On anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal, Lebanon celebrates liberation but remains divided on Hezbollah

On anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal, Lebanon celebrates liberation but remains divided on Hezbollah
Lebanon marks the 23rd anniversary of Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon amid divisions over Hezbollah's controversial role in politics and its transformation from a resistance group to a regional power player
3 min read
24 May, 2023
Hezbollah conducted a widely publisiced training exercise meant to simulate attacks against Israel on Saturday.

Lebanon commemorated the 23rd anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon on Wednesday, highlighting the controversial role Iran-backed Hezbollah plays in the country’s politics.

Hezbollah’s fighters played a key role in the resistance of the fifteen-year Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon and has since touted the withdrawal as a hard-earned victory for the group.

Hezbollah held a rally in the southern town of Ghazieh to celebrate “Resistance and Liberation Day,” with MP Rami Abu Hamdan using the occasion to talk about the country’s presidential vacancy.

Abu Hamdan pointed to Hezbollah’s history of sacrifice as proof that the group’s pick for president would prevail, saying the group “sacrificed blood for independence.”

Three days prior, Hezbollah invited the global press to watch as it conducted a training exercise for the anniversary, demonstrating how the group could cross the border and attack northern Israel.

The exercise showed some 200 Hezbollah fighters fire machine guns on motorcycles, conduct drone attacks and simulate a capture of Israeli soldiers.

While trumpeted in Hezbollah-affiliated media, the military manoeuvres provoked ire from other Lebanese political groups.

“If Hezbollah thinks this manoeuvre can increase the chances of its presidential candidate, it is completely wrong,” Samir Geagea, the head of the largest Christian bloc in parliament, The Lebanese Forces, said.

Though originally a resistance militia with broad support among the Lebanese during the decades-long occupation of south Lebanon, Hezbollah today plays a vastly different role in Lebanese politics and the region than it did on the eve of Israel’s withdrawal.

“Hezbollah has changed its modus operandi from a regular resistance group fighting to free occupied south Lebanon to a mighty militia with a regional agenda,” Karim el Mufti, a senior lecturer in Global Affairs at Sciences Po, told The New Arab.

The group has sent its fighters to support its allies in Syria and Yemen, playing key roles to change the course of both country’s ongoing conflicts.

Within Lebanon itself, Hezbollah has morphed from a resistance group existing outside of the Lebanese state to an integral part of the government.

The group now controls much of the country’s parliament and occupies key ministerial posts, earning it accusations of complicity in the corrupt power-sharing system.

However, Hezbollah retains a strong support base within Lebanon's Shia community and corners of the pro-Palestinian constituency in other religious and secular groups. The group had a strong showing with its allies in the 2018 general election, although fell short of controlling a majority in parliament, leaving the country divided almost in the middle. 

Lebanon’s current political deadlock, with a presidential vacuum since November, is due primarily to disagreements between the pro-Hezbollah axis and ‘reformist’ axes over a potential candidate.

Hezbollah’s preferred pick for president, Sleiman Frangieh, has thus far been the most serious contender for the role, despite the objection of countries like the United States.

Lebanese opposition groups have taken aim at Hezbollah for its role in government, seeing it as a party to the ruling class’s endemic corruption and as ruling for the benefit of Iran, rather than Lebanon.

“Hezbollah needs to control that red line within the government so that the state doesn’t outlaw it as a resistance movement. It has succeeded in keeping that aspect standing,” El Mufti added.

Despite its presence in the country’s institutions and halls of power, Hezbollah continues to pay homage in much of its media to its roots as a resistance group against Israeli incursions.

Still, however aggressive its rhetoric against Israel in public, analysts say the group wants to maintain the fragile peace that has become the status quo in recent years.

“Hezbollah is not interested in military conflict with Israel. When Hamas fired rockets against Israel from Lebanon [in April], Hezbollah distanced itself from the missiles,” Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, told TNA.