UN special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said recently that the continued existence of armed militias in Lebanon were a threat to regional peace. What he meant was that Hezbollah’s continued presence in Lebanon was a threat to Lebanon’s fragile peace and stability.
In 1989, to end the 15 year civil war that tore Lebanon apart, the ethno-religious militias agreed to disarm under the Taif Agreement. Most or all did so, except Hezbollah, which called itself a “resistance force” whose job it was to end Israeli occupation and all the rest of it. Hezbollah has remained armed and popular, particularly in southern Lebanon, where it is seen as the only competent defender of Shii Muslims against Israeli aggression. But it is precisely this popularity that imperils Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s boldness stems partly from its popularity. When Israeli forces attacked in 1982 and occupied parts of Lebanon after that until 2000, returning six years later to punish southern Lebanon in a devastating counter-attack, Hezbollah was the resister. Israeli commanders believed in 2006 that punishing Lebanese for supporting Hezbollah would turn them against the organisation, which was a serious miscalculation. From then till now, Hezbollah has been the hero of the people of southern Lebanon. It not only opposes Israel, it builds houses, provides health care and does everything Muslim charity (zakat) requires.
Hezbollah was required to destroy its weapons by UN Security Council Resolution 1559, but instead it waged a propaganda campaign against it. Terje Roed-Larsen said that, as long as Hezbollah retained its weapons, “there will always be tension”. Leaving aside Lebanon’s chronic instability and perennial conflict, as if that could be separated from wider regional issues, Hezbollah is always one move away from provoking another attack by Israel. Israeli raids on southern Lebanon have been a recurring feature of life there since violent resistance to Israel by Palestinian commandos began after the formation of the state of Israel. The Israeli government has always made it clear that it held the Lebanese state responsible for attacks from Lebanon on Israel, and in January it reiterated its policy. Yes, Israel shares the blame for the thousands it has killed; but Hezbollah usually throws the first punch. Hezbollah knows Israel will mount a huge offensive at small provocation like kidnapping and cardboard rockets, so they continue to poke the IDF. Other Palestinian militias exist in Lebanon but they do not cause a fraction of the trouble Hezbollah does. If it disarmed and renounced violence (which it will not as long as it exists), Israel would have no reason to invade Lebanon again.
But Hezbollah refuses to disarm. What is to be done? Disarm the group by force? Though this course is suggested by some, it would almost certainly provoke another major regional conflagration. Of course, failing to do so could mean little more than a delay of the same. Besides, given Hezbollah’s size, strength and support from Iran and Syria, it is unlikely that the Lebanese Armed Forces could disarm them. Could Hezbollah be given the incentive to accept a permanent peace?