In the current context of Israel’s war on Lebanon and renewed pressure from the US to force implementation of UNSC Resolution 1559 (which called, among other things, for the disarming of all militias in Lebanon), it is instructive to review the results of our April 2005 poll of Lebanese public opinion.
We conducted this poll following the passage of 1559 and the Syrian withdrawal. What we found was a polity deeply divided over a number of questions, especially the disarming of Hizbullah, Lebanon’s last remaining militia. We also found consensus on several other issues which, if acted upon, could strengthen Lebanon’s government and democracy.
As to whether Hizbullah should be disarmed, 41% of all Lebanese disagreed, with only 6% agreeing. Another 31% said they would support disarmament, but only if Hizbullah agreed to it. But it is important to note that 79% of all Shi’a, approximately 40 % of Lebanon’s population, opposed disarming Hizbullah.
When asked if the US should pressure Syria to disarm Hizbullah, only 26% of all Lebanese agreed, with 65% disagreeing. Overall, Hizbullah received a favorable rating from three-fourths of all Lebanese, with almost 90% of Shi’a and Sunni expressing support for the group.
When asked to rate their support for, or opposition to, several countries, Syria received the support of 37% over the US’s 30%. On this issue, there was a deep divide, with Maronites favoring the US, and Shi’a and many Sunnis favoring Syria. Israel, on the other hand, was universally opposed by all Lebanese communities.
Unity could be found in three important areas. Eighty-five percent of all Lebanese, including over 80% of all sub-groups, supported a national dialogue on implementing the Taif Accords–a key unfilled provision of which called for a new non- confessional arrangement for Lebanese politics. And when asked specifically about whether or not to change Lebanon’s system, which currently maintains Maronite and Sunni hegemony at the expense of the more numerous Shi’a community, and whether to implement a one-man, one-vote system to elect Lebanon’s President, two-thirds of all Lebanese agreed.
Given these findings, two realities must be considered:
- After 22 years of Israeli occupation of the south of Lebanon, there is wide-spread resentment for Israel, and, by extension, the US, which is seen as having supported Israel’s behavior in Lebanon. During this time, Hizbullah’s resistance to the occupation earned the group strong support as a resistance movement;
- Compounding this is the continuing sense shared by many in the Shi’a community that they remain a disenfranchised group in Lebanon. With the country’s most powerful positions still going to representatives of other religious communities, as per an arrangement created over 70 years ago, Hizbullah’s military independence and military strength has provided the Shi’a with leverage and self-expression within the Lebanese system. It is correct to note that there is an external Iranian and Syrian dimension here, but to emphasize this and to ignore internal Lebanese dynamic would be a serious mistake.
What Must Be Done
It is clear that the current situation is untenable. Hizbullah’s recent reckless actions gave Israel the pretext for a massive and disproportionate assault on Lebanon, killing hundreds of innocent Lebanese and exacting an enormous toll on the country’s economy and infrastructure. As Hizbullah acted without the concurrence of the central government, they were rebuked by the Prime Minister and the majority of his cabinet–”before the extent of Israel’s onslaught became clear.
To be fully free and sovereign, the Lebanese government must be in control of its entire territory. But neither Israel’s brutal response nor US pressure will help strengthen the Lebanese government; nor will they crush support for Hizbullah among a large segment of Lebanon nor force the movement to disarm. If anything, Israel has caused deeper resentment in Lebanon and, in turn, strengthened support for Hizbullah.
The bottom line is that while it is important to strengthen the government in Lebanon and enforce UNSC 1559, this is a political issue that must be internally resolved.
First, there must be a ceasefire, with Israel withdrawing from the south of Lebanon. Tied to this are the range of issues like: the temporary presence of an international force to maintain the ceasefire, the exchange of prisoners, closure of the Shebaa Farms file, an end to arm shipments into Lebanon, and the commitment of the international community to provide urgent humanitarian and reconstruction aid to help the Lebanese rebuild their infrastructure.
But to resolve more fundamental issues, the focus must be on helping Lebanon rebuild its political system, and the commitment of all parties in Lebanon to implement the final section of the Taif Accords, including a restructuring of the Lebanese political system and the disarming of Hizbullah. These goals must go hand in hand. The central government of Lebanon must be strengthened and have exclusive control over its territory and forces, which is only possible if it governs with the consent of all segments of the society. In other words, Hizbullah must disarm and function as a political party, with its forces placed under the control of the Lebanese military’s general command. At the same time, the Lebanese system must make space for the Shi’a community at all levels.
To ask the Lebanese government to take control of the south or to forcibly disarm Hizbullah without changing the Lebanese political order is to risk reigniting civil war. At the same time, Hizbullah’s insistence on maintaining its independent military would only continue to delay reform in Lebanon, prolonging the Shi’a community’s marginalization.
While there are obvious differences, this approach bears some resemblance to the Irish peace process, where political reform and disarmament were linked. To win, everyone must pay a price.
Throughout the past two weeks, both sides of the conflict have referred to an old proverb, “Things must get worse, before they can get better,” ignoring that, most often, “things only get worse.” More relevant is the old Lebanese adage, “no victor, no vanquished.” The only way to end a conflict is to end it and then begin the hard work of solving problems so that “things” do get better.
While Hizbullah’s provocation and the horrific toll exacted by Israel’s assault have only complicated matters, Lebanon remains a remarkable and resilient country in need of internal renewal. The wounds of this war will take a long time to heal. Lebanon needs today what it needed in 1990, at the end of its civil war: a representative political system, that opens new opportunities for the disenfranchised Shi’a community of the south, and that retains the special character of Lebanon, i.e., the protection and freedom of all confessional groups.
A solution must be found by the Lebanese themselves, without the threat of internal or external force.