Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Hizbollah: Putting Its Money Where Its Mouth Is

For the past two years, Lebanon's Hizbollah Party of God has basked in its status as the only Arab military force to have stood up to Israeli military superiority and foiled Israeli military attempts to defeat it on the battle field. This week Hizbollah exploited its status to organize the Arab world's largest protest against the Israeli attacks on Gaza. Hizbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah urged Muslims across the Arab and Islamic world to rise in support of the Palestinians.

Yet, as Israeli air strikes on Gaza continue and Israeli ground troops mass along Israel's border with the Strip, Nasrallah risks looking like other Arab leaders unable and/or unwilling to do more for the Palestinians than employ rhetoric and verbal protests and organize political rallies. Recent studies have concluded that Hizbollah remains a considerable military force capable of pouring rockets and missiles into northern Israel. Al Hayat newspaper reports that Egypt and Turkey have decided to warn Israel that a ground assualt could provoke Hizbullah in attacking Israel from southern Lebanon.

It cannot be very long before Hizbollah will have to explain what makes it different from Arab states fearful that the confrontation in Gaza could escalate into wider regional conflict and therefore unwilling to grant Palestinians more than moral and humanitarian support? Hizbollah's dilemma is likely to be increasingly highlighted as Arab leaders fail to effectively respond to the Gaza crisis. Arab foreign ministers are scheduled to meet tomorrow in emergency session in Cairo, five days after Israel launched its assault on Hamas. Plans for a possible Arab summit in Doha on Friday that would produce only one more statement are politically risky. "Staging an Arab summit could be dangerous and subject to criticism, especially if it does not result in practical measures," news reports quoted Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit as saying. Yet, continuing to be seen as impotent is equally risky. Just how great those risks are perceived is reflected in Jordan King Abdullah's decision to fire in the middle of a regional crisis his head of intelligence, Mohammed al-Thahbi. Al-Thahbi had led in recent months Jordan's rapprochement with Hamas as well as the Jordanian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The potentially explosive mix of anger at Israel and frustration with glaring Arab impotence coupled with criticism of authoritarian governments unwilling to grant greater freedom was evident at yesterday's demonstration in Cairo, the largest since the 2006 Lebanon war. Egyptian President Hosni Mobarak alongside his foreign Minister Aboul Gheit and Arab leaders in general were targets of the crowds anger. "The blood of the martyrs will remain a disgrace on the forehead of (Arab) leaders," read one banner. Protesters shouted: "Aboul Gheit, you are a coward, just shut up." In a rare public appearance, Muslim Brotherhood supreme leader Mohammed Mahdi Akef told the crowd of several thousand: "It's needless to say that the Zionist enemy, which is occupying Palestine, the Arab and Islamic land, wouldn't have been able to conduct these horrific criminal massacres without scandalous international complicity, humiliating silence, shameful impotence and disgraceful Arab collaboration."

Egypt, one of two Arab countries to have signed a peace treaty with Israel, risks being pressured by more radical Arab nations to break off relations with the Jewish state. More level headed leaders are unlikely to want to jeopardize Egypt's role as a mediator between Hamas, Israel and the Palestine Authority. Meanwhile, 81 of the 135 members of Jordan's parliament have urged the government to reconsider its ties with Israel. As pressures on Arab leaders mount, eyes will also be on what Hizbollah does. Al Hayat quoted Turkish sources as saying that Egypt and Turkey would put forward a plan for a ceasefire that would involve opening Gaza crossings, lifting of the siege of Gaza and regional and international guarantees to ensure the ceasefire is honored.

Obviously, neither Lebanon, Hizbollah's home base, nor Syria, together with Iran Hizbollah's main backer, want to be drawn into military confrontation with Israel and Hizbollah may not want to risk being blamed for an all-out regional war. Moreover, Syria, for much of this year, has been engaged in indirect peace talks with Israel mediated by Turkey. Already, Gaza puts those talks in jeopardy. Syria nonetheless is also not spared ridicule. "Whenever Arab governments call for peace, the Assad regime, which has not fired a bullet to liberate its (Israeli-) occupied Golan Heights since 1974, wages its fictional war on Israel through its state-owned media and its proteges in Lebanon, who accuse Arab governments of letting down the Palestinians by not marching to war with Israel.... Perhaps it is the time now for the former strong man of Lebanon, ths Syrian intelligence officer Rustum Ghazaleh, to use the 'Rifle of Resistance' that Mr. Nasrallah bestowed on him in 2005," wrote Hussain Abdul-Hussain, a visiting fellow at London's Chatham House.

Iran like many Arab states is not holding its breath for a substantial change in US policy when President-elect Barak Obama takes office next month, but may hope that Obama will be more inclined to lower tensions and seek a resolution to the region's multiple conflicts. So far Iran's response has been at best symbolic, only outdoing the Arabs in the shrillness of its rhetoric. Iran's semi-official Fars news agency reported that hard line clerics were signing up volunteers to fight in Gaza. But with Israel and Egypt controlling all access to Gaza, those volunteers were unlikely to see action any time soon. Hizbollah leader Nasrallah seemed to suggest in his speech to the Beirut rally that his organization had no immediate intention of becoming embroiled in renewed military confrontation with Israel. Nasrallah went out of his way to deny knowledge of eight rockets aimed at Israel that were discovered in southern Lebanon last week.

Islamist leaders meanwhile walk a tightrope, seeking to exploit the Gaza conflict to their political advantage, while not upsetting a fragile political balance. While Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Cairo called yesterday for continued peaceful demonstrations in support of the Palestinians, but many in the crowd demanded that Arab armies come to the aid of the Palestinians. Hizbollah, with the exception of Palestinian Islamists like Hamas, is the region's only non-state actor with a military capability of its own. Channeling and exploiting public anger while doing little to put its money where its mouth is, could well put a dent in its claim to the mantle of resistance against the Israelis, a mantle that now could well be inherited by Hamas. If anything, Hizbollah's caution proves that Islamists like all political players are mindful of circumstance and operate within the parameters of political realities.

These realities are compounded by facts on the ground. While Nasrallah's and Akef's calls for continued protests are likely to raise temperatures and increase public pressures, little will change on the ground. Ibrahim Eissa, editor of Al Destour, an Egyptian opposition daily told The National there was little hope that millions of Egyptians would heed Nasrallah's call for demonstrations to force Mubarak to fully open the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. "The truth is that the Egyptian people are exhausted and besieged by thousands of security officers who managed to scare the Egyptians. Therefore, no one will respond to Nasrallah's appeal because the nation who can't confront despotism won't be able to combat its enemy or support its brothers," The Nation quoted Eissa as saying.

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