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Coronavirus might be a blessing to Lebanese Hezbollah

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Coronavirus might be a blessing to Lebanese Hezbollah

Benjamin Weil

Over the past few years Hezbollah, a designated terrorist organization by the US, UK, Israel, EU (only its military arm), and others, has been increasing its power in Lebanon and slowly replacing the government’s relevance by hijacking institutions and providing civil services in place of the Lebanese government.

Hezbollah operates a host of social programs: providing financial assistance, training to Lebanese farmers, free medical treatment for Hezbollah members, and operating hospitals and clinics, to mention a few. Most of Hezbollah’s programs benefit the Shi’ite population in southern Lebanon. In the midst of this coronavirus, Lebanon defaulted its $1.2 billion loan this past March, setting up the stage for Hezbollah to take over the government’s role in providing civil services. Armed with Iranian money (which has dwindled since the US sanctions on Iran), the terrorist organization has a chance to increase its influence beyond the Shi’ite community in the south. With the country facing bankruptcy, the people’s trust in the Lebanese government will decrease while the trust in Hezbollah will grow ever stronger. As it is, in the recent 2018 general election, Hezbollah received 16.5% of the popular vote – more than any other political party. By stepping up in place of the government, Hezbollah’s influence has potential to grow further. This is something to look out for in future elections. It could shift the internal politics in Lebanon and pose a threat to the future stability in the region.

In an effort to increase their political influence in Beirut, after the elections, Hezbollah given the health ministry and appointed Hamad Hassan as minister. The current pandemic threw the new minister into the deep end and serves as a test. Should Minister Hassan successfully handle the health crisis, Hezbollah will be perceived as a legitimate political player. Hezbollah has a good starting point: a number of their fighters have recently returned from Iran where they helped fight the virus – giving them a chance to learn from the mistakes of their protégé. The party has already mobilized tens of thousands of medical staff and is pouring money into renting a disused hospital and prepared dozens of medical centers. It therefore seems that the organization will be successful in managing the coronavirus, thus further increasing their influence.

The biggest concern is that Hezbollah, riding of the wave of high approval rates in the Lebanese society, coupled with their increasing control in the government and parliament, will feel a boost of unnecessary confidence to take greater risks and destabilize the region further. Since Hezbollah fighters are active in Syria and Iraq as well, this risk has an affect not only on U.S. operations in the region but on of their regional allies as well. Hezbollah’s confidence, for instance, may motivate the terrorist organization to continue developing their Precision Guided Munition (PGM) program with Iran. This lethal program is designed to upgrade Hezbollah’s 150,000 “dummy missiles” by inserting a GPS component and wings into each missile so that they can close in on a predesignated target and have the ability to correct their trajectory in mid-air. This is considered one of Israel’s greatest threats since the Iron Dome is designed to intercept dummy missiles. Moreover, if Hezbollah launched hundreds of missiles simultaneously, that would overwhelm the Iron Dome system.

There are a number of ways to mitigate this risk. The first action that must be taken is making sure no bailout for Lebanon without guarantees from the Lebanese government that would result in the untangling of strings between them and Hezbollah. It is imperative that a portion of the bailout money is dedicated to fund healthcare and welfare services in order to rollback Hezbollah’s medical and civil programs. Enforcing counter-terrorism laws and laws regarding the funding of terrorist organizations are also crucial. At the same time, we must back the opposing parties to the Amal-Hezbollah bloc in the parliament. If we let Hezbollah gain more power and influence in Lebanon it would lead to greater conflicts across the Middle East. Alternatively, if we wait to bailout the country at a point where Hezbollah is already too strong, Hezbollah might get the credit for the financial recovery – this will only fuel the organization’s credibility in the minds of the people. Much like the coronavirus, we must act now and act hard before we lose control of the situation.

Benjamin Weil is Director of the Project for Israel’s National Security at the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET). He formerly served as the international adviser to Minister Yuval Steinitz, a member of Israel’s Security Cabinet.

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