April 13, 2009

The Regionalization of Hizballah

A few years back, folks were debating when Hizballah would finally become "Lebanonized" and confine their activities to the Lebanese political sphere. Between 2000 and 20005, roughly, scholars hopefully wrote about the "Lebanonization" of Hizballah. In the end, something else happened.

I have been among those who advises everyone to take a deep breath whenever Michael Braun and others -- operating under a very loose definition of who is and is not "Hizballah"* -- start feeding stories about how Hizballah is masterminding the drug trade along our southern border and other such nonsense. Hizballah is not a transnational terror organization like al-Qaeda that operates without being rooted in a local constituency. Hizballah is, for the most part, a violent non-state actor that both participates in the Lebanese political process and carries out a foreign and defense policy separate from that of the state of Lebanon. The vast majority of its military activities are confined to southern Lebanon.

In the past year or so (perhaps since the 2006 war, actually), though, Hizballah's rhetoric has become regional in its focus. Hassan Nasrallah, in speeches, has consistently recognized the "resistance" in not only Palestine but also in Iraq.** Rhetorical support, though, is different from material support. Now, though, not only is Hizballah open about its "train and equip" mission for Palestinian groups in Lebanon, it is also claiming a Hizballah operative caught in Egypt is in fact a Hizballah operative and that he was carrying out logistical missions in support of Palestinian groups.

This is extraordinary. It is also a huge mistake. Egypt, for all its flaws as a state, is not Lebanon. The security apparatus in Egypt is strong, and Egyptians -- no matter how much they dislike Hosni Mubarak -- did not much like it when Hassan Nasrallah called him out on television during the Gaza War. I do not believe Nasrallah wants Egypt to start cracking down on all the Shia Lebanese expatriates who pass through. In the same way, it is not in Hizballah's interest for the international community to come to the conclusion that Hizballah is not content to confine its operations to southern Lebanon. Because what could be dismissed as a sub-regional issue now becomes a regional issue. And that brings in more states and international actors.

So I think Hizballah has overreached here. And I think that they and the constituency upon whom they rely for support are going to pay a price for that overreach.

*The definitions of many domestic agencies about who can be considered "Hizballah" often conform to legal definitions -- which are designed to include those who have given monetary support to the organization by way of donations -- but lack explanatory power because they fail to separate the actual activists from those who just happen to be Lebanese Shia expatriates who support Hizballah's agenda. As many Lebanese Shia expatriates tend to do. Case in point: the government of Germany claims it has 800 Hizballah operatives active in Germany. Do you see the problem here? That's almost as many men as Hizballah is estimated to have put in the field during the 2006 war. So either someone's math is off, or we need to tweak our definition of who is and is not "Hizballah".
**To be fair, support for the Palestinian resistance has been a constant of Hizballah rhetoric and policy and is nothing new.