Lebanon, As U.N. Security Council President, Walks Tightrope Between West and Hezbollah
Shortly before his first official visit to Washington, Prime Minister Saad Hariri is fending off controversy at home over statements supposedly attributed to him voicing support for Hezbollah and its right to possess weaponry, including Scud missiles, in its face-off against Israel.
The quotes were published in Lebanon’s As-Safir newspaper, which cited sources who had recently discussed the matter with the prime minister. Hariri’s office released a statement Tuesday distancing him from the comments, saying they were “incorrect” and “designed to draw Lebanon into dangerous regional tensions.”
The episode highlights the awkward position Hariri holds.
On the one hand he is supported by Western governments, including the U.S., which among other things is arming and training the Lebanese national army.
On the other, he heads a cabinet one-third of whose members belong to a bloc led by Hezbollah, the so-called “resistance” which operates both as a political party and a Shi’ite militia, armed by Syria and Iran. Tehran’s top nuclear negotiator recently described Lebanon as the “representative of resistance” in the Security Council.
Lebanon, one of 10 non-permanent Security Council members, holds the body’s presidency this month for the first time since December 1954.
Although two U.N. Security Council resolutions since 2004 require Hezbollah to disarm, the militia refuses to do so, and a policy statement adopted by Hariri’s new cabinet last December backed the right of the “resistance” to use its arms against Israel.
Beirut’s balancing act was again evident this week when a Lebanese envoy at the U.N. challenged her Israeli counterpart for calling Hezbollah a “terrorist organization” and for implicitly criticizing Lebanon for its relationship with the group.
During a Security Council session on counter-terrorism, Israeli ambassador Gabriela Shalev described Hezbollah and Hamas as “the most dangerous terrorist organizations threatening Israel’s security.”
She said it was “alarming” that some U.N. member states “support, harbor, finance, train, transfer and smuggle terrorists and weapons in our region.”
“Sponsoring terrorism and permitting terrorist groups to act with impunity from one’s territory are not among the prerogatives of sovereignty,” Shalev said. “A state which is unwilling to effectively deal with such activities must be held accountable for its deeds.”
Lebanese deputy ambassador Caroline Ziade was chairing the session but said she was responding to Shalev’s remarks in her capacity as representative for Lebanon. Hezbollah was “one of the representative parties in our parliament,” she declared, and it was unfortunate its name had been brought into the discussion.
Ziade went on to accuse Israel of continuing aggression towards its neighbors, adding “this is why we should differentiate between terrorism and the legitimate right to resist foreign occupation.”
In doing so, Ziade was invoking an argument which for many years has stymied attempts by the U.N. to reach a common definition on terrorism. The Organization of the Islamic Conference’s stance, spelled out in its 1998 convention on combating international terrorism, is that “peoples’ struggle including armed struggle against foreign occupation … shall not be considered a terrorist crime.”
Rearming, despite UN resolutions
The U.S. State Department in its annual country reports on terrorism calls Hezbollah “the most technically-capable terrorist group in the world,” and notes that “prior to September 11, 2001, it was responsible for more American deaths than any other terrorist group.”
The report lists some Hezbollah attacks, including the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, which cost almost 300 lives; and other deadly attacks during the 1980s and 1990s in which hundreds of people, including citizens of Israel, France and Argentina were killed.
In a July 2006 cross-border raid, Hezbollah killed and kidnapped Israeli soldiers, triggering a month-long war during which the Shi’ite group fired thousands of rockets into Israeli territory.
The war ended with a U.N.-brokered ceasefire in the form of Security Council resolution 1701, which among other things 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.”
Since then, however, Israel says – and Hezbollah itself boasts – that it has been rapidly rearming in preparation for a future conflict.
Israel last month accused Syria of transferring Scud missiles to Hezbollah; the State Department confirmed in mid-April that it had on four occasions in recent months raised concerns with the Syrian government about the shipment of arms to Hezbollah. Syria has denied the claims.
Under resolution 1701 and an earlier one, resolution 1559 of 2004, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) are meant to be the only legitimate armed entity in Lebanon, apart from U.N. peacekeepers.
The U.S. regards Beirut as an ally, and has been providing training and weaponry to the LAF. An April 2 shipment of U.S. equipment to the LAF, the first in a series, included “1,000 M16A4 rifles, 10 missile launchers, 1,583 grenade launchers, and 538 sets of day/night binoculars and night-vision devices,” according to the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.
Later in the month, U.S. Marines under U.S. Central Command held training exercises with LAF soldiers.
The idea of U.S. weaponry going the LAF has set off alarm bells in some pro-Israel quarters.
“The LAF is 30 percent Shi’ite and there are close relations between members of the LAF and members of Hezbollah – sometimes family relations,” the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) said in brief.
“The idea that the LAF would dispossess Hezbollah of its weapons on behalf of border security with Israel is no less foolish than the idea that the Palestinian Army would dispossess Palestinians of their weapons on behalf of security for Israel.”
JINSA said that up to now, deliveries of U.S. night-vision systems had been restricted to fellow NATO states and leading allies.
“Hezbollah would find them very handy,” it added.
Statements by administration officials about arms transfers to Hezbollah have focused on the source, while saying little about a Lebanese government role or responsibility.
“We’ve had multiple conversations with Syria this week. I’m not aware of any particular contacts with Lebanon,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told a briefing last month, when asked about discussions with the two governments about the arms shipments.
The different approaches taken by the U.S. and Israeli governments were evident when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak both addressed an American Jewish Committee event in late April.
Clinton accused Hezbollah of stockpiling “tens of thousands of increasingly sophisticated rockets” and said the U.S. government had “spoken out forcefully about the grave dangers of Syria’s transfer of weapons to Hezbollah.” She said nothing about Lebanon’s stance.
Barak, by contrast, said that if another conflict erupted as happened in 2006, Israel would hold Beirut responsible.
“The main responsibility lies with the Lebanese government,” he said. “We make it clear once and again that we see the government of Lebanon, and behind it the government of Syria, responsible for what happens now in Lebanon.
“And the government of Lebanon will be the one to be held accountable if [the situation] deteriorates.”