by Tally Helfont
Ten years have passed since Israel and Hezbollah last confronted one another in an all-out war on the battlefield. This war—which to the international community is known as the 2006 Lebanon War; to the Lebanese and their brethren as the July War; and to the Israelis as the Second Lebanon War—has legacies as discrete as it is names. Was it that this war “shattered the myth of the invincibility of the Israeli army”—a narrative that was begun by the Lebanese-Shi‘i terrorist group itself in the aftermath of the conflict and that has been touted ever since, most stridently as circumstance would have it by the Iranians? Or, was it that this war finally enabled Israel to establish a decade-long deterrence against a dangerous adversary operating inside its northern neighbor?
Let’s consider another legacy, one which has the benefit of hindsight without reading into the past too much of today’s regional dynamics. The 2006 Lebanon War was the event which marked the beginning of Hezbollah’s slow erosion of its own legitimacy and therefore its status in the Arab world. By carrying out a deadly attack on Israeli troops and abducting of two its soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, Hezbollah provoked an unnecessary 34-day war with Israel that resulted in the destruction of large swaths of Lebanon and claimed more than 1,000 Lebanese lives. To be sure, Israel was pummeled by hundreds of missiles, and 165 Israeli soldiers and civilians lost their lives, but the asymmetry is quite clear. Hezbollah needlessly gambled with the land and lives of the country in which it operated in order a) to prove that it was the only so-called credible force able to stand up to Israel, and b) to further the agenda of its patron, Iran, in its proxy war with Israel.
Saudi Arabia was the first to chastise Hezbollah’s “adventurism” by issuing a statement that categorized the group’s activities as being well outside of the resistance narrative and called into question its legitimacy to engage in activities of this nature apart from the Lebanese state:
Viewing with deep concern the bloody, painful events currently taking place in Palestine and Lebanon, the Kingdom would like to clearly announce that a difference should be drawn between legitimate resistance and rash adventures carried out by elements inside the state and those behind them without consultation with the legitimate authority in their state and without consultation or coordination with Arab countries, thus creating a gravely dangerous situation exposing all Arab countries and its achievements to destruction with those countries having no say.
The Egyptians, Jordanians, and several other Gulf monarchies soon echoed these sentiments, declaring Hezbollah’s activities as “unexpected, inappropriate and irresponsible acts” at an emergency Arab League summit meeting held in Cairo on July 15, 2006.
What began as a reckless act of braggadocio by a non-state actor within the country quickly became an absolute disaster for Lebanon in its entirety. But this is where the irony lies, and what history provides clarity on: Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, architect of this so-called act of defiance, was at once both arsonist and fireman. It was he who so brashly plunged Lebanon into a bloody war that led to the loss of so much blood and treasure, and yet, it was also he who led the campaign to rebuild homes and infrastructure. On November 18, 2007, the AP reported: “The Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah has launched a massive project to rebuild south Beirut, devastated in last year’s war with Israel—and it’s paying for much of the construction with international donor funds that were meant to strengthen its top rival, the Lebanese government.” What this bit of reporting tells us is that bringing bloodshed to Lebanon’s doorstep was actually the catalyst Nasrallah needed to consolidate his dominion over Lebanon once and for all, for his militia and for his patron.
And what has happened since the 2006 war? What have the last ten years shown us? Hezbollah, which once enjoyed unbelievable popularity across the Arab World, has, as one article in the Arab Times put it, turned “Lebanon into an Iranian vassal state, triggered war with Israel, turned his guns on his compatriots, and dragged his country into the Syrian conflict.” The pretense of defending Jerusalem and freeing the occupied territories, all the while putting Lebanese interests first has been revealed to be a farce. In fact owing to this list of transgressions (and more), the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Arab League, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) all designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization earlier in 2016—a status that the militant group has held in many capitals across the globe for some decades.
So in the end, looking back on the 2006 Lebanon War, what is the takeaway? That Hezbollah does not exist to serve Lebanon or Palestine; it exists to serve Iran and itself.
*Tally Helfont is the Director of the Program on the Middle East at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.