The Threat of Renewed Sectarian Violence in Lebanon

Two people were killed on August 9 in the village of Kahaleh in central Lebanon, in one of the deadliest shootouts since the bloody 2021 clashes in the Tayouneh neighborhood of Beirut between Lebanese Forces (LF) militia members on one side and Hezbollah and allied Amal Movement supporters on the other. This recent bout of violence erupted along what used to be the Lebanese Civil War demarcation line, when a truck full of ammunition headed from Damascus to Beirut overturned in front of the Christian Kataeb Party office in Kahaleh. A gun battle between Hezbollah militiamen and residents ensued, with deaths on both sides. The Lebanese Army ultimately took control of the situation, cordoned off the area, and impounded the cargo. But with polarization in the country at an extreme high amid a long presidential vacuum that is preventing the reconstitution of the state and its institutions, the Kahaleh incident appears to be another potential trigger for dangerous sectarian conflict, the progression of which may plunge the country back into the dark days it once saw during its long and bloody civil war.

Reactions to Kahaleh

Accusations about the incident hastily flew, and reactions were virulent. Hezbollah was blamed for opening fire on the people of Kahaleh in an attempt to disperse them, and for causing the death of local resident Fadi Bejjani, a Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) supporter and former bodyguard of late militia leader Elie Hobeika. Ahmad Ali Kassas, a Hezbollah fighter, was also killed. A group of opposition MPs (independent, Kataeb, and Lebanese Forces representatives) immediately issued a statement denouncing the incident as a “horrific, militia-style attack” and a “dangerous political and security crossroads, which has clearly shown that the coexistence of the state with the Hezbollah mini-state has become impossible.” They also called for a new phase of political confrontation. The most vociferous statement was made by Kataeb leader Samy Gemayel, who declared, “We cannot coexist with an armed militia. This is a national position to which most Lebanese adhere.”

Even FPM leader Gebran Bassil, a Christian ally of Hezbollah, condemned the incident and boldly attributed it to “shortcomings from Hezbollah or the security forces,” adding that “Shiite unity is not enough for [Hezbollah and its allies] and the country to be in a good situation.” His statement came amid FPM attempts to strike a deal with Hezbollah on Lebanon’s vacant presidency and regain its standing within the Christian community. Meanwhile, residents of Beirut’s southern districts praised Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah for supposedly preventing a civil war following the clashes. The government, on the other hand, was quick to underscore the army’s role in securing the cargo and ensuring civil peace and the safety of citizens.

The Kahaleh incident and the ensuing angst served to reignite Shia-Christian tensions in the country.

This flare-up and the ensuing angst served to reignite Shia-Christian tensions in the country, which had been simmering in the wake of the alleged kidnapping and murder less than two weeks earlier of senior LF member Elias Hasrouni in Ain Ebel in southern Lebanon, an area controlled by Hezbollah. Hasrouni, who was initially reported to have died in a car accident, was later deemed the victim of an elaborate ambush during which he was strangled and suffered rib fractures and lung penetration, which led to his death. The incident was reminiscent of the hit-squad-like assassination in February 2021 of activist Lokman Slim in the south. Slim, who was Shia, was a vocal critic of Hezbollah and enjoyed popularity and respect among his community and across Lebanon.

At almost the same time as the Kahaleh incident, violent exchanges between gunmen in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp prompted embassies to issue travel advisories to their citizens in Lebanon, warning of impending violence. A series of recent incidents on the Lebanese-Israeli border, including rockets fired at Israel, have caused tensions to escalate even more in Lebanon, raising the specter of another Lebanese-Israeli conflict and further feeding internal strains.

Hezbollah’s increasingly aggressive stance has also coincided with renewed debate about the legitimacy of its weapons, which may be eroding its political capital and causing a shift in public opinion. The rekindled Hezbollah-Israel hostilities have unmistakably heralded the advent of a new crisis, especially as Lebanon sinks deeper into political and economic catastrophe and continues to face soaring inflation, high levels of unemployment, and rising levels of poverty and food insecurity.

The Debate on Hezbollah’s Weapons

The backlash against Hezbollah instigated by the Kahaleh skirmish brought to the fore the long-controversial issue of the party’s arsenal of weapons, causing demands for its disarmament to surge within the Christian community. Samy Gemayel praised the slain Hasrouni as a “resistance fighter,” saying that his killers are known (meaning Hezbollah partisans), decrying the “kidnapped” nation, and describing Lebanese citizens as “hostages” “in a state of resilience and resistance.” The Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi similarly asserted that, “It is impossible to live on one land with two states, two armies, two authorities and two sovereignties.”

For Hezbollah giving up its weapons goes against the Taif Accords that ostensibly ended the Lebanese Civil War in 1989.

For Hezbollah, the political-party-cum-militia, giving up its weapons goes against the Taif Accords that ostensibly ended the Lebanese Civil War in 1989, and that, in Hezbollah’s view, fundamentally validate its role as a resistance force. But others view the group’s arms and alignment with Iran differently, as an infringement on the country’s sovereignty and as a barrier to systematic reform mandated by the Taif Accords, which was to start with the gradual elimination of political sectarianism. This tracks with an interpretation of the accords that prioritizes the state’s monopoly on the use of force and necessitates the dissolution of all militias. Accordingly, the agreement should have put an end to Lebanon’s militia politics and facilitated armed militias’ demobilization and access to the state through a controversial Amnesty Law that, by the same token, pardoned all prior political crimes committed.

This reading, however, is at odds with the Hezbollah project, whereby it presents itself as the defender of Lebanese interests and refuses to be portrayed as a militia, even though it ultimately finds the justification for its existence in a perpetually battle-ready stance against Israel and the West. Hezbollah has indeed brandished the formula of “army, people, resistance” to explain all its actions, whether the “necessity” of warding off jihadist threats in Lebanon or Syria, or “the Israeli menace.” And it considers that it is justified in hanging onto its weapons, as part of the Taif Accords imperative of “taking all the steps necessary to liberate all Lebanese territories from the Israeli occupation, to spread state sovereignty over all the territories, and to deploy the Lebanese army in the border area adjacent to Israel.”

The Specter of Civil War

Hezbollah was able to gain legitimacy and operate freely by playing a role in the defense of the state while also projecting itself as the architect and protector of civil peace. But despite its military might, it did not enjoy broad domestic legitimacy among non-Shia Lebanese, and therefore relied on an insider/outsider status, operating within the state—as the most influential political party—and outside of it—as a social welfare provider and a coercive military actor. Indeed, the formula of “army, people, resistance” that has been part of each government’s manifesto since 2008, and which legitimized Hezbollah and its “resistance” project, effectively enabled it to integrate into the state and to simultaneously deploy national resources for its own ends. Hezbollah and its allies control important ministries, a large segment of the public administration and civil service, and border entry points such as Beirut International Airport and Beirut Port, which it operates in ways that serve its aims as a para-state.

Until recently, Hezbollah’s domestic popularity (albeit limited to its loyalists) was very much dependent on a narrative of championing the downtrodden and marginalized. And despite its closeness and ideological affinity with Iran, the group was acutely conscious of the need to project itself as a Lebanese actor. The Mar Mikhael agreement of 2006, which cemented a 16-year-long alliance with Christian Maronite FPM—when it was headed by former Lebanese President Michel Aoun—was one such move to gain local legitimacy by securing a popular base beyond the Shia. However, cracks in the alliance began to appear in 2022 over disagreements with FPM’s Gebran Bassil about the presidency. This all seemed to change in the wake of Kahaleh, when Hezbollah’s Nasrallah first accused the media and then local Christian parties of instigating violence and allowing tensions to escalate. His address was directed specifically at a partisan audience—his own Shia community and Hezbollah’s supporters—providing commentary on events without any justification for his party’s transport of arms through a civilian area in broad daylight. This may be signaling a shift in the group’s posture in the direction of a more overt embrace of the use of force and a reliance on sectarian rhetoric at a time when its broad popular credibility among the Lebanese is waning.

Hezbollah was exposed as the protector of a political class that is deeply corrupt and complicit in the country’s extraordinary economic collapse.

What is certain is that Kahaleh and Ain Ebel likely serve as painful reminders to the Lebanese public of Hezbollah’s role in the country over the last two decades: from the slew of gruesome assassinations it is believed to have engineered, to the eruption of internecine Sunni-Shia violence in May 2008, to its military intervention in Syria in 2012 to support Assad regime forces, and its suspected involvement in the transport of ammonium nitrate that caused the August 4, 2020, Beirut Port explosion. Hezbollah, which furthermore demonized the mass October 2019 anti-establishment protests and physically attacked them using aggressive sectarian mobilization, was exposed as the protector of a political class that is deeply corrupt and complicit in the country’s extraordinary economic collapse. This is eroding the group’s image across communities and religious confessions. Despite being militarily powerful, Hezbollah today finds itself in the paradoxical position of not even being able to impose itself politically in its attempts to force its presidential candidate, Suleiman Frangieh, on the nation. And by adopting a more aggressive stance, it is exposing the country to civil strife.

What Next?

Whereas much of the international community has noticeably distanced itself from Lebanon, France has sought to play an active role in helping end the current presidential stalemate. Most recently, French President Emmanuel Macron’s Special Envoy for Lebanon Jean-Yves Le Drian announced plans for bilateral consultations, a last-ditch effort to find concord among the various Lebanese parties who refuse to engage in a broad dialogue to find a consensus presidential candidate. While such well-intentioned interventions could, in the short-term, diffuse tensions, these efforts are unlikely to be more than performative in the context of Hezbollah’s armed presence and the state’s uncertain viability. The enduring divisions of the so-called reformist opposition camp within a hung parliament, where no side is able to claim a clear majority, are further compounding the crisis.

Ultimately, Kahaleh represents one more challenge to the untenable formula of “army, people, resistance” onto which every recent cabinet has signed, and which by allowing Hezbollah to keep its weapons has given it carte blanche to use force as it sees fit. But, despite mounting anger and the conviction that the party’s weapons dilemma needs a solution, any disarmament is unlikely to occur within the prevailing balance of power. And with the polarization of Lebanon’s politics, limited local enthusiasm for compromise, the disinterest of foreign patrons, and continued economic deterioration and institutional decay, a wider sectarian conflict could be inevitable. Even though Lebanese politicians who for the past three years have been immune to calls for change all have vested interests in the status quo, the looming threat of civil war that is currently gaining traction should motivate them to take action. Like it or not, the groundwork for political and sectarian strife is being laid. Hezbollah is acting as the country’s supreme power and the state is too weak to prevent any escalation within a profoundly sectarian theater. This situation does not bode well for the future stability of the country or the security of its people.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

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