Shortcuts / 31 October 2023
Lebanon and Hezbollah
As the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza continues to unfold, one major question is whether Israel’s northern neighbour Lebanon will be dragged into the war by Hezbollah, the anti-Israel Islamic militant group that’s based there. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we’ll take a quick look at the history of Lebanon and its political system, the origins of Hezbollah, and why Israel and the US are worried about a spreading conflict…
Where does this story start?
To understand the current state of Lebanon, you really do have to cast your mind back to ancient times… Lebanon is in a part of the world between Europe, Asia, and Africa, which means that all of the ancient world empires had their hands on the territory of Lebanon at some point in history.
Alexander the Great ruled this part of the world, and then it was the Romans, followed by the Ottoman empire. And the important thing about these various influences is that a lot of religious communities call Lebanon home.
What do you mean?
So Alexander the Great brought Greek influences, the Roman empire brought Christians to the region, and the Ottoman empire brought Muslim communities to this same location.
Sounds like a real melting pot…
Exactly. You have all of these communities living together… and that’s the situation that Lebanon finds itself in after World War I, when the international community hands over control of the region to France.
When did that happen?
That was in 1920, and that’s considered the start date for modern Lebanon. But French control doesn’t last. By the time that World War II came around there was a local movement in Lebanon for independence, and with France focused on fighting Germany, Lebanon gained independence in 1943.
So Lebanon is independent – what happens next?
This is where things get very interesting, because independent Lebanon adopts a rare form of government. It’s called confessionalism…
What it means is that power of government is split up proportionally between the different religions in a society. A ‘confession’ is another name for a religious doctrine, so that’s where confessionalism gets its name from.
What does confessionalism look like in Lebanon?
Well, one way you can see this form of government in action is that in Lebanon, by convention the President is Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister is Sunni Muslim, the speaker of parliament is Shia Muslim, and the deputy speaker is Greek Orthodox.
That’s not all that happened for Lebanon in the 1940s. In 1948, the year that Israel was founded, war in the region also saw about a hundred thousand Palestinians flee from Israeli territory into southern Lebanon. From there, historians say that Lebanon enjoyed about 2 decades of stability… but tensions between the different religions were brewing, and in 1975, civil war broke out.
What happened next?
A very messy civil war, with fighting that spilled over Lebanon’s borders. One feature of this time was a Palestinian militant group based in Lebanon that was carrying out attacks on Israeli citizens, on Israeli soil.
How did Israel respond?
The Israeli government launched a war against Lebanon in 1982. In response to that Israeli invasion, a new militant Islamic group formed, called Hezbollah.
Hezbollah is a familiar name…
Yep, they’re the anti-Israel group that is threatening to join the war this time around. A fascinating piece of history, though, is that a former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, has said that Israel’s entry into Lebanon caused Hezbollah to form. He said, “It was our presence there that created Hezbollah.”
What has happened in Lebanon since?
The country has continued to have rolling political and economic crises. To name just a few recent ones, in 2019 there were massive protests in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, calling for an end to government corruption and a reform of the political system.
Wasn’t there also an accidental port explosion?
Exactly – in 2020 a huge blast at a port destroyed surrounding areas of the city. It’s also worth noting that the position of the President is currently vacant, and Lebanon is in such economic hardship that some people have begun to say that the country is close to becoming a failed state, if it isn’t already.
What does all of this mean for the current war?
Going back to Hezbollah, they’re now a powerful force in the region and they’re based in southern Lebanon. Since 7 October when Hamas attacked Israel, Hezbollah has been threatening to start a war on Israel’s northern border…
Why is Hezbollah making that threat?
One biggie is that Hezbollah is an Islamic group, and the Palestinians living in the Gaza strip are also Muslims. There’s also the influence of Iran. Iran has been a backer of Hezbollah since its very beginning, and Iran is also a backer of Hamas, which is the group which first launched attacks against Israel back at the start of October.
Does Hezbollah really have the power to make these kinds of threats?
One fascinating thing is that Lebanon’s current caretaker prime minister has acknowledged that he doesn’t really have the power to decide if his own country goes to war – the decision is all on Hezbollah.
The main reason is because Hezbollah’s military arm is stronger than Lebanon’s official army. In fact, according to a report from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies from 2018, Hezbollah is “the world’s most heavily armed non-state actor”. And Israel has said that if Hezbollah attacks them, they’ll attack Lebanon.
So Hezbollah could draw Lebanon into the war… what is Israel saying?
Israel really, really wants to avoid a war in its north as well as its south… In attempting to dissuade Hezbollah from launching its own attack on Israel’s north, the Israeli defence minister has said that if Hezbollah escalates the conflict, and this is the quote: “we will return Lebanon to the Stone Age. We will not hesitate to use all our power, and erode every inch of Hezbollah and Lebanon if we have to.”
Is Israel preparing in any way?
Yes, in the meantime, Israel has been ordering civilians along that border to evacuate their homes, and Lebanese citizens have also been fleeing from the border with Israel. There are estimates that 19,000 people are already displaced within Lebanon.
Reading: A backgrounder on Hezbollah from the Council on Foreign Relations.
Reading: Dr Julie Norman is an academic at University College London, and has written an essay on Hezbollah’s relationship to Hamas.
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