By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
Lebanon has seen two civil wars in its history. This nation, consisting of many religious and tribal factions, is a testament to French and British colonialism in the Middle East. The French and British drew Lebanon’s borders without any consideration to tribal identity and societal cohesiveness, resulting in the creation of a nation-state without any real national solidarity.
Last Week’s Tensions Contributing to Lebanon’s Problems
The past week in Lebanon saw tensions flare up again in Beirut. These tensions can easily lead to bloodshed and the collapse of Lebanon. Lebanon is already dealing with an economic crisis that has lasted for years and the resurgence of a civil war that cost the lives of over 200,000 people.
In an Edge article I published several months ago, I wrote: “Many pundits think that there is no political will to improve Lebanon. The political demarcation lines in Lebanon are sectarian and the allegiance to clans and tribes dominates people’s decisions. There does not seem to be anyone willing to look beyond those lines for the greater good of civil society. Can the international community do something? The track record is not impressive.
Just this month, we saw the closing of the international Special Tribunal for Lebanon that was tasked with trying the people involved in the assassination of Rafic al-Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon. The tribunal spent dozens of millions of dollars over the years but only focused on the actual perpetrators without investigating who gave the order for al-Hariri’s assassination.”
The Inquiry into the 2020 Beirut Explosion
A legal proceeding has caused Hezbollah to issue threats that might bring an internal collapse in the country. After the Beirut port explosion in August 2020 that caused the death of over 200 people, the anger of Lebanese residents resulted in an official inquiry.
However, the first judge entrusted to lead the investigation into the Beirut explosion left and was replaced by Judge Tarek Bitar. In a country where all political appointments are made based on ethnicity and religion, Judge Bitar, a Christian, is under public suspicion. After Bitar demanded the appearance of former ministers who are Shia-Muslim, he became a target of attacks and protests.
Seven People Were Killed in a Christian Neighborhood Protest
On October 14, a Shia crowd organized by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, marched through a Christian neighborhood to demonstrate against Judge Bitar. The demonstrators were accompanied by armed men.
Also, there were rooftop snipers nearby. At some point, gunfire was exchanged between the protesters and the snipers.
Ali Haidar, a 23-year-old protestor, said to an Associated Press reporter that nearby residents first started throwing rocks, bottles and furniture. Later, the snipers opened fire on the protesters from two directions, leaving people trapped in the middle of the protests.
Christians blamed Shia militants for starting the clashes. Ultimately, seven Shia protesters were killed, and the Lebanese army was called in to separate the factions. The images broadcasted of fire exchanges from buildings and children being evacuated from schools reminded everyone of the last civil war that made Beirut a battleground.
The Shia leadership was quick to blame the Christians for the violence. On October 15, the day after the clashes, Hashim Safi Al-Din, the head of Hezbollah’s Executive Council, blamed the Lebanese Forces Party, the prominent Christian force in Lebanon, for what he called premeditated murder.
His sermon was aired on Al-Manar TV, controlled by Hezbollah. He accused the United States and unnamed Arab countries of orchestrating the clashes.
The goal, Safi Al-Din said, is to drag Lebanon into another civil war. Safi Al-Din stated: “We will not let the blood of our martyrs [be] spilled in vain.”
The real response came that everyone was waiting for came last Monday in a speech by Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah that aired on U-News. The speech was a direct threat to the Christians of Lebanon: “”The greatest threat to Christian existence in Lebanon is the Lebanese Forces party and its leader [Samir Geagea]. The greatest threat to the security of the Christian community is that political party and its leader.”
Nasrallah did not mince words and made it clear he will use Hezbollah’s military force to decimate his rivals: “Look, the military framework of Hizbullah alone… We do not deny that we have a military framework, weapons, and capabilities.
“Hizballah alone…And I am only talking about the men. I am talking only about the Lebanese who have been Lebanese for over 100 years, not from the past decade…Trained men, who are well-organized, armed, experienced, and with high morale… If they were given a signal, not even an order, to storm the mountains, they will remove them.”
Nasrallah was obviously referring to the fact that he will not fight alone and his Syrian allies will come to his aid if necessary. These threats should be taken seriously.
The Christian Response
There are over a dozen Christian sects in Lebanon, but the biggest is the Maronite Church, an Eastern Catholic church. This Christian community that used to hold all the power positions in Lebanon has lost power gradually over the decades, mostly in light of the demographic changes within Lebanon.
The Lebanese Forces party and its current president, Samir Geagea, are now in a fork in the road. Hezbollah has taken more and more power since the end of the last civil war, and this opportunity might be the last chance for Christians, Druze and Sunni Muslims to stand in their path.
The corruption inherent to the Lebanese political system also includes its Christian leadership; they used to smuggle drugs from ports under their control. But if the investigation into the 2020 Beirut explosion ends with nothing – as did the international investigation into the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri – the amalgamation of the economic crisis and internal corruption might just lead Lebanon into full disintegration.
Yesterday, Judge Bitar ordered two former Shia ministers and current parliament members to appear before him by October 29 or face jail time. The former ministers claim immunity, and the chance of a clash evolving into a civil war are rising as long as this issue remains unresolved.
Could a Coalition of Anti-Hezbollah Forces Avert a Third Civil War?
Hezbollah is a formidable enemy, but the question is: will the Christians be aided by the Druze and Sunni Muslims who do not like the power grab by Hezbollah? Will there be international assistance given to the Christians, the last Christian community that has a chance to thrive in the Middle East? It seems unlikely, but perhaps a coalition of anti-Hezbollah forces will be enough to resolve internal tensions and avert a third civil war.