Hezbollah’s weapons divide Lebanon as it holds parliamentary elections on Sunday

BAALBEK, Lebanon — It was a sea of ​​yellow as thousands of men, women and children waving Hezbollah flags and wearing the group’s signature yellow caps gathered on a giant piece of land in the ancient eastern city of Baalbek in support of the heavily armed terror group. .

One after another, many attendees vowed to vote for Shiite Muslim Hezbollah and its allies on Sunday in Lebanon’s closely watched parliamentary elections, rejecting any attempts to disarm the powerful group.

Despite a devastating economic collapse and multiple other crises plaguing Lebanon, the culmination of decades of corruption and mismanagement, the deeply divisive issue of Hezbollah’s weapons has been at the heart of the vote for a new 128-member parliament. .

Disarming the group has dominated political campaigns among nearly all of the group’s opponents. They include the major Western-backed and independent political groups that have played a role in nationwide protests since the start of the economic crisis in October 2019.

“This is the biggest disinformation campaign. Why? Because they are implementing the US policy against the weapons of the resistance,” Hussein Haj Hassan, a senior Hezbollah official, told The Associated Press on Friday before the Baalbek rally.

Hezbollah was the only group officially allowed to keep its weapons after the 1975-1990 civil war because it was fighting Israeli forces occupying parts of southern Lebanon. In 2000, Israel withdrew from Lebanon, but Hezbollah and others in the small Mediterranean nation insisted their weapons were needed to defend themselves against Israel, which has one of the strongest armies in the region.

A Hezbollah supporter holds a banner in Arabic that reads “At your service, Nasrallah,” as he attends an election campaign in Baalbek, eastern Lebanon, on May 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Hezbollah has since waged a month-long war with Israel in 2006 that ended in a draw, and after the start of the conflict in neighboring Syria, the Iran-backed group sent thousands of fighters to fight alongside Syrian President Bashar’s forces. Assad helping him tip the balance of power in his favor.

Hezbollah’s rivals say its weapons and backing for regional forces like those of Assad and Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have damaged Lebanon’s relations with oil-rich Persian Gulf nations. Those nations have categorized the Lebanese group as a terrorist organization and have withheld crucial financial support for the country.

Haj Hassan, a lawmaker since 1996 and a three-time cabinet minister, said claims that Hezbollah is responsible for Lebanon’s collapse were “a big lie.”

“They forgot about the political system, the economic system, the corruption, the war in Syria and its effects on Lebanon and they forgot about the American sanctions,” he said at his home near Baalbek.

The 62-year-old bespectacled man lost two brothers who fought for Hezbollah during Lebanon’s civil war and a nephew in Syria.

Hezbollah maintains that its weapons are to defend Lebanon and not for internal use. But the group used them against rivals in May 2008 in the then worst fight in years. Hezbollah’s offensive came after the government of then-Hezbollah opponent Fouad Saniora decided to dismantle the terror group’s military telecommunications network.

Hezbollah lawmaker Hussein Haj Hassan speaks during an interview with the Associated Press, at his home in Baalbek, eastern Lebanon, Friday, May 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

“No Lebanese group should have the right to be armed while other Lebanese are not,” Samy Gemayel, leader of the right-wing Kataeb party, said in comments to local station LBC on Friday night.

This year’s vote is the first since the economic collapse, described by the World Bank as one of the worst the world has witnessed in more than 150 years. It is also the first since the August 2020 Beirut port explosion that killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and caused large-scale damage in the capital.

Three former Hezbollah-allied cabinet ministers were charged in the port blast investigation but refused to appear for questioning by the investigating judge. The Hezbollah leader criticized the judge and called for his replacement, and the investigation was suspended for months after legal challenges from politicians.

Parliamentary elections are held once every four years and the last vote in 2018 gave Hezbollah and its allies a majority of seats with 71 lawmakers.

As Lebanon sinks deeper into poverty, many Lebanese have become more outspoken critics of Hezbollah. They blame the group, along with the ruling class, for the devastating multiple crises plaguing the country, including a dramatic drop in the currency and severe shortages of medicine and fuel.

Some expect its main Christian ally, the Free Patriotic Movement founded by Lebanese President Michel Aoun, to lose seats. Others have expressed disappointment in Hezbollah’s unbreakable alliance with Nabih Berri, the longtime Lebanese parliament speaker, considered by many to be the godfather of Lebanese’s corrupt sectarian and elite-dominated political system.

Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri in Beirut, Lebanon, on May 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Still, a Hezbollah victory is not in doubt. The group has a solid base and masterfully manages its alliances and the electoral system. The intimidation ensures that no Shiite threat arises: Three Shiite candidates allied with the Saudi-backed Lebanese Forces group withdrew from the race in the Baalbek region within days.

In a Shiite village in southern Lebanon, residents were attacked last month on their way to attend a rally by candidates running against Hezbollah. Guns were fired into the air to disrupt a meeting of a Shiite cleric who was fighting the Hezbollah-led alliance in Baalbek.

Hezbollah was blamed for intimidating Shiite candidates, a claim Haj Hassan denied.

“They don’t want opposition within the [Shiite] sect. This is clear,” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. Khashan added that Hezbollah and its Shi’ite ally, Berri’s Amal group, are trying to maintain control of the 27 seats allocated to the sect.

Little change is expected from the election as the main political parties and politicians remain strong while opposition candidates are fractured. Still, Western-backed major parties hope to strip Hezbollah of a parliamentary majority, while many independents hope to break traditional party lists and candidates.

Hezbollah supporters wave their group’s flags as they attend an election campaign in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, on May 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

The vote comes after a powerful Sunni leader, former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, suspended his work in politics. Some have warned that this may help Hezbollah’s Sunni allies win more seats.

“I consider the ballot box as a line of defense for us,” nurse Hoda Falah said during the Baalbek rally. Falah said Hezbollah’s weapons have defended eastern Lebanon from attacks by the Islamic State group and al Qaeda-linked militants over the years.

Senior Hezbollah official Nabil Kaouk said in a speech last month that the elections will show that his group enjoys the most support in the small nation. He claimed that the money flowing from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the US to his “tools” in Lebanon will not change the results.

“May 15 will show that the US project to attack the resistance is sterile and will only reap disappointment,” Kaouk said.

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