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.”

 


Gaza zookeeper fears for his animals after fleeing Rafah

Gaza zookeeper fears for his animals after fleeing Rafah
Updated 25 May 2024
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Gaza zookeeper fears for his animals after fleeing Rafah

Gaza zookeeper fears for his animals after fleeing Rafah

KHAN YOUNIS: In a cowshed in Gaza’s Khan Younis, zookeeper Fathi Ahmed Gomaa has created a temporary home for dozens of animals, including lions and baboons, having fled with them from Israel’s offensive in Rafah.
“We’ve moved all the animals we had, except for three big lions that remain (in Rafah),” he said.
“I ran out of time and couldn’t move them.” Ahmed abandoned his zoo in Rafah when Israel ordered the evacuation of parts of the southern Gazan city.
Before the offensive, the city on the border with Egypt had been spared a ground invasion, and more than half of the Gaza Strip’s population was sheltering there.
Now, the Israeli offensive has sent more than 800,000 people fleeing from Rafah, according to the UN, with Gomaa and his family among them.
“I am appealing to the Israeli authorities: these animals have no connection to terrorism,” Gomaa said, saying he wanted their help in coordinating with aid agencies to rescue the lions left behind in Rafah.
He fears they won’t survive long on their own.
“Of course, within a week or 10 days, if we don’t get them out, they will die because they’ll be left with no food or water.”
Gomaa said he had already lost several of his animals to the war: “Three lion cubs, five monkeys, a newborn monkey, and nine squirrels.”
And while the squawking of parrots fills the air, many of Gomaa’s other birds are no longer with him.
“I released some of the dogs, some of the hawks and eagles, some of the pigeons, and some of the ornamental birds. I released many of them because we didn’t have cages to transport them.”
In the cowshed, Gomaa is making do with what he has, using improvised fencing to raise the heights of the pens so that their new inhabitants, spotted deer, can’t leap out.
Israeli troops began their assault on Rafah on May 7, defying widespread international concern for the safety of the 1.4 million civilians sheltering in the city.


EU considers possible Rafah border mission, diplomats say

EU considers possible Rafah border mission, diplomats say
Updated 25 May 2024
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EU considers possible Rafah border mission, diplomats say

EU considers possible Rafah border mission, diplomats say

BRUSSELS: Talks on deploying a EU mission at the Rafah border crossing in Gaza are at a preliminary stage and the deployment will not happen without an end to the war between Israel and Hamas, a senior EU official said on Friday.
EU foreign ministers will hold their monthly meeting in Brussels on Monday, and discuss how to improve humanitarian aid deliveries to Gaza.
Two diplomats said the US had suggested the EU revive its EU Border Assistance Mission or EUBAM Rafah, which has not been operational since 2007, when Hamas seized full control of Gaza.
The crossing is the main entry point for aid from Egypt and has been closed since Israeli forces took control of it from the Gazan side nearly three weeks ago.
Rafah city is now fire in an Israeli military assault, which judges at the top UN court said on Friday should immediately halt.
“Even if we now have people on the ground talking to the different parties and seeing how it could be done, we are in a very preliminary part of the story,” said the senior official.
The official said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell could be mandated by the 27 members on Monday to come up with “some kind of operative conclusions that could allow the mission to deploy.”
He said a deployment could not happen “in the current circumstances, not in war circumstances.”
“We are talking about the future,” the official said.
Three EU diplomats said the discussion would be on the table, but there was nothing concrete to discuss. One said the proposal was a “long shot.”
The mission would need unanimous approval from EU member states. Also, EUBAM is a civilian mission, and given the potentially dangerous nature of the operation, personnel and equipment would need to be adapted.
Diplomats said that such a mission could go ahead only if Egypt and Israel were also in favor.
Two US officials said Washington was reviewing options to secure the opening of the Rafah crossing, but no definitive plans have been developed yet. Israel began its offensive in Gaza after Hamas’ deadly attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7.


Four Britons repatriated from Syria camp, Kurds say

Four Britons repatriated from Syria camp, Kurds say
Updated 24 May 2024
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Four Britons repatriated from Syria camp, Kurds say

Four Britons repatriated from Syria camp, Kurds say
  • The Kurdish administration said it had “handed over a woman and three children to the United Kingdom“
  • The four had been interned in the Roj camp where militants’ relatives are held

QAMISHLI, Syria: Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria said Friday that they had handed over a woman and three children to British representatives for repatriation, with a source saying they had been held in a camp for militants’ relatives.
Five years after the Daesh group was driven out of its last bastion in Syria, tens of thousands of the militants’ family members, including from Western countries, remain in detention camps in the Kurdish-controlled northeast.
The Kurdish administration said it had “handed over a woman and three children to the United Kingdom,” following a meeting with a British delegation led its Syria envoy Ann Snow.
A source within the administration told AFP the four had been interned in the Roj camp where militants’ relatives are held.
Britain’s foreign ministry said UK officials had “facilitated the repatriation of a number of British nationals from Syria to the United Kingdom.”
“This repatriation is in line with the long-standing policy that all requests for UK consular assistance from Syria are considered on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all relevant circumstances including national security,” the spokesperson said.
On May 7, the United States announced it had brought back 11 Americans including five minors, as well as a nine-year-old non-US sibling of an American, from internment camps in northeastern Syria.
The United States in the same operation facilitated the repatriation of six Canadian citizens, four Dutch citizens and one Finnish citizen, eight of them children, Secretary of state Antony Blinken said.
And in December, the Kurdish administration handed over to Britain a woman and five children who had also been held in a camp.
Despite repeated appeals by the Kurdish authorities, a number of Western countries have refused to take back their citizens from the camps.
Among the most high profile cases is that of Shamima Begum, a former Briton stripped of her citizenship after leaving the country aged 15 to marry an Daesh group fighter.


Lebanon ‘open to any effort to curb Israeli aggression,’ says Berri

Lebanon ‘open to any effort to curb Israeli aggression,’ says Berri
Updated 24 May 2024
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Lebanon ‘open to any effort to curb Israeli aggression,’ says Berri

Lebanon ‘open to any effort to curb Israeli aggression,’ says Berri
  • Parliamentary speaker accuses Israel of ‘greed’ over Lebanese resources
  • Berri’s statement came as hostilities between Hezbollah and the Israeli army in the southern border region entered their 230th day

BEIRUT: Lebanon is willing to cooperate with any international effort to stop Israeli aggression and bring security to the region, Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri said on Friday.
However, in a statement marking the 24th anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, Berri warned that Lebanon “is not ready to waive any of its sovereign rights.”
He also accused Israel of displaying “greed toward Lebanon, its resources, its entity, and its land, sea, and air borders.”
Berri’s statement came as hostilities between Hezbollah and the Israeli army in the southern border region entered their 230th day.
The parliamentary speaker called for intensified international and regional efforts to halt Israel’s assault in the Gaza Strip, saying this was crucial to maintain security and stability in the entire region.
Hezbollah claims its actions have been in support of Gaza amid further Israeli threats to Lebanon.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed on Thursday from the northern command headquarters “to carry out detailed, important and even surprising plans to return displaced settlers to the north.”
He claimed Israel had killed hundreds of Hezbollah fighters.
Benny Gantz, a minister in the Israeli war Cabinet, said: “Get ready from now on for the return of the residents of the north to their houses safely in early September by force or order.”
Berri returned from Tehran after attending the funeral of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who was killed in a helicopter crash on May 19.
In his message to the Lebanese, he renewed Lebanon’s “commitment and adherence to UN Resolution 1701, and all its terms and stipulations.”
The resolution calls for an end to hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon to be replaced by Lebanese and UNIFIL forces in southern Lebanon, and the disarmament of armed groups including Hezbollah.
Berri accused Israel of ignoring the resolution “since the moment it was issued, with over 30,000 land, sea and air violations.”
Lebanon “upholds its right to defend its land with all the available means in the face of Israeli hostilities,” he said.
He called for the liberation of “the remaining occupied territory in the Kfarchouba Hills, the occupied Shebaa Farms, the northern part of the GHajjar village, and the contested border points with occupied Palestine all the way to the B1 point in Ras Al-Naqoura.”
Caretaker Minister of Defense Maurice Slim said that Lebanon preferred peace to war.
However, “defending the land was and will be the Lebanese state’s choice through the resilience of its army and people, especially the steadfast ones who are still residing in their villages and towns to repel the aggression,” he said.
Israeli warplanes on Thursday struck the town of Maroun Al-Ras in the Bint Jbeil district.
Sirens sounded in Israeli settlements opposite the border with Lebanon amid fears of possible drone attacks.
The Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported on Friday that Hezbollah’s drones caused significant damage in the northern towns and resulted in several fatalities.
Another newspaper, Israel Hayom, said that Hezbollah’s drones are “one of the biggest threats facing Israel in the northern arena.”
The newspaper said that Hezbollah leader Mohammed Hassan Fares, who was killed by an Israeli drone strike last week in Qana, was a scientist who specialized in robotics and machine learning.


2,000 aid trucks stuck at Rafah border: Norwegian Refugee Council

2,000 aid trucks stuck at Rafah border: Norwegian Refugee Council
Updated 24 May 2024
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2,000 aid trucks stuck at Rafah border: Norwegian Refugee Council

2,000 aid trucks stuck at Rafah border: Norwegian Refugee Council
  • Palestinians ‘actively deprived’ of essential items as Israel steps up operations in city
  • Some in Gaza have been displaced as many as 9 times since October

LONDON: The Norwegian Refugee Council has warned that 2,000 aid trucks are stuck in Egypt at the Rafah border crossing, with Palestinians in Gaza being “actively deprived” of essential goods.
Rafah is the last remaining area of Gaza yet to come under full assault by Israeli forces, with fears now mounting of an imminent operation to take the southern city.
The NRC’s head of operations in Gaza, Suze van Meegen, told the BBC: “The city of Rafah is now comprised of three entirely different worlds: the east is an archetypal war zone, the middle is a ghost town, and the west is a congested mass of people living in deplorable conditions.”
She said medical supplies, tents, water tanks and food are being held up at the border, and in some cases Palestinians in Gaza have been displaced as many as nine times since Israel launched its military operation last October.
“People have no choice but to put their faith in so-called ‘humanitarian safe zones’ designated by the forces that have killed their family members and destroyed their homes,” she added.
Israeli journalist Amos Harel told the BBC that he believes Israel is moving ahead with plans to occupy Rafah with tacit US support.
“It’s quite clear that the Americans are no longer trying to prevent Israel from occupying Rafah. So the Israelis may proceed carefully and not too quickly. But it’s less of a question of whether the Israelis are going to occupy Rafah. It’s quite clear that they are,” he said.
It comes despite earlier warnings by US President Joe Biden against Israel attacking “population centers,” and with the International Court of Justice set to rule on the legality of the Israeli campaign in Gaza after a case was submitted by South Africa in December accusing Israel of genocide.