Hizbollah’s fate to loom large after Lebanon polls

By Mariam Karouny ,  May 24 , 2005

BEIRUT, May 24 (Reuters) – With Syrian troops gone, a U.N. demand for Lebanon’s Hizbollah guerrillas to disarm poses a challenge for any government that emerges from forthcoming elections.

The Syrian withdrawal last month fulfilled the first part of U.N. Security Council resolution 1559. The second demands that the hardened Shi’ite Muslim fighters who helped drive Israeli troops from Lebanon exactly five years ago give up their guns.

“Hizbollah is a Lebanese matter and we understand that so far, but the new Lebanese authority must disarm the group,” a Western diplomat said. “There is no place for a private army in the region any more. Both Hizbollah and Lebanon know that.”

Hizbollah won popularity and prestige in Lebanon and the Arab world when its relentless guerrilla attacks helped drive Israel from the south in May 2000 after a 22-year occupation. 

But what was hailed as a rare Arab victory over Israel also removed the main justification for Hizbollah to keep its weapons when other Lebanese civil war factions had already disarmed.

The Syrian pullout is likely to intensify international and domestic pressure on Lebanon’s next government to tackle the issue after the May 29-June 19 polls for a 128-seat parliament.

The pro-Syrian government ousted after the Feb. 14 killing of ex-Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri had said 1559 did not apply to Hizbollah because it was a resistance group, not a militia.

Lebanon’s current prime minister has echoed that position, but said the issue must be debated after the elections. Some Christian leaders have urged Hizbollah to give up its guns.

Hizbollah, long backed by Iran and Syria, says it has no plans to do so while Israel poses a threat to Lebanon and continues to hold the disputed Shebaa Farms border enclave.

“We believe the arms are needed to defend Lebanon in the face of the Israeli danger and to liberate Shebaa Farms,” the group’s deputy chief Sheikh Naim Kassem told Reuters.

The United Nations says Shebaa is part of Syria’s Golan Heights, a ruling disputed by Damascus and Beirut.


Washington, which calls Hizbollah a terrorist group, has held fire on disarmament, apparently agreeing with United Nations and European views that the elections are the priority.

“It will be interesting to see the extent to which the United States will tackle this,” said Magnus Ranstorp, an expert on Hizbollah at St Andrew’s University in Scotland. “The unity of the international community could disappear after the polls.”

Hizbollah, which emerged after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, has gradually broadened into a powerful political and social movement, as well as a formidable guerrilla force.

It has 12 deputies in the outgoing parliament and runs a network of schools, clinics and other welfare institutions in the long-deprived Shi’ite heartlands of the south and east.

Proposals floated in April by the International Crisis Group think-tank call for Syria to hand Shebaa formally to Lebanon and for Israel to withdraw. Hizbollah would pull back and hand its rockets to the Lebanese army, which would move to the border.

The guerrillas could be incorporated into the army, perhaps as a separate unit. The United States would tell Israel to keep out of Lebanon’s air space and territorial waters.

Hizbollah has shown no public interest in such a package, saying it would not guarantee Lebanon’s borders against Israel, but Western diplomats say a creative solution can be found.

“As far as we are concerned they should disarm. How? This question is for the Lebanese government to answer, whether they blend them in the army or disarm them some other way,” one said.

“If Hizbollah do not disarm, more pressure will be put on them and on the new Lebanese government.”

Hizbollah’s links to Iran and Syria, both also under U.S. pressure, are a further complication, analysts say.

“It’s a complex matter that has to be addressed not only internally but also with what is going on between the United States and Iran and Syria,” said political analyst Nizar Hamzeh.

Ranstorp said Hizbollah was likely to resist any attempt to force it to disarm or any move towards normal ties with Israel.

“Hizbollah has worked hard to create a resistance society. To expect it to switch overnight to an exclusively civic agenda is ludicrous,” he said.

Syria’s ambassador to London said he expected no major change in his country’s ties with Hizbollah, but said Damascus would not favour it politically over other Lebanese factions.

“Syria has every reason to believe Hizbollah is a very serious political player in Lebanon,” Sami Khiyami told Reuters. “It’s one of the least corrupt political factions and it represents Lebanese resistance to Israel. (Additional reporting by Alistair Lyon)