In the past two months, the European Union designated Hezbollah’s “military wing” as a terrorist entity, and the Gulf Arab states announced their intention to target Hezbollah associates and financiers on their soil. So, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah’s public address last Friday, which was delivered in person and was heavy in its Shiite overtones, came at a time of great stress, and was aimed at further binding together the party and the Shiite community. Nasrallah’s bid to show full identification between the group and its base, however, is about more than just boosting morale.
Hezbollah has been leaking to the media how it views the EU’s decision and the Gulf Arab states’ measures as an attempt to target the party by squeezing its Shiite base – the “foster environment,” in Hezbollah parlance. According to the group’s talking points, rehashed by Al-Akhbar, the Gulf Arab states’ punitive steps against Hezbollah financiers and supporters are part of a campaign “against [the group’s] environment working in the Gulf” aimed “to place [Hezbollah’s] popular base in the vise of economic punishment.” The party’s leadership, as noted by a journalist close to Hezbollah circles, “implicitly fears that the wider objective of the European decision is to dry up the broad popular ‘foster’ [environment] in whose pathways the party has been swimming for a long time.”
A dominant view in academic literature on Hezbollah has been that the group could not be labeled terrorist on account that it represented such a large social constituency. Far from being a vanguard or an outlier group with roots grounded in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hezbollah is deeply embedded in the Lebanese Shiite community. Some argued that assigning this label to a party that had a genuine and large base, which supported the group’s activities, would implicate the party’s members of parliament, who represent Lebanon’s Shiites. Consequently, this would unfairly tarnish the Shiite community itself as supporters of a terrorist group.
This view has failed to grasp that blurring all distinction between party and community was precisely what Hezbollah figured is the best way to shelter itself. The party has long been clear that integrating the Shiites – and also Lebanon more broadly – into the so-called “resistance” project, is at the heart of Hezbollah’s strategy. The party’s deputy secretary general, Naim Qassem, articulated Hezbollah’s vision seeing “the society of resistance” – the very same “environment” mentioned earlier – shielding the group: “we always called for a society of resistance, and never settled for a band of resistance… whoever is going after [us as] a band of resistance will tire mightily for they would face the society of resistance.”
The implication is clear: because Hezbollah embeds itself in the Shiite community (and Lebanon more broadly), this will force its adversaries to stop short, out of concern for the citizenry and the country as a whole. For example, in 2006, when Hezbollah dragged the country into a devastating war, even the US, which had long designated the group as terrorist, worked with the Lebanese government at the United Nations to stop military operations out of concern for the Lebanese state and its citizens. Put differently, the Shiites and the other Lebanese have been, in effect, human shields – regardless of whether they perform this function willfully or not.
However, as Hezbollah explicitly developed this into a doctrine – i.e., in the famous “the Army, the people, and the resistance” synergetic formula – it deliberately implicated the people and the state. In the context of any confrontation with Israel, the consequence of this doctrine, from a military standpoint, is to make legitimate targets of any civilian or governmental infrastructure that the organization uses. Indeed, this has been the Israeli response to Hezbollah’s decision to turn Lebanese villages into military compounds. If you want to turn the entire society into an auxiliary of Hezbollah, then so be it. The “Army, people, resistance” formula, by definition, gets you the “Dahiyeh doctrine.”
But as the decision of the Gulf countries shows, the consequences extend beyond the military context with Israel. When prominent Saudi commentators start writing that the Lebanese state had become “part of the problem” and that Lebanon “should pay the bill” for Hezbollah’s actions, you know you’re in trouble. Perhaps finally sensing the danger inherent in the Lebanese government officially codifying a doctrine that binds the state and the citizenry to Hezbollah’s actions, Lebanese president Michel Suleiman rejected including the group’s “Army, people, resistance” formula in a future cabinet’s policy statement. “The Resistance unilaterally decided to get involved in Syria without consulting the army and the people,” Suleiman said.
However, Hezbollah’s reaction to the EU decision has been to implicate the Shiite community even further. For instance, as the organization issued threats against UNIFIL’s European contingent, unnamed sources from Hezbollah’s senior leadership rhetorically asked, “how will the resistance’s foster environment…deal with UNIFIL?” Hezbollah’s message is that its popular base could be one instrument of retaliation against Europe. And this might well extend beyond UNIFIL. As Al-Akhbar editor Ibrahim al-Amin, a regular conduit for Hezbollah threats, openly warned, “any European presence in our countries and region” is unwelcome, and Europe “should behave, henceforth, as though it is moving in hostile terrain.”
Some Hezbollah experts have cautioned that targeting Hezbollah as a terrorist group “would easily escalate into a war against an entire society in which the organization has immersed itself.” But these experts have glossed over the obvious: by deliberately implicating Lebanese society in its terrorism, Hezbollah has moved beyond using the Lebanese as shields. It is turning them into accomplices.
Naim Qassem crowed the other day that “Lebanon needs the resistance in order to protect its future generations.” In reality, a Lebanon entangled with Hezbollah cannot possibly have a future.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.