Rain of fear: A Hezbollah billboard along a road in South Lebanon: "All our disasters caused by U.S.A." (Photo by Pierre Tristam © 2000).
Let's not underestimate what happened last week in Lebanon: Hezbollah, the Shiite militia and political organization, "invaded" a portion of West Beirut dominated by Sunni Lebanese and took it over in a matter of hours. The Lebanese army, which last year was seen as Lebanese sovereignty’s last hope , did nothing. The attack was brazen, illegal and withering in its effectiveness. Hamra Street, long a symbol of Beirut's cosmopolitanism and Sunni culture, became an extension of Hezbollah's Shiite hegemony—if the term can be applied to tiny Lebanon—which begins in south Beirut and now extends almost unimpeded all the way to the border with Israel.
As the Washington Post's Tony Shadid writes, "Hezbollah today stands unquestioned as the single most powerful force in Lebanon. By routing government-allied militiamen in hours last week, as the army stood by, it proved it can occupy Beirut at will. Its show of strength forced the government into a humiliating retreat from decisions that targeted the group. And the group itself has ensured that the independence of its sprawling military, political and social infrastructure -- deemed a state within a state by its opponents -- will remain untouched for the foreseeable future."
State within a state: the last time the Lebanese heard that term was when the Palestine Liberation Organization took over West Beirut and most of south Lebanon during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). The PLO was mostly expelled from Lebanon following Israel’s invasion in 1982. The PLO’s exit created a power vacuum. It was filled by a new entity Israel hadn’t anticipated: Shiite-led, Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah. By 2000 Hezbollah could legitimately claim to be the only armed group ever to force an Israeli withdrawal as Israel unilaterally abandoned the “security zone” it had occupied in southern Lebanon since 1982. Six years later, Hezbollah fought Israel to a draw that was largely seen as a victory for Hezbollah in a 34-day war. Israel launched the war to eliminate Hezbollah’s missile capabilities. The plan failed badly and was severely criticized by an official Israeli commission.
The 2006 war also left Hezbollah in a stronger position than ever. Last week’s events in Lebanon only fortifies Hezbollah’s position further, and not to Lebanon’s advantage. Several outcomes are possible:
- Lebanon’s 17-month-old electoral crisis may be resolved in Hezbollah’s favor, which may well mean an end to Christian and Sunni dominance of power in Lebanon and the ascendance of Shiite power there.
- Sunnis, outraged by Hezbollah’s take-over of neighborhoods Sunnis consider theirs, fight back, triggering a resumption of Lebanon’s civil war.
- The Lebanese army, perhaps joined by Christian and Sunni militias, enters the fray against Hezbollah, triggering a resumption of the civil war. Syria, unlikely to stand by, may feel compelled to intervene on Hezbollah’s side.
- Al-Qaeda, a Sunni organization, exploits the situation, courts Lebanese Sunnis and expands operations there.