Have bombings united the Lebanese Shiites behind Hezbollah?

Although many suspect the recent bombings in Lebanon are aimed at breaking Shiite support for Hezbollah, they may be having the opposite effect.

al-monitor Friends and family members of victims killed in a car bomb attack hold a wreath along with their pictures during a funeral in the Shiite town Hermel, Feb. 3, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Rami Bleibel.

Topics covered

syria, shiites, shiite-sunni conflict, sectarianism, lebanon, hezbollah, civil war

Feb 10, 2014

Recent suicide bombings in Beirut's southern suburbs and the town of Hermel, especially the Feb. 1 al-Aytam gas station attack, indicate that the perpetrators' targets are not simply Hezbollah strongholds, or even military targets, but civilians in general. The attacks — retaliation for Hezbollah's participation in the Syrian war alongside the Bashar al-Assad regime — were planned to result in the largest number of victims possible in an attempt to alter an environment currently supportive of Hezbollah. Moreover, the attacks are aimed at creating a rift between the party and its base.

The questions these days include: Will these attacks lead to restlessness among the Shiites in targeted areas that support Hezbollah, causing a rift within the party's current supporters? Alternatively, contrary to what those planning the attacks are seeking, will the bombings further unite Shiites despite the political and religious differences among them?

Sheikh Abdul Amir Qabalan, vice president of the Higher Islamic Shiite Council, described the bombing in Hermel as "a terrorist act carried out by a malicious criminal party that only knows the language of murder, destruction and resentment. They use terrorism as a method and approach for killing people. Today, their crimes are aimed at hitting the largest number of unsuspecting innocent people."

Shiite scholar Sayyed Ali Fadlallah said that the bombing targeting the gas station was another face of the "brutality that emerged in earlier bombings. It confirms, once again, that humanitarian, educational and social institutions, as well as innocent civilians, have become direct targets for this aggression, which does not differentiate between humane and inhumane institutions." The al-Aytam station belongs to a charitable foundation run by Fadlallah, and the proceeds from it go toward helping orphans. Fadlallah is independent of Hezbollah and has had differences and disputes with the group.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese Shiite scholar Sayyed Ali al-Amin, a staunch opponent and harsh critic of Hezbollah, condemned the "terrorist bombings that affect and terrorize innocent people." Amin said that what is needed is for the state to take sole responsibility for security on all Lebanese territory to thwart terrorist schemes aimed at destabilizing the country and sowing discord among citizens. Amin also called on Hezbollah to withdraw from the arenas of conflict in Syria to minimize its losses.

Ghassan Mukahal, a Lebanese journalist and political analyst, spoke with Al-Monitor about the impact of the terrorist attacks on Shiite unity and about divisions among Shiites over Hezbollah. "There is a severe case of polarization in Lebanon. This polarization is very strong among the Shiites, in particular since the Israeli aggression in 2006," said Mukahal. "Polarization has become the dominating feature in Lebanon. Attacks on this or that party only lead to more polarization and [sectarian] mobilization. They lead to citizens lining up behind their sectarian representatives and relying on them, based on a deepening fear of 'the other' and a growing hatred for him," he added.

Mukahal claimed that some citizens have begun to voice their anxieties and fears. They have also accused Hezbollah of failing to protect its public and are demanding that it respond to the attacks. According to him, however, these voices are for the moment weak. He asserted, "In a situation such as that of Lebanon, these kinds of attacks only lead to more sectarianism and extremism. But they could somewhat weaken the supportive environment for the party if [Hezbollah] continues to fail in confronting the bombings and if the attacks cause great losses."

Mukahal added, "In regard to Hezbollah, the matter is complicated. This is because Hezbollah, in addition to becoming a source of pride for [the Shiite] sect and the largest military force that protects them, it is also the number one employer within the Shiite sect. This strengthens the party's position. Moreover, there is an entrenched belief among a fundamental part of the Shiites and the party's sphere that the battle in Syria is crucial, and the party's participation in [Syria] is an existential and fateful issue for the party — i.e., it's a matter of life or death."

Khodr Alama, a manager in a Lebanese ministry and a member of the Amal Movement, told Al-Monitor that despite the atmosphere of fear surrounding the bombings, they have created a sense of solidarity and support within the Shiite, bipolar arena of Hezbollah and the Amal. Alama said that many of those who previously objected to Hezbollah fighting in Syria now support the party's participation in the war.

Alama said that while there might have been some residents in Beirut's southern suburbs and the Bekaa Valley who in the beginning held Hezbollah responsible for the bombings, the importance of preemptive defense, based on a saying of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib, came to prevail: "No nation has been attacked while [its people] were in their houses without being humiliated." Alama explained, "Thus, people began to think, if the extremists — who are in the midst of fighting Hezbollah members in Syria — are able to carry out these terrorist acts in Lebanon now, what will happen if they are victorious [in Syria] and come to Lebanon?"

Mustafa Fahs, a Lebanese media figure and political activist, told Al-Monitor that Hezbollah's public and direct interference in Syria has put all of Lebanon in the Syrian line of fire. He contended, "Hezbollah still believes that it can address the Syrian crisis using a security approach. But, in fact, a large part of addressing security [issues] involves politics. This is what the party refuses to acknowledge."

Fahs believes that regardless of the future of the Syrian crisis, and even if the Assad regime remains in power, Lebanon will face a "Shiite question." He also thinks that when the war in Syria concludes, and regardless of whether the Syrian regime remains, Lebanon will confront a long-term conflict between Sunni Salafists and Shiite fundamentalists. Fahs said that Hezbollah and Iran's defense of the Assad regime has led them into the trap of a grueling and costly sectarian conflict.

Fahs rejects Hezbollah's explanation of participating in the war because it is preemptive, attempting to prevent extremists from coming to Lebanon. "Have we become neoconservatives who engage in preemptive wars?" Fahs asked. "Hezbollah's interference in the war was to save the Syrian regime, not to fight extremists. The party's leadership admitted to this recently. While they succeeded in delaying the fall of the regime, the crisis has moved to inside Lebanon."

Imad Rizk, director of the Advisory Center for Strategic Studies in Beirut and an expert on the Syrian war, told Al-Monitor that it is wrong to approach this issue from the perspective that Shiites alone are affected by these attacks. This is because, according to him, the rationale behind the attacks is to create sectarian rifts. The targets are non-military, notably, the economy and the social structure. "Shiites and their supporting environment are not the only ones being targeted, as the Christians, Sunnis and Druze also embrace the resistance. It's wrong to limit this to Hezbollah and the Shiites. Thus, I think that the issues should be approached based on an understanding of the theory of fear and helplessness to create a new environment," he asserted.

Rizk further explained: "This idea of a 'supportive environment' is false. There are those affiliated with Hezbollah, those who support the party's line, allies and advocates. Moreover, there is a popular trend that either benefits from the resistance or interacts with it emotionally or even ideologically. And, of course, there are some members of the public who are afraid of the party and thus get close to it for protection. Thus, there is a difference between the impact the fear of targeting and bombing has based on different interests and emotional links. We cannot generalize, for the degree of resilience varies between one person and another and one group and another."

Rizk believes the scheme of targeting the “resistance” (Hezbollah) is not being pursued randomly, but is being carefully planned. This is where the danger lies, given that the methods of confrontation employed by the coalition of the “resistance and opposition forces” remains simple and unsophisticated, having not reached the level of strategic confrontation.

“All [attempts to] solve problems occur at a street or neighborhood level, rather than in the context of the entire conflict,” noted Rizk. “We have to endeavor to live up to this challenge. Suicide bombers are not mere individuals. They are being used as pawns for bigger strategic interests. The religious element is merely a motive for them to take action — no more, no less,” he added.

Sahar Ahmed, a Shiite filmmaker living in the southern suburb who is not affiliated with Hezbollah, summarized the Shiite situation. “At the beginning, Hezbollah interfered in Syria. I used to criticize this intervention out of fear of its repercussions on Lebanon. Yet today, in light of these brutal terrorist attacks, I understood Hezbollah’s view and its defensive attempts to prevent extremist groups from entering Lebanon,” she told Al-Monitor.

Journalist Hisham Jbaili, a Maronite Christian from Keserwan, concurs with Ahmed. He told Al-Monitor that he supported Hezbollah’s interference in Syria from the beginning, because he sensed the danger that these extremist groups pose to Christians, Shiites as well as Sunnis in Lebanon. These groups have long threatened that they are coming to Lebanon. Therefore, Hezbollah was left with no other choice but to fight the battle in Syria.

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