One year after the devastating war between Israel and Hezbollah, the Shiite militant organisation, Lebanon remains tense and fragile, locked in various conflicts with its neighbours and dangerously divided against itself, prompting fears of yet another war in a country that has seen little peace for the last 30 years.
The pro-Western government in Beirut is locked in an existential struggle with the Hezbollah-led opposition, backed by Syria and Iran. The UN patrolled South remains unstable, and the Army has been fighting a Sunni extremist organisation in the north of the country in what is Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the end of the civil war in 1990. Beirut has also seen a string of assassinations and bomb attacks since January.
Fouad Siniora’s US- and EU-backed government, composed of Sunni, Christian, and Druze factions, has been paralyzed since last year. In December the opposition, mainly an alliance of Hezbollah and a Christian party, started a series of protests in downtown Beirut, demanding veto power over government decisions. They have also withdrawn their ministers from the cabinet, calling it illegitimate and accusing it of collaborating with Israel and the Unites States. The government has been practically shut down ever since, as has the normally lively city of Beirut.
The stand-off has so far been more or less peaceful although nearly a dozen people were killed in January in Beirut street clashes between Sunni and Shiite gunmen. The opposition has threatened to form a separate government if no compromise candidate is found to succeed pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud when he leaves office in November. According to the constitution, the president must be a Maronite Christian, but the community is divided between pro-government and pro-opposition factions.
The South of the country, where Hezbollah militants fought Israel to a draw last summer, remains tense. A car bomb in June killed six peacekeepers from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil), a beefed-up international force that has been helping the Lebanese Army re-establish its presence in the area formerly controlled by the Shiite militants. Two more attacks have occurred since, with no casualties, and it remains unclear who perpetrated them. Spanish intelligence has blamed the attacks on Sunni extremists possibly backed by Syria.
Hezbollah itself seems largely at ease with the presence of foreign and Lebanese government troops in its heartland. According to Timor Goksel, a Beirut based security analyst, the Shiite militants have no interest in provoking a confrontation with Unifil. Goksel warned, however, that peacekeeping could become a nightmare if local parties – Hezbollah or anybody else – decided to mount a serious challenge to Unifil’s presence. “You can try and get more intelligence, you can increase the co-operation with the locals – but the truth is that if they really want to get you, they will,” he says.
But it is in the north of the country where the situation is the most dangerous. Fatah el-Islam, a Sunni extremist organisation with ideological and possibly operational links to al-Qaeda, has been fighting the Lebanese Army for three months in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared. The clashes have spread to nearby Tripoli, killed more than three hundred people, and damaged power stations when the militants fired Katyusha rockets at the surrounding villages.
It remains unclear who is behind Fatah el-Islam and what their agenda is. Pro-government politicians point the finger at Syria which they say has been trying to destabilise the country since its eviction from Lebanon in 2005. The accusations have gained credibility when in late July fighters of a Syria-allied Palestinian group, the PFLP-GC, were discovered fighting with Fatah el-Islam inside the refugee camp. Syria denies the claims.
According to Bernard Rougier, a scholar of Islamic extremism at Sciences Politique institute in Paris who has spent years in the refugee camps, the Lebanese government has a serious Islamist problem on its hands. “The Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon are where the last two generations of Islamism meet: the people who fought in Afghanistan in the 1990s and the present generation that pursues global jihad.”
“Their organisations, like Fatah el-Islam or Usbat al-Ansar [in the southern refugee camp of Ain el-Hilweh] are ideologically akin to Al-Qaeda: anti-Western, anti-Christian, anti-modernity. Some of them have also had backing from people linked to al-Qaeda, like the Yemeni Ibn al-Shahid who tried to blow up a McDonald’s in Beirut in 2003,” says Rougier whose book on the subject, Everyday Jihad, has just been published.
Most worrying of all, perhaps, is that Hezbollah is rearming, possibly preparing for a new war with Israel. The Israeli and American governments claim that there has been a steady supply of weapons coming into the UN zone from Syria. Unifil disagrees and it is true that there is little sign of war preparations in the South. However, just north of the Litani river, outside the security zone, in the predominantly Shiite Beqa’a valley, several sites have been spotted where Hezbollah has moved huge construction machinery and declared the area a closed military zone. Hezbollah’s leaders also regularly boast that they have replenished their rocket arsenal and can reach any part of Israel in a new conflict.
Ultimately, the conflict among the various Lebanese factions, the stand-off with regional power broker Syria, and the possibility of a new war with Israel is also tied into the wider regional situation. Analysts say that worsening relations between the West and Iran over Tehran’s alleged nuclear-weapons program could destabilise the situation even more as Iran might decide to stir up trouble via its proxies like Hezbollah. Relaxation of tensions, on the other hand, would probably make it easier for local parties to avoid a major clash.
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