The UK’s misguided advice to Lebanon

In Beirut, Lebanese celebrate at a Hizballah rally on the ninth anniversary of the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon, 25 May 2009. (Matthew Cassel)


One would think that the British government — considering its history in the Middle East of colonizing and partitioning the land and overthrowing governments, and its current support of undemocratic and dictatorial regimes while occupying two nations in the greater region — would be wary of sending its representatives to offer advice to Arab nations on how best to achieve their right to self-determination. But apparently the British ambassador to Lebanon didn’t get the memo.

In late February, Frances Guy told the Lebanese daily An-Nahar that “the [Lebanese] state cannot enjoy sovereignty if there was one group from within the state that has more weapons than the army.” She was, of course, referring to Hizballah — the Lebanese Shia Islamic political and resistance movement.

While the UK ambassador’s formula might work in some countries, it cannot be applied to Lebanon. The Lebanese army has never been considered capable of defending the country against an Israeli attack. Not only has it always had to struggle with a weak and divided leadership, but its aid packages and arms shipments from the US look like pennies and toy guns next to those received by Israel. Hence, the popular support in Lebanon for a non-state resistance movement capable of facing off with Israel.

When referring to Hizballah in the context of Israel, many Lebanese (including the government) call it “the resistance” (al-moqawama in Arabic) and not by name. Hizballah is not the first organization formed in Lebanon to resist Israeli attacks on the country. Hizballah was born under Israeli occupation and filled the resistance void after its predecessors, the Palestine Liberation Organization and its Lebanese allies, were defeated in 1982 when Israel was able to invade Beirut after several years of civil war ravaged the country.

For whatever reason — perhaps because it learned from previous movements and corrected their mistakes, or because as a homegrown Shia Islamic movement it has grassroots and nearly full support from Shias and others in areas of Lebanon that have faced the brunt of Israel’s numerous invasions — Hizballah has been the most effective resistance movement in Lebanon’s history of conflict with Israel to date. In 2000, when Israel withdrew its troops from nearly all of the Lebanese territory it had occupied for 22 years, the resistance was celebrated as the victor. In 2006, when Israel waged an all-out war on Lebanon (ostensibly in response to a Hizballah cross-border raid during which two Israeli soldiers were captured) and quickly retreated 34 days later, the resistance was again celebrated as the victor.

While in the context of internal Lebanese politics, Hizballah the political party, as one of many sectarian parties that make up the complex political landscape, probably does not draw support from the Lebanese masses (who are mostly comprised of numerous other denominations of Islam and Christianity, other sects and secular Lebanese) Hizballah the resistance does. At the height of the 2006 war, a poll conducted by the Beirut Center for Research and Information found that 87 percent of Lebanese supported “the confrontations carried out by the resistance against the Israeli aggression against Lebanon.” Support for the resistance, especially during times of war and occupation, is one of the only issues that most will agree on in a politically divided country like Lebanon.

Days after the UK ambassador’s comments, on the eve of the Mawlid holiday when Muslims celebrate the prophet Mohammed’s birthday, many in Beirut lied awake, unable to sleep as Israeli warplanes flew back and forth across the skies above the Lebanese capital. These overflights — clear violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty and UN Security Council Resolution 1701 which was agreed to by Lebanon and Israel, bringing an end to the 2006 war — are not rare occurrences.

In recent years, Israeli aircraft can be heard more times than none, buzzing or soaring above south Lebanon. Not to mention the land mines and cluster bombs that Israel generously left scattered all over the south after each of its withdrawals and which continue to terrorize farmers and children playing in the fields. Yet, oddly enough, the UK along with the US and other governments that have “special relationships” with Israel, have remained silent to these clear violations of Lebanese sovereignty.

While the UK ambassador’s comments are only coming from one representative of a Western government, they do expose a larger feeling of desperation by some Western nations who have long considered Hizballah a “terrorist” organization and have supported any and all attacks against it, whether by Israel or other Lebanese groups.

One week before Guy’s comments, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah said to Israel in a televised speech, “If you strike Rafiq al-Hariri International Airport in Beirut, we will strike Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv.” In 2006, after Israel bombed the Beirut airport in the first hours of the war, Hizballah did not have the ability to strike back at more significant Israeli targets. But now, all sides will agree that Hizballah is better trained and better equipped, making them an even more formidable military force than they were four years ago.

Therefore, the question that many have been asking of simply whether or not Israel will attack Lebanon again is no longer relevant. The question has now become: how can Israel attack Lebanon again? After being handed defeats by a weaker Hizballah in 2000 and 2006, it seems Israel has few options left.

Another poll conducted recently by the Beirut Center for Research and Information shows that 84 percent of Lebanese “trust the resistance’s capabilities facing any Israeli attack.” This overwhelming confidence in Hizballah — the resistance — indicates that Lebanese have a good idea of how to be able to enjoy their sovereignty. By now, the UK, the US and Israel must also accept that the resistance is real, and abandon the language of bombs if they wish to communicate with the people of Lebanon.

Matthew Cassel is based in Beirut, Lebanon and is Assistant Editor of The Electronic Intifada. His website is http://justimage.org. A version of this essay was originally published by the Guardian’s Comment is Free and is republished with permission.