash from Western and Arab Gulf states. But Western aid started drying up with Hezbollah’s attempts to use the Lebanese government to evade sanctions on itself and to help Iran do the same. 

Arab Gulf aid tapered off after Hezbollah and its allies in the government made Lebanon adopt pro-Bashar Assad and pro-Iranian foreign-policy stances.

Lebanon thus refused to condemn Iranian attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in 2016. It likewise skipped a 2018 Arab League meeting to discuss problems Iran was causing in the region. Lebanon (increasingly meaning “Hezbollah”) became further estranged from the still generous Arab Gulf states when it insisted that Assad’s regime attend the 2019 Arab Economic and Social Development Summit. 




Firecrackers thrown by protesters explode in front of riot police amid clashes in the vicinity of the parliament in central Beirut on Aug. 10, 2020 (AFP)

The list goes on and on, with Hezbollah fighters involved in the Syrian civil war on behalf of the Assad regime, Hezbollah advisors in Yemen helping the Houthis, Hezbollah operatives sent to carry out various terrorist plots in Cyprus, Georgia, Argentina, Southeast Asia and elsewhere. 

Small wonder then that Lebanese leaders come home from donor conferences these days with little or nothing to show in the way of pledges. Although the devastating Beirut explosions did secure some new emergency assistance, this will not rescue Lebanon from the larger economic woes stemming from Hezbollah’s politics and the corruption of its governing elite. 

The kind of change Lebanon needs to overcome such entrenched problems requires removing the current system by the roots. Although the blame for Lebanon’s woes does not belong to Hezbollah alone, no far-reaching remedy seems likely to succeed as long Hezbollah continues to field its own very well armed and unaccountable militia.

  • David Romano is Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University    

Israeli violence against Al-Aqsa worshippers condemned

Israeli violence against Al-Aqsa worshippers condemned
Israeli security forces clash with Palestinian protesters at the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, on May 7, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 50 min 40 sec ago

Israeli violence against Al-Aqsa worshippers condemned

Israeli violence against Al-Aqsa worshippers condemned
  • The UN Security Council Resolution 2334 considers all settlements, including those in Jerusalem, illegal

JERUSALEM: Israel braced for more protests on Saturday after clashes at Jerusalem’s flashpoint Al-Aqsa Mosque compound left more than 200 people injured.

The unrest followed Friday prayers when Israeli riot police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades at Palestinians as violence erupted outside Islam’s third holiest site.

At least three people were seriously injured when Israeli troops used rubber bullets to disperse worshippers at the UNESCO world heritage site.

Israeli forces stormed the mosque’s plaza and fired sound grenades inside the building, where throngs of worshippers, including women and children, were praying on the last Friday of Ramadan.

The clashes came amid soaring tensions over Israeli restrictions on access to parts of the old city during Ramadan and the threat of eviction hanging over four Palestinian families in East Jerusalem to make way for Jewish settlers.

The Israeli violence drew worldwide condemnation.

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that the Kingdom “rejects Israel’s plans and measures to evict dozens of Palestinians from their homes in Jerusalem and impose Israeli sovereignty over them.”

The UAE “strongly condemned” the clashes and potential evictions, and a statement by Khalifa Al-Marar, the foreign affairs minister, urged Israeli authorities to reduce tensions.

The UAE stresses the need for Israeli authorities to assume their responsibilities in line with international law to provide protection to Palestinian citizens, a statement carried by state news agency WAM said.

Wasfi Kailani, executive director of the Hashemite Fund for the reconstruction of Al-Aqsa Mosque, told Arab News that there was no excuse for the Israeli action.

“What happened on Friday night is inexcusable. Violating the mosque’s sanctity during the last 10 holy days of Ramadan is illegal and a clear violation of the right to worship. Its status quo must be protected.”

Kailani, a member of the Jerusalem Waqf Council, said Israeli forces not only violated the peace of worshippers but also destroyed mosque property, including its clinic and gates.

Hijazi Risheq, head of the Jerusalem Merchants Committee, told Arab News that attacks by Israeli forces were meant to intimidate Palestinians following threats by Jewish extremists of a large-scale infiltration into Al-Aqsa on what they call Jerusalem Day.

“However, the people of Jerusalem have broken the barrier of fear and are no longer afraid of Israeli soldiers or Israeli prisons,” he said.

Risheq called on Arab and Islamic countries to help Palestinians defend the mosque.

The late-night clashes in the old city of Jerusalem followed days of tension in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, where Israelis are trying to evict an entire Palestinian community and hand over their properties to ultra-extreme Jewish settlers.

The Waqf Council, Jordan, the US, EU, and European and Arab countries issued statements denouncing the violence in the city.

The US called on all parties to avoid actions that could damage final status talks between Israel and Palestinians, including settlements.

The UN Security Council Resolution 2334 considers all settlements, including those in Jerusalem, illegal.

Israeli police issued a statement saying officers were attacked with stones and firecrackers and had to restore order.

A police statement claimed that 17 officers were injured, with at least half requiring further attention.

Palestinian citizens of Israel traveled in at least six buses to show their support for worshippers at Al-Aqsa Mosque, but were barred entry near the village of Abu Ghish.

After they disembarked and began to walk the remaining 20 km distance to the site, local residents came to pick them up in private cars.

 


US slams Houthis for boycotting UN Yemen envoy, not stopping Marib offensive

US slams Houthis for boycotting UN Yemen envoy, not stopping Marib offensive
United Nations Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths speaks during his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow, Russia. (AP file phot)
Updated 58 min 32 sec ago

US slams Houthis for boycotting UN Yemen envoy, not stopping Marib offensive

US slams Houthis for boycotting UN Yemen envoy, not stopping Marib offensive
  • The Yemeni government said it was willing to engage in direct talks with the Houthis on ending the war

AL-MUKALLA: The US has criticized the Iran-backed Houthis for refusing to meet UN Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths in the Omani capital and spurning calls to stop their deadly offensive against Yemen’s central city of Marib.

“The Houthis passed up a major opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to peace and to make progress on this proposal by refusing to meet with UN special envoy Griffiths in Muscat,” the US State Department said in a statement, adding that the Houthis contradicted their commitments to comply with the available “fair deal” to end the worsening humanitarian crisis by escalating their offensive on Marib.

The US government said that the internationally recognized government of Yemen had expressed willingness to find an agreement to end the war.

Last week, officials said that Houthi chief negotiator Mohammed Abdul-Salam refused to meet the UN envoy to discuss his ideas for ending the war, and he also demanded a halt to Arab coalition airstrikes, unregulated flights in and out of Sanaa airport and an end to restrictions on Hodeidah seaport before agreeing to put into place a nationwide truce.

The Yemeni government said it was willing to engage in direct talks with the Houthis on ending the war.

Abdullah Al-Alimi, the Yemeni president’s chief of staff, told a gathering of foreign reporters at an online press conference on Friday that the Yemeni government did not take part in the stalled round of negotiations in Muscat since Yemen’s President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his government have already agreed to the terms of the UN-brokered Joint Declaration.

Regarding the Houthi offensive on the city of Marib, Al-Alimi said the battle is a matter of death and life for millions of Yemenis to prevent the country from becoming another model of Iran’s theocracy.

The Yemeni official told reporters that roughly 2,400 loyalists have been killed and 5,000 more wounded in the fighting in Marib since earlier this year and the Houthis have fired 93 missiles and 360 shells at government-controlled areas during the past five months.

In Marib, heavy fighting broke out on Friday night when government troops repelled two consecutive attacks by the Houthis in Al-Mashjah and Serwah near Marib city, a local army official told Arab News on Saturday.

The clashes ended on Saturday morning after the Houthis retreated after suffering heavy casualties and losing many military vehicles.

In the northern province of Jouf, Yemen’s army announced on Friday that it had liberated areas in Al-Alem after heavy clashes with the Houthis.

In the western province of Hodeidah, a mother and her two children were killed and five others were wounded when their vehicle hit an IED planted by the Houthis on the main road between Durihimi and Bayt Al-Faqih, local media said on Saturday.

 


Turkey COVID cases below 20,000 for first time since mid-March

Turkey COVID cases below 20,000 for first time since mid-March
Updated 08 May 2021

Turkey COVID cases below 20,000 for first time since mid-March

Turkey COVID cases below 20,000 for first time since mid-March
  • Last week Erdogan announced "full lockdown" until May 17 to curb a surge in Covid-19 infections and deaths
  • In recent weeks, Turkey has ranked fourth globally in terms of COVID-19 cases, with daily infections topping 60,000

ANKARA: Turkey’s daily COVID-19 cases fell below 20,000 for the first time since March 17 on Saturday, with 18,052 infections over the last 24 hours, health ministry data showed.
Last week, President Tayyip Erdogan announced what he called a “full lockdown” until May 17 to curb a surge in infections and deaths after the country eased restrictions in early March.
The data showed another 281 deaths from the coronavirus on Saturday, raising the total toll to 42,746. Total cases exceeded 5 million, although there has been a fall in infections since the lockdown.
In recent weeks, Turkey has ranked fourth globally in terms of COVID-19 cases, with daily infections topping 60,000.
However, Erdogan said earlier on Saturday that he hoped a “new normalization” period would begin after May 17, adding that reopening schools would be included in steps to be announced after the lockdown.
“There is a serious fall in death numbers now. This shows the measures we took are paying off,” Erdogan said.
Despite the recent fall in infections, Turkey on Friday was placed on the UK government’s travel red list, a move that threw the status of the Champions League final on May 29 and the Formula One Turkish Grand Prix on June 11-13 — both to be held in Istanbul — into doubt.
The pandemic has also hurt Turkey’s tourism revenues, which plunged by two-thirds to $12 billion last year.


Lebanese security forces foil attempt to smuggle fuel across Syria border

Lebanese security forces foil attempt to smuggle fuel across Syria border
Updated 08 May 2021

Lebanese security forces foil attempt to smuggle fuel across Syria border

Lebanese security forces foil attempt to smuggle fuel across Syria border
  • Four Lebanese smugglers stashed subsidized fuel in secret tanks hidden inside pick-up trucks
  • Police are working vigilantly to curtail smuggling to Syria but many smugglers are covered up by politicians or influential figures, Arab News told

BEIRUT: Lebanese security forces have foiled a bid to smuggle 8,000 liters of fuel into Syria.   
The Internal Security Forces (ISF) arrested a four-member gang of Lebanese smugglers, who had stashed the subsidized fuel in two secret tanks that were hidden inside pick-up trucks.
ISF said an informant had tipped off intelligence and information teams about the smugglers’ intent to conceal the fuel and smuggle it through one of the Akkar-Hermel routes to Syria.
An ISF squad stopped and impounded three vehicles in a sting operation at Bayno-Al Oyoun highway, leading to Hermel, on Thursday.
The three impounded cars were the pick-up trucks and a white Mercedes, which was used to monitor the route.
“Unfortunately, while law enforcement bodies are working vigilantly to curtail smuggling of subsidized products by smugglers to Syria, many of those are covered up by politicians or influential figures,” an unnamed senior lieutenant said. “Smuggling subsidized goods (mainly petrol and diesel) has prospered recently, especially with smugglers purchasing fuel products here for around LBP40,000 ($26.53) per tank and selling them in Syria for three or four times that price.”
Fuel prices have soared in recent months due to shortages, which Energy Minister Raymond Ghajar blamed on smugglers exporting subsidized supplies to Syria.
If drivers are lucky enough to find petrol stations that are open they are forced to queue for hours. Stations have caps on the amounts of fuel permitted per person, with nobody allowed a full tank. Many stations remain closed.
Ghajar told the media recently that the need for petrol in Syria had encouraged Lebanese smugglers to illegally export subsidized materials for massive profits.
Media reports have said a 20-liter tank of subsidized Lebanese petrol costs nearly $4 dollars per liter according to the market rate, while smugglers were exporting smuggled fuel to Syria where people were willing to pay up to $25 rather than queue for hours.
The Lebanese Army said on Saturday that it had seized four cars, including a black hearse, that were being smuggled to Syria.
The black hearse had been stolen a week previously from the funeral services association in the Sad El Bouchrieh area.
“The stolen vehicles were being prepared to be smuggled to Syria,” said the army. 
Two Lebanese suspects were apprehended in Al-Hermel, 10 kilometers away from the Syrian border, for stealing the cars and arranging them to be smuggled.


Egypt, Arab League condemn Israel’s role in Al-Aqsa Mosque clashes

Stun grenades burst in the air amid clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem. (AFP)
Stun grenades burst in the air amid clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem. (AFP)
Updated 08 May 2021

Egypt, Arab League condemn Israel’s role in Al-Aqsa Mosque clashes

Stun grenades burst in the air amid clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem. (AFP)
  • More than 160 Palestinians and at least six Israeli police officers were injured in a series of confrontations at the mosque

CAIRO: Egypt’s Foreign Ministry and the Arab League have condemned Israeli forces’ involvement in violent clashes outside Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

More than 160 Palestinians and at least six Israeli police officers were injured in a series of confrontations at the mosque late on Friday.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said that it condemned Israeli forces’ “storming of the mosque and assault on worshippers there.”

A ministry statement called on Israeli authorities to “shoulder their responsibility in accordance with international law in providing the required protection for the Palestinian civilians and their right to perform their religious rituals.”

The ministry also highlighted the need to “halt any activities that violate the sanctity of the mosque, the holy month of Ramadan, and the Islamic and Christian Arab identity of Jerusalem city.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Hafez reiterated Egypt’s rejection of any illegal activities that seek to undermine the rights of the Palestinian people, particularly the construction or expansion of settlements on Palestinian territory, as well as confiscation of lands and displacement of Palestinians. 

This “represents a violation of international law, undermines the chances of achieving the two-state solution, and represents a threat to the pillars of security and stability in the region,” said Hafez.

He denounced Israeli attempts to evict Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah district in east Jerusalem, saying that this “represents a violation of international humanitarian law and a continuation of the policy of forced displacement.”

Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit also condemned the violence at the mosque, and the targeting of unarmed Palestinians with sound and gas bombs as well as rubber bullets. 

Warning of the consequences of escalation, Aboul Gheit said that the assault “provokes the feelings of Muslims around the world and reflects the intended Israeli policy of escalation.”

The violence follows recent “provocations and irresponsible actions against the Palestinian people,” he said.

Aboul Gheit called for immediate international action to halt the assaults, warning of an irreversible escalation in the occupied territories. 

An official source in the Arab League Secretariat quoted Aboul Gheit as saying that the timing of the Israeli assault reveals “a premeditated intention to provoke the Palestinians.”

It “also demonstrates recklessness with the feelings of Muslims and their right to perform their rituals in Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan,” he said.

The Arab League chief held the Israeli government accountable for what he described as “dangerous, irresponsible escalation.”