Why Lebanon seems destined to be the Middle East’s perennial theater of war

Special Senior Hezbollah commander Wissam Tawil, top right with leader Sayed Hassan Nasrallah and bottom right with slain Iran's Quds force General Qassem Soleimani, was killed in Kherbet Selem village, south Lebanon, on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024. (AP)
Senior Hezbollah commander Wissam Tawil, top right with leader Sayed Hassan Nasrallah and bottom right with slain Iran's Quds force General Qassem Soleimani, was killed in Kherbet Selem village, south Lebanon, on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024. (AP)
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Updated 13 January 2024
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Why Lebanon seems destined to be the Middle East’s perennial theater of war

Why Lebanon seems destined to be the Middle East’s perennial theater of war
  • Thanks to its location, military weakness and sectarian politics, the country has long been a favored battlefield
  • After Israel’s suspected killing of several Hamas and Hezbollah figures on Lebanese soil, the nation again seems on the brink of war

DUBAI/LONDON: Israel’s suspected killing of senior Hamas figure Saleh Al-Arouri in Beirut on Jan. 2, followed by the death of Hezbollah commander Wissam Al-Tawil in a similar strike in southern Lebanon on Jan. 8, has once again thrust the country into the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Although Israeli forces and members of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah militia have traded fire across their shared border since the conflict in Gaza began on Oct. 7, many fear Israel’s suspected targeting of militia leaders on Lebanese soil could lead to a regional escalation.

Al-Arouri, the deputy chief of Hamas’s political bureau and founder of the group’s armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, was killed in a precision drone strike alongside several of his henchmen at an apartment in a Hezbollah-controlled neighborhood in the south of the Lebanese capital.

Thousands of Hamas supporters gathered to mourn his death and demand retribution. In a live-streamed speech, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, condemned the killing, describing it as an act of “flagrant Israeli aggression,” and vowed it would not go unpunished.

However, the Hezbollah chief stopped short of declaring war on Israel.

That was before Al-Tawil, deputy head of Hezbollah’s Radwan Force, was also killed in a suspected Israeli drone strike on a vehicle in the southern Lebanese town of Khirbet Selm. He was the first senior Hezbollah figure to die since the conflict in Gaza began.




This undated picture released by Hezbollah Military Media shows senior Hezbollah commander Wissam Tawil. An Israeli airstrike killed Tawil, the latest in an escalating exchange of strikes along the border that have raised fears of another Mideast war even as the fighting in Gaza exacts a mounting toll on civilians. (Hezbollah Military Media, via AP)

Then, on Jan. 9, Ali Hussein Burji, commander of Hezbollah’s aerial forces in southern Lebanon, was also killed in Khirbet Selm in another suspected Israeli airstrike.

So far, the “phony war” between Israel and Hezbollah has been largely confined to reciprocal rocket and drone attacks along the shared border. But if the hostilities escalate, Lebanon could witness a repeat of the devastating 2006 war with Israel — a conflict it can ill afford.

Lebanon’s caretaker government has been at pains to ratchet down the tensions. “Our prime minister continues to dialogue with Hezbollah,” Abdallah Bou Habib, Lebanon’s foreign minister, told CNN shortly after Al-Arouri was killed.

“I don’t think the decision is theirs — referring to Hezbollah — and we hope they don’t commit themselves to a larger war. But we are working with them on this. We have a lot of reasons to think this will not happen. All of us, all the Lebanese, do not want war.”

He added: “We can’t order them but we can convince them. And it’s working in this direction.”

Many Lebanese citizens feel their country is being held hostage by Tehran through its proxies, at a time when they and Lebanon’s many Palestinian refugees are preoccupied with the challenges of daily survival amid an unprecedented and prolonged economic crisis.

The growing resentment against Hezbollah’s grip on the country was amply demonstrated on Jan. 7 when departure screens at Beirut’s international airport were hacked to display anti-war messages.

“The airport of Rafic Hariri isn’t Hezbollah’s nor Iran’s,” one of the messages read. “Hassan Nasrallah, you will find no allies if you drag Lebanon into war. Hezbollah, we will not fight on behalf of anyone.”




Information screens at Beirut’s main airport were hacked on Sunday with a message to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. (Screenshots/X)

Alleging Hezbollah’s responsibility for the devastating explosion at Beirut’s port on Aug. 4, 2020, and its role in the import of Iranian weaponry into Lebanon, the message added: “You blew up our port and now want to do the same to our airport by bringing weapons in. May the airport be freed from the grips of the statelet (Hezbollah).”

Anxieties about undue foreign influence in Lebanon have been a recurring theme since the country gained independence from France in 1943, with regional states and armed groups treating Lebanon as a battleground for their own proxy wars.

The Lebanese civil war, which began in 1975 and ended in 1990, was one the bloodiest periods in the country’s history, witnessing a fierce conflict between Christian and Muslim militias who each sought to align themselves with foreign powers.

Even before the civil war, armed groups were using Lebanon as a launch pad for terrorism. In 1971, Yasser Arafat, former leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, made Lebanon his base of operations from which to attack Israel.

Lebanese Christians, concentrated in the eastern part of Beirut and the mountains of Keserwan, resented the Palestinian presence in their country and chose to enter into alliances with Israel and Syria to counter the influence.

Although ostensibly of advantage to Lebanese Christians, Israel’s motives were largely self-serving; at the height of the Lebanese civil war, Israeli forces launched aerial and sea attacks on the PLO in Beirut and southern Lebanon.

In one notorious incident, following the assassination of President Bashir Gemayel on Sept. 14, 1982, Christian militiamen allied with Israel massacred between 800 and 3,500 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila camps on Beirut’s outskirts.

Israeli troops had sealed off the camp while the militiamen went on their killing spree, targeting unarmed civilians. Despite global outcry, no one has ever been arrested or put on trial for the massacre. 

In Israel, an inquiry found a number of officials, including then-defense minister Ariel Sharon, were indirectly responsible.

FASTFACTS

* Saleh Al-Arouri, deputy chief of Hamas’s political bureau and founder of its armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, was killed in a suspected Israeli drone strike in Beirut on Jan. 2.

* Wissam Al-Tawil, deputy head of Hezbollah’s Radwan Force, was killed in a suspected Israeli drone strike in the southern Lebanese town of Khirbet Selm on Jan. 8.

* Ali Hussein Burji, commander of Hezbollah’s aerial forces in southern Lebanon, was also killed in Khirbet Selm by a suspected Israeli air strike on Jan. 9.

Despite the official withdrawal of the PLO from Lebanon in August 1982, Israel took the opportunity to invade the country just two months later with the stated aim of crushing all remaining PLO sleeper cells and bases, and ended up occupying the south until May 2000.

It was amid the chaos of the Lebanese civil war that the Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah emerged.

Syria, meanwhile, under the regime of Hafez Assad, entrenched itself in Lebanese politics, turning its civil-war-ravaged neighbor into a veritable puppet state, with Hezbollah serving as a junior partner. During this time, Syria had more than 30,000 soldiers stationed throughout the country.

“I remember those days well and clearly,” Walid Saadi, 67, a Lebanese retiree who lived through the civil war, told Arab News. “You felt like you were not living in Lebanon but in Syria.

“The Syrian army had a formidable power in the ‘90s, more than the Lebanese army. They were running amok in the cities and you couldn’t dare tell them anything. Whatever Syria wanted, Lebanon served.”

Saadi said that despite the country experiencing a period of relative peace and economic stability during the 1990s and early 2000s, the older generation continued to feel a sense of humiliation and subjugation to the Syrian presence.




Hezbollah and Israeli forces trade fire on the Lebanese border. (AFP)

“Lots of people went missing during the civil war, lots of them were disappeared by Syrian forces. You cannot ask for their whereabouts. Even if you wanted to, you get no answers. The Syrian regime was, and remains, brutal.”

It was only after the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, an outspoken critic of the Syrian regime, that Syria officially withdrew its forces, albeit only under intense international pressure.

Since then, the power of the Syrian regime has vastly diminished as a result of its own grinding civil war, which began in 2011, leaving the regime of President Bashar Assad as little more than a vassal of its remaining international backers, Russia and Iran.

Now, as Israel continues its military operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, there are concerns within Lebanese society and the international community that Hezbollah will exploit the crisis by turning Lebanon into a battlefield between Israel and Iran.

In a speech on Jan. 5, his second since the death of Al-Arouri, Hezbollah chief Nasrallah said “the decision is now in the hands of the battlefield” and an adequate response will be “without limits.”

“The response is inevitably coming,” he said during the live-streamed speech. “We cannot remain silent on a violation of this magnitude because it means the whole of Lebanon would be exposed.”

However, analysts suspect Hezbollah would prefer to avoid a war with Israel, regardless of its sympathies with Hamas and the Palestinians suffering in Gaza, choosing instead to preserve its stockpile of weapons as deterrence against any potential Israeli attack on Iran.

“Hezbollah very much wants to maintain the current status quo and avert an all-out war with Israel,” Firas Maksad, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and adjunct professor at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, told NPR on Jan. 7.

“The current status quo suits Hezbollah very well because they are reverting to asymmetric warfare, ‘grey zone’ warfare, some would say, where they can harass Israel across the border, show their support for Hamas and the Palestinians by forcing Israel to redeploy and refocus hundreds of thousands of troops away from Gaza to that northern border, but nonetheless stop short of an all-out war that might be in Israel’s favor.”




An image grab from Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV taken on January 5, 2024, shows the head of the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah delivering a televised speech, with a picture of killed Hamas's deputy chief Saleh al-Aruri to his left. (AFP)

Israel is also widely seen as wanting to avoid opening an additional front in the war that might expose its cities to Hezbollah’s formidable arsenal of missiles.

However, there are those in the Israeli government who believe Hezbollah poses too great a threat to Israel’s national security to be left unchallenged forever, making conflict a distinct possibility once Hamas has been defeated in Gaza.

In an analysis published on Jan. 2, Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said it was unlikely Israel would risk undermining its Gaza operation by going on the offensive against Hezbollah.

He added that although many in the Israeli establishment “may share a desire to knock out Hezbollah as a potent military threat, they are likely to avoid opening a second, northern front if there is any risk that this might impede their ability to ‘finish the job’ in Gaza.

“Widening the Gaza war into a regional one — even if limited to Lebanon — might spook the US and European governments into more active diplomacy, which could potentially constrain Israeli freedom of military action in Gaza and limit its options for the post-conflict phase there.”

Nevertheless, with a hostile entity on its doorstep, Israel might feel forced to take action against Hezbollah eventually.

“The current status quo, while it suits Hezbollah and Iran, as I mentioned, does not suit the Israelis,” Maksad told NPR.

“The Israelis have about 75,000, 80,000 citizens who’ve vacated the north for fear that Hezbollah, much more capable than Hamas, would do to them what Hamas did in southern Israel. And they’re not willing to come back unless that is settled.

“So Israel is demanding that Hezbollah pull its forces, at least its elite troops, away from that border, or else it’s threatening war.”

Even if all-out war between Israel and Hezbollah is avoided, Nasrallah’s posturing and the militia’s cross-border attacks alone have been enough to undermine and delegitimize the sovereignty of the Lebanese state.

For Lebanese citizens such as Saadi this means, in the absence of a functioning government, the continuation of the country’s political paralysis, institutional decline and economic misfortune.

“It is not ours anymore, it is Iran’s now,” Saadi said of his nation. “We haven’t tasted sovereignty since we were established, always being tossed from one power to the other, starting with the French and ending currently with Iran.

“Hope is futile here but I can’t help but to hope that Hezbollah will put Lebanon’s needs ahead of its master, Iran, and spare us a war we will not survive.”

 


Iran’s Tasnim news agency: Iran made sea-launched ballistic missile available to Houthis

Updated 6 sec ago
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Iran’s Tasnim news agency: Iran made sea-launched ballistic missile available to Houthis

Iran’s Tasnim news agency: Iran made sea-launched ballistic missile available to Houthis
  • Iran’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment
  • Iran is armed with the largest number of ballistic missiles in the region
DUBAI: Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency reported on Wednesday that Tehran’s sea-launched ballistic missile Ghadr has been made available to Yemen’s Houthis.
“Iran’s sea-launched ballistic missile, named Ghadr, now has been made available to Yemen’s (Houthi) fighters,” — reported Tasnim, which is believed to be affiliated to Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards.
“Now, the missile … has become a weapon capable of presenting serious challenges to the interests of the United States and its main ally in the region, the Zionist regime,” Tasnim said.
Iran’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Iran supports the Houthis but has repeatedly denied arming the group.
The Houthis have been attacking shipping lanes in and around the Red Sea to show support for Palestinians in the Gaza war impacting a shipping route vital to trade.
According to the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Iran is armed with the largest number of ballistic missiles in the region. It is also a major producer of drones.

Turkiye’s Erdogan says ‘spirit of United Nations dead in Gaza’

Turkiye’s Erdogan says ‘spirit of United Nations dead in Gaza’
Updated 28 min 30 sec ago
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Turkiye’s Erdogan says ‘spirit of United Nations dead in Gaza’

Turkiye’s Erdogan says ‘spirit of United Nations dead in Gaza’
  • Calls on the ‘Islamic world’ to react after the latest deadly Israeli strikes in Gaza
  • Turkish premier hits out at fellow Muslim-majority countries for failing to take common action over the Israeli strike

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday hit out at the United Nations and called on the “Islamic world” to react after the latest deadly Israeli strikes in Gaza.
“The UN cannot even protect its own staff. What are you waiting for to act? The spirit of the United Nations is dead in Gaza,” Erdogan told lawmakers from his AKP party.
Erdogan’s comments came as the UN Security Council met to discuss a deadly Israeli attack on a displacement camp west of Rafah on Tuesday that killed 21 people, according to a civil defense official in Hamas-run Gaza.
The Turkish premier also hit out at fellow Muslim-majority countries for failing to take common action over the Israeli strike.
“I have some words to say to the Islamic world: what are you waiting for to take a common decision?” Erdogan, who leads a Muslim-majority country of 85 million people, told lawmakers from his AKP party.
“Israel is not just a threat to Gaza but to all of humanity,” he said.
“No state is safe as long as Israel does not follow international law and does not feel bound by international law,” Erdogan added, repeating an accusation that Israel is committing “genocide” in Gaza.


China’s Xi meets Egyptian leader El-Sisi in Beijing

China’s Xi meets Egyptian leader El-Sisi in Beijing
Updated 29 May 2024
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China’s Xi meets Egyptian leader El-Sisi in Beijing

China’s Xi meets Egyptian leader El-Sisi in Beijing
  • Top of the agenda will be the war between Israel and Hamas, which Xi has called for an “international peace conference” to resolve
  • Several Arab leaders are this week visiting Beijing, which is seeking to present a “common voice” on the conflict between Israel and Hamas
Beijing: President Xi Jinping welcomed Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to Beijing on Wednesday, as the Chinese capital hosts a number of Arab dignitaries for a forum it hopes will deepen ties with the region.
Several Arab leaders are this week visiting Beijing, which is seeking to present a “common voice” on the conflict between Israel and Hamas and improve cooperation.
Xi met El-Sisi in a grand ceremony outside Beijing’s Great Hall of People on Wednesday afternoon, state media footage showed, with the national anthems of both countries blaring out.
Cairo has said the two will discuss “regional and international issues of common interest.”
“Discussions will tackle ways to forge closer bilateral relations and to unlock broader prospects for cooperation in an array of fields,” the Egyptian presidency said.
Beijing has sought to build closer ties with Arab states in recent years, and last year brokered a detente between Tehran and its long-time foe Saudi Arabia.
It has also historically been sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and supportive of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
And Beijing last month hosted rival Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah for “in-depth and candid talks on promoting intra-Palestinian reconciliation.”
United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, as well as a host of other regional leaders and diplomats, is also among the delegates attending the forum.
Xi is set to deliver a keynote speech at the opening ceremony on Thursday, Beijing has said, aimed at building “common consensus” between China and Arab states.
Top of the agenda will be the war between Israel and Hamas, which Xi has called for an “international peace conference” to resolve.
China sees a “strategic opportunity to boost its reputation and standing in the Arab world” by framing its efforts to end that conflict against US inaction, Ahmed Aboudouh, an associate fellow with the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Programme, told AFP.
“This, in turn, serves Beijing’s focus on undermining the US’s credibility and influence in the region,” he said.
“The longer the war, the easier for China to pursue this objective,” he added.
On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with counterparts from Yemen and Sudan in Beijing, saying he hoped to “strengthen solidarity and coordination” with the Arab world.
He also raised China’s concerns over disruptive attacks on Red Sea shipping by Iran-backed Houthi forces acting in solidarity with Hamas with his Yemeni counterpart Shayea Mohsen Al-Zindani.
“China calls for an end to the harassment of civilian vessels and to ensure the safety of waterways in the Red Sea,” state news agency Xinhua quoted him as saying.

Three Israeli soldiers killed in combat in southern Gaza, military says

Three Israeli soldiers killed in combat in southern Gaza, military says
Updated 29 May 2024
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Three Israeli soldiers killed in combat in southern Gaza, military says

Three Israeli soldiers killed in combat in southern Gaza, military says
  • Israeli forces have kept up their offensive in Rafah, defying an order from the International Court of Justice

JERUSALEM: The Israeli military said three soldiers had been killed in combat in southern Gaza on Wednesday, as it pressed ahead with its offensive in Rafah.
Three more soldiers were badly wounded in the same incident, the military said, though it provided no further details. Israel’s public broadcaster Kan radio said they were injured by an explosive device set off in a building in Rafah.
Defying an order from the International Court of Justice, Israeli forces have kept up their offensive in Rafah, where they aim to root out the last major intact formations of Hamas fighters and rescue hostages.
International unease over Israel’s three-week-old Rafah offensive has turned to outrage since an airstrike on Sunday set off a blaze in a tent camp in a western district of the city, killing at least 45 people.
Israel said it had been targeting two senior Hamas operatives and had not intended to cause civilian casualties. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “something unfortunately went tragically wrong.”
The Israeli military said it was investigating the possibility that munitions stored near a compound targeted by Sunday’s airstrike may have ignited.
Israel told around one million Palestinian civilians displaced by the almost eight-month-old war to evacuate from Rafah before launching its incursion in early May. Around that many have fled the city since then, according to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.
On Tuesday, the United States, Israel’s closest ally, reiterated its opposition to a major Israeli ground offensive in Rafah but said it did not believe such an operation was under way.


Syrians in Lebanon fear unprecedented restrictions, deportations

Syrians in Lebanon fear unprecedented restrictions, deportations
Updated 29 May 2024
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Syrians in Lebanon fear unprecedented restrictions, deportations

Syrians in Lebanon fear unprecedented restrictions, deportations
  • Lebanon remains home to the largest refugee population per capita in the world: roughly 1.5 million Syrians
  • Five million Syrian refugees who spilled out of Syria into neighboring countries, while millions more are displaced within Syria

BEKAA VALLEY: The soldiers came before daybreak, singling out the Syrian men without residence permits from the tattered camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. As toddlers wailed around them, Mona, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon for a decade, watched Lebanese troops shuffle her brother onto a truck headed for the Syrian border.
Thirteen years since Syria’s conflict broke out, Lebanon remains home to the largest refugee population per capita in the world: roughly 1.5 million Syrians — half of whom are refugees formally registered with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR — in a country of approximately 4 million Lebanese.
They are among some five million Syrian refugees who spilled out of Syria into neighboring countries, while millions more are displaced within Syria. Donor countries in Brussels this week pledged fewer funds in Syria aid than last year.
With Lebanon struggling to cope with an economic meltdown that has crushed livelihoods and most public services, its chronically underfunded security forces and typically divided politicians now agree on one thing: Syrians must be sent home.
Employers have been urged to stop hiring Syrians for menial jobs. Municipalities have issued new curfews and have even evicted Syrian tenants, two humanitarian sources told Reuters. At least one township in northern Lebanon has shuttered an informal camp, sending Syrians scattering, the sources said.
Lebanese security forces issued a new directive this month shrinking the number of categories through which Syrians can apply for residency — frightening many who would no longer qualify for legal status and now face possible deportation.
Lebanon has organized voluntary returns for Syrians, through which 300 traveled home in May. But more than 400 have also been summarily deported by the Lebanese army, two humanitarian sources told Reuters, caught in camp raids or at checkpoints set up to identify Syrians without legal residency.
They are automatically driven across the border, refugees and humanitarian workers say, fueling concerns about rights violations, forced military conscription or arbitrary detention.
Mona, who asked to change her name in fear of Lebanese authorities, said her brother was told to register with Syria’s army reserves upon his entry. Fearing a similar fate, the rest of the camp’s men no longer venture out.
“None of the men can pick up their kids from school, or go to the market to get things for the house. They can’t go to any government institutions, or hospital, or court,” Mona said.
She must now care for her brother’s children, who were not deported, through an informal job she has at a nearby factory. She works at night to evade checkpoints along her commute.
’Wrong $ not sustainable’
Lebanon has deported refugees in the past, and political parties have long insisted parts of Syria are safe enough for large-scale refugee returns.
But in April, the killing of a local Lebanese party official blamed on Syrians touched off a concentrated campaign of anti-refugee sentiment.
Hate speech flourished online, with more than 50 percent of the online conversation about refugees in Lebanon focused on deporting them and another 20 percent referring to Syrians as an “existential threat,” said Lebanese research firm InflueAnswers.
The tensions have extended to international institutions. Lebanon’s foreign minister has pressured UNHCR’s representative to rescind a request to halt the new restrictions and lawmakers slammed a one billion euro aid package from the European Union as a “bribe” to keep hosting refugees.
“This money that the EU is sending to the Syrians, let them send it to Syria,” said Roy Hadchiti, a media representative for the Free Patriotic Movement, speaking at an anti-refugee rally organized by the conservative Christian party.
He, like a growing number of Lebanese, complained that Syrian refugees received more aid than desperate Lebanese. “Go see them in the camps — they have solar panels, while Lebanese can’t even afford a private generator subscription,” he said.
The UN still considers Syria unsafe for large-scale returns and said rising anti-refugee rhetoric is alarming.
“I am very concerned because it can result in... forced returns, which are both wrong and not sustainable,” UNHCR head Filippo Grandi told Reuters.
“I understand the frustrations in host countries — but please don’t fuel it further.”
Zeina, a Syrian refugee who also asked her name be changed, said her husband’s deportation last month left her with no work or legal status in an increasingly hostile Lebanese town.
Returning has its own dangers: her children were born in Lebanon and do not have Syrian ID cards, and her home in Homs province remains in ruins since a 2012 government strike that forced her to flee.
“Even now, when I think of those days, and I think of my parents or anyone else going back, they can’t. The house is flattened. What kind of return is that?” she said.