Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The final straw

By Elie Fawaz
March 19, 2008

(IHT)-America is always looking for ways to weaken Hezbollah and end its violent operations. The good news is that Hezbollah may now finally be undermining itself from within.
Trapped between Israel's wrath and the disillusionment of the Lebanese people, the "Party of God" is bringing about its own destruction and damaging its credibility by openly taking on the world.

Last month, Hezbollah announced that its top military commander, Imad Mughniyeh, had been assassinated in Damascus. Mughniyeh had been on the most-wanted lists of 42 countries for his involvement in several high-profile bombings, including attacks that killed more than 200 Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s. After Mughniyeh's death was announced, Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, quickly accused Israel, and vowed vengeance: "You have killed Hajj Imad outside the recognized battle zone," he declared, speaking in front of party militants. "If you want an open war, then let it be an open war."

An open war will leave Hezbollah in shambles and destroy its infrastructure and influence. Any operation from Hezbollah in response to Mugniyeh's assassination will surely be met with a massive Israeli retaliation, with consequences harsher than even the last war. This will not be accepted by the majority of Lebanese who are still struggling to regain their livelihood, and will inevitably lead to a civil war.

Nasrallah, in effect, is caught between two wars: one of Israeli retribution, and the other initiated against him by the outraged Lebanese people.

Rather than serving as a fearsome threat, Nasrallah's proclamation has trapped Hezbollah. In any future confrontation, Israel will not refrain from bombing economic infrastructure and civilians, whose villages Hezbollah guerrilla fighters use as a launching pad for their attacks. As Nasrallah is well aware, this will inflict on Lebanon a price it cannot pay. The balance of fear, which Hezbollah has claimed is tilted in their favor, has been nullified

Hezbollah operates on the theory of intimidation: coerce people and they do what you want. Inspire enough fear and you get a response. Carry out a violent action and you get a reaction. But there is also a law of unintended consequences.

Following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri three years ago, and the end of the 30-year Syrian occupation of Lebanon, the issue of Hezbollah's arms became a hot debate. In the midst of voices calling for the disarmament of Hezbollah and its integration into the Lebanese Army, Nasrallah ordered the abduction of Israeli soldiers along the Lebanon-Israel border.

No one anticipated the severity of Israel's reaction and, by his own admission, Nasrallah confessed that he would never have given the order had he known the consequences.

For more than 33 days in the summer of 2006, the Israeli Army struck military and civilian targets indiscriminately. The outcome was disastrous for Lebanon: More than 900,000 Lebanese were displaced, 1,200 civilians were killed and the economy was paralyzed. Nevertheless, a massive public-relations campaign proclaimed Hezbollah's "divine victory" in the war. Iran offset Shiite rage with enormous infusions of funds into South Lebanon and Beirut's southern suburbs.

This war consummated the divorce between Hezbollah and the majority of Lebanese. Since then, domestic tensions in Lebanon have gradually risen to the brink of an explosion. Violence has erupted in the streets of Beirut between Hezbollah's opponents and its supporters. As a result, the image and aura of Nasrallah, which he tried to forge for himself and his party along inter-communal lines, has become a thing of the past.

Today the Party of God is out of options. By trying to avenge the murder of the party's military commander, Nasrallah would bring disaster upon Lebanon and the Shiite community. He cannot deliver on his vow to wage an open war and will have to backtrack on his threats.

What the international community needs to do now is to capitalize on Hezbollah's troubles by strengthening Lebanon's moderate, democratic forces and the authority of their central government. America should seize this opportunity to undercut the influence of an organization that has the blood of many people on its hands. Time is of the essence. (IHT)


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