“On this day, ten years ago, the residents of the Qonaytra and Ghandouriyeh were gathering for the funeral of a woman from occupied Qonaytra. On this day, the first decisive step was taken on the path of liberating the south. Those people took the initiative to storm into the crossing and remove all roadblocks to return to their occupied town. When this … took place, every other fence tumbled down on 22, 23 and 24 May 2000. By the 25th of May, the battle had [been] settled.”
– Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, 21 May 2010
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s first official visit to the United States coincided with the day his country celebrated—also for the first official time—“Resistance and Liberation Day.” Lebanon marked the 10-year anniversary of Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from the country on May 25, ending a brutal 22-year occupation.
Was it a “strategic withdrawal” as Israel’s apologists often contend, or a “retreat” as Hezbollah supporters prefer to maintain?
Colonel Noam Ben-Tzvi (ret.), the last commander of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) western sector in south Lebanon, characterized their exit quite differently:
“It wasn’t a withdrawal and it wasn’t a retreat. We ran away, pure and simple.” (Haaretz, May 21).
Each year following the end of the two-decade occupation is cause for celebration among those who endured it. Its decennial anniversary however, did not go unnoticed in Israel.
Rather than contemplate the important lessons learned from the long conflict, such as how ordinary citizens’ indomitable will to resist can overcome even the most powerful of military force (and apply this to the futility of continued occupation of Palestinian territories), the IDF and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, bereft of the ability to reflect, returned to muscle-flexing.
On Sunday, Israel began five days of massive, “routine” national military and civilian drills, dubbed “Turning Point 4.” This had the immediate effect of increasing already high tensions along its northern border. In response, Hezbollah mobilized thousands of its fighters and put them on high alert.
In the wake of the intimidating sounds of gunfire and explosions just miles away, turnout remained high as southern Lebanon held municipal elections in the third of four nationwide rounds this week. As if to underscore their solidarity, reports surfaced that many contenders had voluntarily withdrawn their candidacy in order to allow Hezbollah and Amal-supported nominees to run uncontested.
Members of Hezbollah’s opposition “Loyalty to the Resistance” parliamentary bloc form part of Hariri’s cabinet as do their Christian allies in Michel Aoun’s “Change and Reform” bloc. Together, they have the ability to veto cabinet decisions, though this has been unnecessary to date. Indeed, since assuming the premiership, Hariri has begun to appreciate that he represents more than just the Sunni Muslim and Christian constituencies which form his popular base in Lebanon. He now seems to acknowledge that Israel’s belligerence toward (Shia) Hezbollah can no longer be addressed in mere sectarian political terms but must be viewed as a threat to the nation as a whole.
During a tour of Arab states and Turkey to bolster support for Lebanon before heading to Washington, Hariri blasted the Israeli action:
“To launch military exercises at such a time runs counter to peace efforts. How can you launch peace negotiations with the Palestinians while holding military maneuvers?”
While the top priority on Obama’s agenda in meeting with Hariri was the alleged (but unsubstantiated) claims that Syria had transferred Scud missiles to Lebanon, high on Hariri’s agenda was persuading Obama that it is in the U.S. and the region’s interest to restrain Israel’s trigger finger.
Recognizing that Israel is itching for revenge after its July 2006 assault failed to eliminate the strength or popularity of Hezbollah and that an attack will involve a manufactured pretext (like the Scud missile allegations), Hariri knows Lebanon’s economically vital summer tourist season could be when they elect to strike again. The alternating cycle of tears and celebration to which Lebanon has grown accustom may not be over yet.
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent Middle East commentator.