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.”

 


Palestinians to reconsider US ties after veto of bid for full UN membership, Abbas says

Palestinians to reconsider US ties after veto of bid for full UN membership, Abbas says
Updated 4 sec ago
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Palestinians to reconsider US ties after veto of bid for full UN membership, Abbas says

Palestinians to reconsider US ties after veto of bid for full UN membership, Abbas says
Washington vetoed a Palestinian request for full United Nations membership

CAIRO: The Palestinian Authority will reconsider bilateral relations with the US after Washington vetoed a Palestinian request for full United Nations membership, President Mahmoud Abbas said in an interview with the official WAFA news agency.

Israel says its forces kill 10 militants in West Bank raid

Israel says its forces kill 10 militants in West Bank raid
Updated 24 min 46 sec ago
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Israel says its forces kill 10 militants in West Bank raid

Israel says its forces kill 10 militants in West Bank raid
  • “Security forces eliminated 10 terrorists during encounters” over more than 40 hours, the army said
  • Eight soldiers and a police officer had been injured in the raid

TULKARM, Palestinian Territories: The Israeli army said Saturday that its security forces killed 10 militants in an ongoing raid around Nur Shams, a refugee camp in the north of the occupied West Bank.
“Security forces eliminated 10 terrorists during encounters” over more than 40 hours, the army said in a statement.
The army said eight soldiers and a police officer had been injured in the raid.
An AFP journalist in nearby Tulkarem heard gunshots and blasts coming from Nur Shams on Saturday.
Residents contacted by AFP said there was a power outage and food was running short in the camp, saying nobody was allowed to enter or leave.
Since early last year violence has flared across the West Bank, which Israel has occupied since 1967. The violence has further escalated since the war in Gaza broke out on October 7.
Israeli forces say their frequent raids in the West Bank target Palestinian militants, but civilians are often among the dead.
Around 480 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops or settlers in the West Bank since the Hamas assault on Israel triggered the Gaza war, according to Palestinian official sources.


Emirates and flydubai resume normal operations after Dubai floods

Emirates and flydubai resume normal operations after Dubai floods
Updated 20 April 2024
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Emirates and flydubai resume normal operations after Dubai floods

Emirates and flydubai resume normal operations after Dubai floods
  • Emirates canceled nearly 400 flights and delayed many more as a result of a record storm that hit the desert city of Dubai

RIYADH: Dubai’s flagship carrier Emirates and sister airline flydubai have restored normal operations after heavy rains caused severe flooding across the United Arab Emirates earlier this week, the airlines said on Saturday.
Emirates canceled nearly 400 flights and delayed many more as a result of a record storm that hit the desert city of Dubai on Tuesday, said a statement released by the airline’s president, Tim Clark.
Due to the impact of the storm, the airline suspended check-in for passengers departing from Dubai and halted its transit operations through Dubai International Airport, a major global travel hub, leaving thousands of travelers stranded.
The airport has struggled to return to normal operations after the storm flooded taxiways, forcing flight diversions, delays and cancelations.
Flydubai also returned to its full flight schedule from the airport’s Terminal 2 and Terminal 3 on Saturday following the weather-related disruption, a spokesperson for the airline said.
Clark said Emirates had provided 12,000 hotel rooms and 250,000 meal vouchers to customers who were affected. He added it would take days to clear the backlog of rebooked passengers.
The UAE has suffered the impact of the flooding for days, with roads between the city and Abu Dhabi still partially under water as of Saturday. In Abu Dhabi, some supermarkets and restaurants faced product shortages, unable to receive deliveries from Dubai.
Researchers have linked extreme weather events such as Tuesday’s storm to climate change and anticipate that global warming will lead to higher temperatures, increased humidity and a greater risk of flooding in parts of the Gulf region.
A lack of drainage infrastructure to cope with heavy rains in countries such as the UAE can put them at particular risk of flooding.


Israeli airstrike in Rafah kills at least 9 Palestinians, including 6 children

Israeli airstrike in Rafah kills at least 9 Palestinians, including 6 children
Updated 44 min 56 sec ago
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Israeli airstrike in Rafah kills at least 9 Palestinians, including 6 children

Israeli airstrike in Rafah kills at least 9 Palestinians, including 6 children
  • Strike late Friday hit a residential building in the western Tel Sultan neighborhood of the city of Rafah

RAFAH, Gaza Strip: An Israeli airstrike on a house in Gaza’s southernmost city killed at least nine people, six of them children, hospital authorities said Saturday, as Israel pursued its nearly seven-month offensive in the besieged Palestinian territory.
Israel’s war against the Islamic militant group Hamas has led to a dramatic escalation of tensions in an already volatile Middle East.
The strike late Friday hit a residential building in the western Tel Sultan neighborhood of the city of Rafah, according to Gaza’s civil defense. The bodies of the six children, two women and a man were taken to Rafah’s Abu Yousef Al-Najjar hospital, the hospital’s records showed.
At the hospital, relatives cried and hugged the bodies of the children, wrapped in white shrouds, as others comforted them.
The fatalities included Abdel-Fattah Sobhi Radwan, his wife Najlaa Ahmed Aweidah and their three children, his brother-in-law Ahmed Barhoum said. Barhoum also lost his wife, Rawan Radwan, and their 5-year-old daughter Alaa.
“This is a world devoid of all human values and morals,” Barhoum told The Associated Press Saturday morning, crying as he cradled and gently rocked the body of Alaa in his arms. “They bombed a house full of displaced people, women and children. There were no martyrs but women and children.”
No victims were registered from a second overnight strike in the city.
Rafah, which lies on the border with Egypt, currently hosts more than half of Gaza’s total population of about 2.3 million people, the vast majority of whom have been displaced by fighting further north in the territory.
Despite calls for restraint from the international community, including Israel’s staunchest ally, the United States, the Israeli government has insisted for months that it intends to push a ground offensive into the city, where it says many of the remaining Hamas militants are holed up.
Such a ground operation has not materialized so far, but the Israeli military has repeatedly carried out airstrikes on and around the city.
The war was sparked by an unprecedented raid into southern Israel by Hamas and other militant groups on Oct. 7 that left about 1,200 people dead, the vast majority of them civilians, and saw about 250 people kidnapped and taken into Gaza. Israel says about 130 hostages remain in Gaza, although more than 30 have been confirmed to now be dead, either killed on Oct. 7 or having died in captivity.
The Gaza Health Ministry said Saturday the bodies of 37 people killed by Israeli strikes were brought to hospitals in Gaza over the past 24 hours. Hospitals also received 68 wounded, it said. The latest figures bring the overall Palestinian death toll from the Israel-Hamas war to at least 34,049, and the number of wounded to 76,901, the ministry said. Although the Hamas-run health authorities do not differentiate between combatants and civilians in their count, they say at least two thirds have been children and women.
The war has sent regional tensions spiraling, leading to a dramatic eruption of violence between Israel and its archenemy Iran that threatened to escalate into a full-blown war.
On Friday, both Iran and Israel played down an apparent Israeli airstrike near a major air base and nuclear site in central Iran, indicating the two sides were pulling back from what could have become an all-out conflict. Over the past several weeks, an alleged Israeli strike killed two Iranian generals at an Iranian consulate in Syria and was followed by an unprecedented Iranian missile barrage on Israel.
Israel has also faced off with the Hezbollah militant group, an Iranian proxy operating from Lebanon, with the two sides there frequently trading rocket and drone attacks across the Lebanese-Israeli border. Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels have also joined the fray, launching strikes against merchant ships in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden in what they say is a campaign of solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza.
Tension has also been high in the occupied West Bank, where an Israeli military raid Friday in the Nur Shams refugee camp killed at least four Palestinians, including three militants, according to the Israeli military, Palestinian health officials and a militant group.
Palestinian health authorities said one of those killed was a 15-year-old boy shot dead by Israeli fire. The Islamic Jihad militant group confirmed the deaths of three members, including one who it said was a local military commander. The Israeli military said four Israeli soldiers were slightly wounded in the operation.
Saraya Al-Quds, the military arm of Islamic Jihad, said its fighters had engaged in heavy gunbattles Saturday morning with Israeli forces in the town of Tulkarem, adjacent to Nur Shams. No further details were immediately available. Residents in Tulkarem went went on a general strike Saturday to protest the attack on Nur Shams, with shops, restaurants and government offices all closed.
Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel, more than 460 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in the West Bank, Palestinian health officials say. Israel stages frequent raids into towns and cities in the volatile territory. The dead have included militants, but also stone-throwers and bystanders. Some have also been killed in attacks by Israeli settlers.


Iran FM downplays reported Israeli retaliation

Iran FM downplays reported Israeli retaliation
Updated 20 April 2024
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Iran FM downplays reported Israeli retaliation

Iran FM downplays reported Israeli retaliation
  • Israeli officials have made no public comment on what happened Friday
  • Overnight last Saturday-Sunday Iran launched its first-ever direct attack on Israeli territory

Tehran: Iran’s foreign minister has dismissed as akin to child’s play the reported Israeli retaliation for an unprecedented Iranian strike, and said Tehran would not respond unless Iranian “interests” were targeted.
On Friday, Iran’s state media reported explosions were heard after, according to an official, small drones were successfully shot down.
Media in the United States quoted officials there as saying Israel had carried out strikes in retaliation for Tehran’s drone and missile barrage fired at Israel last weekend.
“What happened last night was no attack,” Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told NBC News in a Friday interview.
“It was the flight of two or three quad-copters, which are at the level of toys that our children use in Iran.”
He added that, “As long as there is no new adventure on behalf of the Israeli regime against Iran’s interests, we will have no response.”
Friday’s explosions prompted world leaders to appeal for calm and de-escalation with fears of wider conflict against the backdrop of the war in Gaza which began on October 7.
Overnight last Saturday-Sunday Iran launched its first-ever direct attack on Israeli territory. The barrage was in response to a deadly April 1 air strike on Tehran’s consulate in Damascus, which Iran blamed on Israel.
The Israeli army said the vast majority of the more than 300 missiles and drones fired by Iran were shot down — with the help of the United States and other allies — and that the attack caused only minimal damage.
Israeli officials have made no public comment on what happened Friday, and analysts said both sides are looking to de-escalate, for now.
“If the Israeli regime intends to take another action against our interests, our next response will be immediate and to the maximum,” Amir-Abdollahian said in the interview.