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Hizballah in Damage Control Mode in Lebanon

While much is made of Hassan Nasrallah’s newfound popularity on the ‘Arab Street,’ particularly in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a different, far less heroic perception among the Lebanese is held by many – including Lebanese Shi’a leaders in the war-torn south – as Israel and Lebanon alike await the arrival of European forces under UN Resolution 1701 mandate.

In a Lebanese television interview, Hassan Nasrallah said that he regretted giving the order to attack the IDF and capture two soldiers on July 12. His contrition is clearly more a reaction to increasingly vocal Lebanese displeasure with Hizballah’s determination to attack Israel than it is a reaction to the Israeli response to his invitation to war. Nasrallah said, “We did not think, even one percent, that the capture would lead to a war at this time and of this magnitude. You ask me, if I had known on July 11… that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not.”

As Israeli officials point to this as an indication that their operations have deterred Hizballah, this may be an over-stated reality. While to a large degree the effects of Israeli deterrence may be true, the perception of deterrence comes from the shedding of the victorious Hizballah tone. This moderation has not come about by IDF actions as much as it has developed before the glare of Lebanese criticism, the most biting coming from the Shi’a themselves.

The Shi’a Mufti of Tyre Sayyed Ali al-Amin criticized Hizballah for bringing war upon Lebanon while calling for the Lebanese government to take responsibility for the entirety of Lebanon’s territory and peoples. He said to that end, “The Lebanese experience has proved the failure of communities and parties defending and protecting themselves alone; thus, there is no substitute for one state to which everyone, without exception, belongs.” But while he condemned both the Israeli attacks that followed Hizballah’s actions and the Lebanese government for ceding the largely Shi’a south to Hizballah, his criticism of Hizballah was both direct and sharp.

“I don’t think Hizballah asked the Shi’ite community about the war. Perhaps the great emigration from the south is the best proof that the people of the south were against the war. The Shi’ite community authorized no one to declare war in its name or to drag it into a war that was far from its wishes and from the wishes of the other ethnic communities in Lebanon. What happened in the south does not represent the will of the Shi’ite community, and is not its responsibility, but was caused by the vacuum that the Lebanese state left for years in this region… What happened is the natural result of a state relinquishing its duty to defend a region and its citizens.”

As European troops are set to arrive in Lebanon to bolster the UNIFIL presence there, Israel hopes that their activities there will be far more effective than the past UNIFIL performance. Criticism of UN troops in South Lebanon reach beyond the historic ineptitude since the UNIFIL inception. Anger is emerging at specific instances where the UN-flagged troops appear to have taken sides during their position-neutral mission, including most recently UNIFIL publicly detailing IDF troop movements in southern Lebanon via Press releases on the United Nations website.

To that end, the IDF uncovered a Hizballah bunker that is described as being “a mere stone’s throw” from an existing UNIFIL post. It is troubling to Israel that the bunker had “shooting positions of poured concrete” complete with phone lines, showers, toilets, air ducts, and emergency exits as well as Katyusha rockets. A 40-meter wide bunker stretching 2 kilometers complete with poured concrete and amenities cannot possibly have been constructed within such close proximity unnoticed by UNIFIL troops, historically mandated with a primary mission of observation and monitoring.

While Nasrallah’s Hizballah is attempting damage control in the eyes of the Lebanese public, many Lebanese are increasingly vocal in their anger at Nasrallah’s arrogant assumption of Lebanese foreign policy decision-making authority. At the same time, criticism from the other side of Lebanon’s tense border makes it clear that the newly mandated UNIFIL expansion must carry with it a fundamental change in operational procedures and practices – including delivering on its requirement to disarm Hizballah – if the ceasefire between Israel and Hizballah is to have any hope of lasting. It is clearly in the interests of both the Israeli public and the Lebanese people.