The attack on UN forces in southern Lebanon last week, which cost the life of Irish soldier Seán Rooney, has focused attention once more on Hezbollah, its relationship with the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon and its place in broader Lebanese society. Although the movement has denied involvement in the attack – a senior Hezbollah official characterised it as “an unintentional incident” –, what is clear is that it took place in a part of Lebanon that is firmly under Hezbollah control, and it has been reported that Hezbollah arrested several of its operatives at the scene for questioning.
Hezbollah first emerged in the context of the Lebanese civil war (1975–1989) and, particularly, the Israeli invasion of the country in 1982. Over time, the organisation has transformed into a sociopolitical movement with a powerful military wing. Although it is often seen as a Syrian or Iranian proxy, it has attained a considerable degree of independence from both and is a crucial actor in the Lebanese political system. It could not have done so without its military wing, which has acquired significant capabilities that Hezbollah has been able to bring to bear both domestically and internationally.
While Hezbollah has not employed its military capabilities directly in the domestic political game, the mere existence of its military wing indirectly affects how it behaves and how other Lebanese political actors behave towards it. In particular, Hezbollah governs the areas in which it is present in Lebanon as if they were sovereign entities independent from the Lebanese state. The weakness of the Lebanese army allows for this to happen.
Beyond Lebanon, Hezbollah has demonstrated its ability to play a crucial regional role, pursuing a foreign policy independent from that of the Lebanese government. Its clashes with Israeli troops were one of the reasons for Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. More recently, Hezbollah has played a prominent role in the Syrian civil war, coming to the aid of the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Hezbollah has endured a fraught relationship with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) from the outset. Unifil was created by the UN Security Council in March 1978 to confirm Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, which it had invaded five days earlier, to restore international peace and security, and to ensure the return of the effective authority of the Lebanese state in the area.
The force has around 10,500 peacekeepers from 48 contributing countries. Ireland has been involved in Unifil since its establishment. To date, over 30,000 Irish personnel have served in Lebanon. However, Unifil operates in southern Lebanon, which is also Hezbollah’s main area of deployment against Israel and its military forces are embedded in populated areas. For years UN forces have encountered restrictions on their movements and harassment often originating with actors associated with Hezbollah. The difficulty of establishing the precise nature of such events is compounded by the fact that Hezbollah has avoided the open display of weapons and uniforms in recent years and often operates in civilian guise in Unifil’s area of operation.
Since August 2006, the UN secretary general has submitted more than forty reports to the Security Council that repeatedly outline incidents of restrictions on freedom of movement and acts of violence against UN troops. Some twenty-five per cent of all such incidents in southern Lebanon have taken place in the Bint Jbeil area, which is currently the responsibility of the Irish battalion.
Complicating the situation further, the Unifil mandate was both renewed and slightly amended in August of this year, such that Unifil, which co-ordinates with the Lebanese national army (which, in turn, co-ordinates with Hezbollah) is now authorised “to conduct its operations independently”. The change was condemned by Hassan Nasrallah, secretary general of Hezbollah, as a violation of Lebanese sovereignty and “a trap that the Israelis have set for Lebanon”.
These events have taken place within the broader context of a country that has lurched from crisis to crisis in recent years, not least because of a succession of ineffective and dysfunctional governments, and with devastating consequences for ordinary Lebanese citizens.
Lebanon is one of the few examples of an institutionalised sectarian system of government in the world. This is based on a “national pact” agreed by leaders of the Christian, Sunni Muslim and Shia Muslim communities in the country in 1943 on the eve of independence from France, which has underpinned the political system, with some modification, ever since.
Under the terms of the national pact, the Christian community is guaranteed the office of the presidency, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, while the powerful speaker of parliament is from the Shia Muslim community. However, rather than addressing the manifold challenges that Lebanon faces, elites are driven by the goal of safeguarding their access to power and resources.
The result is dysfunctional and ineffective governance which, in recent years, has manifested in several forms. Examples include the Beirut port explosion in August 2020, which killed at least 200 people, injured more than 6,500, destroyed large parts of the city and was described by the World Bank as the product of decades of corruption and inaction. No meaningful investigation of the explosion has taken place. In the meantime, Lebanon has experienced a devastating economic crisis that has seen its currency lose 95% of its value while GDP has dropped from $55 billion in 2018 to $20.5 billion in 2021.
Parliamentary elections held in May 2022 suggested some prospect of popular challenge to the sectarian status quo, and, in particular, to the dominant position of Hezbollah in Lebanese political life. The movement lost some seats, as did some of its allies, while thirty candidates claiming to represent a “Change Movement” were successful. However, Hezbollah and its allies continue to control all the seats in parliament allocated to Lebanon’s Shia community and the Shia quote of cabinet ministries, meaning it can veto any decision and effectively paralyse parliament or government should it choose to do so.
Some three investigations into the murder of Pte Rooney are under way, one led by the UN, one by the Lebanese government and one by the Irish Defence Forces. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is on record as having confidence in the investigations to find out exactly what happened. However, without a level of co-operation from Hezbollah that has been absent from its dealings with the UN in the past, and given its entrenched position in Lebanese public life in general and in southern Lebanon in particular, it is difficult to be optimistic that such an outcome is attainable.
Vincent Durac is Associate Professor of the School of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin