CAIRO (IPS) - Hizballah’s dramatic seizure of Beirut last month stunned observers and dealt a heavy blow to Washington’s Lebanese allies. In Cairo, analysts compared the episode to last year’s takeover of the Gaza Strip by Palestinian resistance faction Hamas, noting that both actions were pre-emptive — rather than offensive — in nature.
“Both instances were legitimate cases of self-defense,” Magdi Hussein, political analyst and head of Egypt’s frozen Socialist Labour Party, told IPS. “Neither Hamas nor Hizballah was trying to seize political authority — they were merely reacting to aggression against them.”
On 7 May, Hizballah — along with allied Shia movement Amal — seized control of the Lebanese capital, blocking highways and occupying strategic areas. Fighters associated with Lebanon’s 14 March movement, Hizballah’s chief political rival, were easily routed.
After three days of clashes that left scores dead, Hizballah and its allies returned control of the city to the Lebanese army.
The US, along with most of the western media, depicted Hizballah’s temporary seizure of the capital as a “coup d’etat”. On 14 May, the US House of Representatives tabled a bill condemning the resistance group’s “illegitimate assault on the sovereign government of Lebanon.”
But Hizballah’s actions, while coming as a surprise to most observers, were not without reason. Rather, they came as a direct response to earlier decisions by the US-backed majority government to shut down Hizballah’s vital communications network and dismiss a Hizballah-affiliated airport security official.
Lebanon’s Free Patriotic Movement, Hizballah’s main Christian ally, described the government decisions as a “declaration of war” on the Shia resistance group.
Some Egyptian commentators drew comparisons between recent events in Beirut and what happened last summer in the Gaza Strip, when Palestinian resistance movement Hamas wrested control of the territory from the US-backed Fatah movement.
After six days of clashes in June of last year, Hamas fighters managed to seize all symbols of governance throughout the strip. More than one year later, the group continues to hold sway over the territory, despite a western-backed siege and a steady diet of Israeli military assaults.
At the time, Washington and the western media — along with US-friendly Arab capitals — hastened to depict Hamas’s Gaza takeover as the “violent overthrow of legitimate authority.”
However, it later emerged that the resistance faction was not without justification for its actions. In April, US novelty magazine Vanity Fair “revealed” — some nine months after the fact — that the Hamas “coup” had come in response to a secret US plan aimed at extirpating the group’s leadership.
In the wake of Hamas’s 2006 parliamentary victories, the US administration had planned for the violent removal of the group from Gaza, according to numerous official sources cited by the magazine. The scheme, Vanity Fair reported, had been jointly coordinated by US Lieutenant-General Keith Dayton and Fatah strongman Mohamed Dahlan.
But Hamas pre-empted the plan by launching its own counter-coup, in which it seized the reins of government and arrested suspected Fatah conspirators.
“Hamas was only defending itself against a conspiracy planned by Dahlan and backed by Israel and the US,” said Hussein. “To describe Hamas’s actions as an ‘illegal coup’ is illogical, since Hamas was democratically elected in 2006.”
Saad al-Husseini, a leading member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement, which shares ideological affinities with Hamas, also stressed that the action was taken in self-defense.
“Hamas was entirely within its rights to protect itself and the Palestinian people that elected it,” al-Husseini told IPS. “Hamas’s actions were a legitimate response to an attempt by the Dahlan faction — which is allied to Israel — to overthrow the group’s elected leadership.”
Local commentators go on to say that last month’s seizure of Beirut by Hizballah was no less pre-emptive in nature, in light of earlier moves against it by the US-backed majority government.
“Hizballah wasn’t trying to seize power, it was merely defending itself by protecting its communications network,” said Hussein. He went on to describe the group’s communications network as “a vital strategic asset” that played a decisive role in thwarting Israel’s attempted invasion of Lebanon in 2006.
Even some commentators close to the Egyptian government — generally very critical of Hizballah — admitted the rationale behind the group’s actions.
“Hizballah had a point,” Amin Howeidi, former defense minister and chief of general intelligence, wrote in the state press. “[Hizballah leader Hasan] Nasrallah saw the measures [taken against it by the government] as a declaration of war for a simple reason: the resistance cannot function without its own communication network.”
Local commentators further point out that the Gaza and Beirut episodes yielded considerable political gains for both resistance groups.
“The two incidents vastly bolstered the popularity of both groups,” said Hussein. “Meanwhile, their pro-western rivals — Fatah and the Lebanese majority government — were both badly weakened.”
In the case of Beirut, the majority government immediately rescinded its earlier decisions against Hizballah following the group’s unexpected show of force. It also quickly accepted the terms of a Qatar-brokered agreement calling for the formation of a unity government.
The “Doha Agreement” was widely seen as a victory for Hizballah and its allies, who, under the terms of the accord, will be given a “blocking third” of cabinet seats. This will allow the Shia resistance group to veto any future attempts by the government to disarm it.
“The seizure of Beirut pushed the government into accepting the Doha deal, which granted Hizballah’s chief demand: a veto right over government decision-making,” said Hussein.
Likewise, Hamas’s ability to hold on to power in Gaza — despite the objections of both the US and Israel — has recently led to rare concessions from Israel.
In a development seen as a victory for Hamas, last week saw Israel accept the terms of an Egypt-brokered ceasefire agreement. Previously, Israeli officials had insisted that any ceasefire deal must also include the release of an Israeli soldier captured by resistance factions in 2006.
“For the last year, Hamas has shown the US and Israel that it can’t simply be dealt with by force,” said Hussein. “This is confirmed by the fact that Israel agreed to the ceasefire — even though the agreement is better for Hamas than for Israel.”
Commentators also stress that both incidents represented serious setbacks to overall US-Israeli designs for the region.
“Both events were major victories for the resistance and put more obstacles in the way of US strategy in the region,” said al-Husseini. “With the continuation of the resistance, US policy will be forced to change course.”
Ahmed Thabet, political science professor at Cairo University, agreed that the two episodes would force the US and Israel to reconsider their approach to situations in both Palestine and Lebanon.
“Gaza and Beirut confirmed the failure of US policy in the Middle East,” Thabet told IPS. “Hamas and Hizballah have proven themselves forces to be reckoned with — extremely organized, militarily competent and enormously popular.”
This opinion was supported in a 4 June editorial by Palestinian-American political analyst Ramzy Baroud.
“The failures of US/Israeli policies in Lebanon and Palestine seem to have brought an end — for now — to the chaos agenda once espoused with such enthusiasm,” Baroud wrote in the Dubai-based Khaleej Times. “Lebanon has not completely succumbed to civil strife, and Palestinians in Gaza are still not willing to unconditionally submit to Israel’s political diktats.”
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