Lebanon Resumes ‘National Dialogue,’ But Hezbollah Refuses to Discuss Its Weapons
The Iranian- and Syrian-backed Shi’ite group, which styles itself “the Resistance,” refuses to disarm, because it says Israel poses a continuing military threat to Lebanon.
Last month U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to convene a long-delayed national dialogue process, which is meant to address the arms issue. He reported to the Security Council that Hezbollah’s continued existence as a military force violated council resolutions 1559 and 1701.
Suleiman agreed to host the talks, and on Tuesday, representatives from the ruling March 14 alliance of U.S.-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the Hezbollah-led opposition were due to begin the dialogue at the presidential palace near Beirut.
Following elections last year, Hezbollah holds 13 seats and leads an opposition bloc that controls 57 seats in the 128-member parliament. Hezbollah and its allies also hold one-third of the 30 cabinet seats in the Hariri-led “national unity” government.
In the run up to the dialogue, Hezbollah officials scoffed at the notion that the group’s arms were up for negotiation. Mohammad Fneish, a Hezbollah minister who holds the administrative reform portfolio, said his organization’s weapons would not be discussed.
“Some have implied that the dialogue session seeks to establish when Hezbollah will be disarmed,” he was quoted as saying during a rally on Sunday. “This issue is not a subject for discussion and will not be debated at the dialogue session.”
Hezbollah’s Web site quoted Hezbollah lawmaker Nawwar el Sahili as saying that anyone believing the organization’s weapons would be discussed was deluded, while his parliamentary colleague, Mohamad Raad, said the best strategy for defending Lebanon had always been one based on a complementary relationship between the Lebanese Army and “the Resistance.”
Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general, spoke Monday of the need to “enhance the capabilities of the mujahideen of the Resistance and the army … to reach a real defense capacity that frightens Israel and obliges it to know its limits.”
In a bid to bring outside pressure to bear on Hezbollah and its allies, some March 14 officials suggested that an Arab League representative participate and help to draft a national defense strategy.
But Nabih Berri, the powerful Shi’ite parliamentary speaker who is an ally of Hezbollah, rejected the idea.
Sami Gemayel, a lawmaker from the Phalangist Party and March 14 coalition member, has been among the most outspoken politicians on the issue, saying that the only institution empowered to formulate a defense strategy was the Lebanese Army.
Gemayel said Lebanon had suffered “disasters” over many years as a result of having an open southern front against Israel, first stocked with Palestinian weapons and now with Hezbollah’s.
Security Council resolution 1559 of 2004 calls for “the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias.” Resolution 1701 of 2006 requires “the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon, so that … there will be no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than that of the Lebanese state.”
The 2006 resolution brought an end to a month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah, which the Shi’ite group claims to have won. During the fighting Hezbollah fired thousands of rockets into Israel and since then – the Israeli government says – the Lebanese group has been rapidly rearming in preparation for a future conflict.
Last November, the Israeli Navy said it intercepted a ship in the Mediterranean carrying Iranian-origin weapons evidently headed for Hezbollah.
Unexplained explosions in southern Lebanon fed speculation about hidden arms caches, and in January U.N. peacekeeping forces discovered a supply of explosives buried near Lebanon’s border with Israel.
Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah frequently makes statements hinting at his group’s growing military prowess and the increasing range of its missiles. Last week he held a high profile three-way meeting with Syrian President Bashir Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, underscoring Hezbollah’s alliance with both regimes.
While Israel is the declared enemy, Hezbollah has not been averse to using its military clout internally, as it did in May 2008 when its gunmen took over parts of Beirut to force a political deal that gave the organization effective veto power.