A Non-Violent Approach to Containing Hezbollah
In the American press, most of the discussion about Hezbollah is hawkish and militaristic, caught up in the details about how best to “wipe them out.” The general consensus amongst most analysts seems to be that Israel, in its campaign against Hezbollah last summer, just didn’t go far enough. If they’d only been willing to commit more troops or drop more bombs, Hezbollah would no longer be such a powerful actor in the region.
But such conclusions ignore the lessons of history. Repeated campaigns to destroy Hezbollah have failed. In fact, the Lebanese group is now widely considered to be more powerful than ever. Perceived by much of Lebanon’s Shiite population (as well as broad sections of its Sunni and Christian groups) as the only effective buffer against foreign aggression, Hezbollah’s reputation has only been strengthened each time efforts are taken to destroy it militarily. Indeed, Hezbollah’s resistance against the Israeli invasion last summer has boosted the group’s popularity to all-time highs and convinced many Lebanese that the organization is critical for their country’s national defense.
With this in mind, I was impressed to read Nicholas Noe’s excellent op-ed in The New York Times. Thoughtful and pragmatic, Noe argues similarly that military efforts to weaken Hezbollah have failed. The alternative? A non-violent approach to weaken the group’s popularity and de-legitimize its right to be the country’s only remaining armed militia.
Since its official founding in 1985, Hezbollah has seen its argument, not to mention its capacity, for violence repeatedly buoyed by what the group calls the â€œopen warsâ€ waged by Israel against it (and invariably against the rest of Lebanon, too) in 1993, 1996 and again in 2006.
In contrast, when the confrontational approach has receded â€” most notably after Israel ended its 22-year occupation of Lebanon in 2000 â€” Hezbollahâ€™s ability and desire to use violence receded as well.
And therein lies an alternative strategy available to Israel and the United States: gradually and peacefully containing Hezbollah violence by undermining public support for resistance operations.
For without widespread public support from Lebanese of all religious persuasions, Muslim and Christian alike â€” especially now that the Syrian enforcers have ostensibly left Lebanon â€” violent operations would not only be extremely difficult, Hezbollah leaders acknowledge, but also domestically hazardous for their Shiite base.
Noe continues, sketching out the details of what a non-violent approach to containing Hezbollah would look like:
…the United States must first address what Hezbollahâ€™s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, has long termed the â€œfour bleeding woundsâ€ that engender public support for his partyâ€™s use of violence against Israel.
These are the handing over of maps of the land mines the Israelis left in South Lebanon during the occupation; the return of all Lebanese prisoners; an end to Israeli overflights of Lebanon (which are arguably unnecessary in any case); and, finally, Israelâ€™s relinquishing of the disputed Shebaa Farms area, which, according to a report last week in the Israeli daily Haaretz, the United Nations may declare as Lebanese by the end of the month.
As Mr. Nasrallah put it shortly after the last successful prisoner exchange with Israel in 2004, â€œThese fools do not learn from their past mistakes: when they withdrew from Lebanon, they continued to occupy the Shebaa Farms and kept our brothers in custody.â€ By doing that, Mr. Nasrallah said of the Israelis, â€œthey opened the door for us.â€
Of course, one could argue that even if these â€œbleeding woundsâ€ were removed, Hezbollah would simply invent other excuses to justify attacks. Thatâ€™s certainly plausible, given that the Party of God views â€œresistanceâ€ as a fundamental principle, but the point is that these new excuses would undoubtedly be viewed as such: as false choices presented by one party bent on accomplishing its own narrow, even non-Lebanese interests.
And that possibility is one that would only further restrict Hezbollahâ€™s actions, just as it finds itself already restricted by its ever-expanding web of political alliances.
By heeding Mr. Nasrallahâ€™s advice and removing the â€œbleeding wounds,â€ the United States and its allies in Europe could then help to unleash exactly the kind of broad-based political, economic and military reform that would further convince Hezbollah and its supporters that the use of violence has become both unnecessary and, ultimately, counterproductive.