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March 21, 2016
The Arab League has declared Hezbollah a terrorist group, following a similar move by the Gulf Cooperation Council last week. The decision means that the Arab League countries — predominately Sunni — now have a tougher stance toward the Shia militia-cum-party Hezbollah than many European countries. This is certain to become a subject of contention between the two leading regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, because Hezbollah is actively engaged in propping up Syria’s embattled dictator, Bashar al-Assad. The state-run press in Tehran accuses the Saudis of making Israel’s work in the region that much easier, and many in Lebanon have condemned the move. But there is little doubt that Hezbollah’s impact in Lebanon has been negative, creating constant instability and uncertainty.
According to Yedioth Ahronoth’s Roi Kais, the Arab League declaration could not be unanimously agreed, with two of its members expressed their opposition: “Arab League foreign ministers on Friday declared Lebanon's Shi'ite movement Hezbollah a terrorist group, after Sunni-dominated Gulf monarchies adopted the same stance. Nearly all members of the pan-Arab body supported the decision, but not Lebanon and Iraq, which expressed ‘reservations’, the bloc said in a statement read out at a news conference by Bahraini diplomat Wahid Mubarak Sayar....Lebanon's Foreign Ministry Gibran Bassil, speaking to reporters after the meeting in Cairo, said labeling Hezbollah as a terrorist organization goes against the Arab treaty for combating terrorism, which distinguishes between terrorism and resistance. He said Lebanon asked that the word ‘terrorist’ be struck from the records of the meeting as if did not happen.”
The impact has been swift, with some countries immediately implementing the provisions of the declaration by, as the Lebanese daily Al Manar notes, expelling some Lebanese citizens residing in Bahrain: “Bahrain's interior minister announced Monday the deportation of a number of Lebanese it accused of belonging to, or supporting Hezbollah. "’Several Lebanese residents were expelled after proven to have links to, or supporting the terrorist Hezbollah,’ Bahrain's interior ministry said in a tweet. The number of Lebanese nationals who were expelled remains unclear. There are reportedly 750 Lebanese living in Bahrain....The Lebanese embassy in Bahrain had reportedly advised the Lebanese to cooperate with the authorities, as ‘they can do nothing to help.’ Al-Akhbar reported that a new batch of Lebanese residing in Manama will arrive on Wednesday.”
Such moves have been condemned by some segments of Lebanese society, who accuse the Bahrainis of kowtowing to Saudi Arabia: “The Bahraini opposing politician said that the Bahraini regime's step of deporting some Lebanese nationals for supporting Hezbollah reflects its complete obedience to Saudi which is involved in terrorist crimes. The insolent step violates all the Islamic values and the international laws, Manami told Al-Manar website. Manami stressed that the Bahraini will keep supporting Hezbollah and his honorable confrontations in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, hailing the Resistance's victories against the Zionist entity.”
Iranians allege that collusion between Israel and Saudi Arabia is behind the Arab League move. In a recent interview for the Iranian daily Press TV, the Lebanese academic Jamal Wakim suggested that the declaration presented “a good opportunity for Israel to have Hezbollah labeled as a terrorist group by Arab states and it could be used as a cover for future Israeli aggression against Lebanon under the banner of fighting terrorism. So, that’s why I believe that the Israeli leadership is quite happy with the Saudi move and with the endorsement of this move by many Arab states....Lately, there were attempts to mend fences with Israel and to use the hostility against Iran as a cover up to substitute one enemy with another, so to substitute Israel as the enemy of Arabs with Iran. This was the attempt of Saudi Arabia....I believe that this is a desperate move by the Saudis because Hezbollah wouldn’t be affected by this move. It wouldn’t be affected either on the moral or on the material level.”
Meanwhile, in Israel there is an ongoing robust debate between some Israeli Arab MPs who are critical of the Arab League decision and the Israeli government, which supports it. In a recent article written for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Hasan Shaalan and Moran Azulay reflect the ongoing debate within Israel: “Israeli Arab parties Balad and Hadash, who are part of the Joint Arab List, slammed Monday the decision of the Gulf Cooperation Council to label Hezbollah as a terrorist organization....Balad officials explained that they view the decision by the interior ministers of the GCC as dangerous because they are fueling the Sunni-Shia conflict, and, as they put it, adding fuel to the fire of this bloody conflict. Furthermore, the Balad officials claimed, the decision serves to widen the sectarian divisions in Lebanon, Syria, and the wider Arab world....Avigdor Liberman, Yisrael Beytenu Chairman, attacked Balad and Hadash's statement.”
But, as this article by Hassan Shaalan indicates, it is clear that the Israeli Arabs are not a monolithic bloc when it comes to the question Hezbollah: “The Jewish population in Israel tends to think that the majority of the Arab population in Israel, and of course the extremists among them, automatically and unquestioningly support Hezbollah. On Thursday, however, Sheikh Kammal Hativ of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement expressed a different opinion....While speaking about the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) decision to label Hezbollah a terrorist group and about the group's its involvement in the Syrian Civil War, Hativ said that "in the past we of course supported Hezbollah and its fight for Lebanon….But when its positions became clear to us, especially following the 'Arab Spring,' we decided that Hezbollah is a criminal organization. It supports murderous organizations in Syria and Iraq, and participates with the Syrian regime in the slaughter of the Syrian people."It's not clear how popular Zoabi's opinion is amongst the wider Israeli-Arab population. According to the last index compiled by Professor Sami Samuha… approximately 49.5 percent of Israeli Arabs strongly agreed that they would "stand up to Israel and attack it if necessary." In 2012, 53.7 percent of Israeli Arabs supported the strengthening of Hezbollah, and 52.9 percent supported Hamas in Gaza.”
Gulf News’ Linda Heard seems to approve of the Arab League declaration by commenting on the negative impact that Hezbollah has had on Lebanese stability and governance: “In essence, the Arab world is polarised between states firmly in the Iranian camp, others such as Algeria and Tunisia that have shown their reluctance to take sides and those in the majority determined to block Tehran’s attempts at gaining regional hegemony....Interestingly, despite “reservations”, Lebanon stopped short of objecting to the resolution, no doubt due to concerns about further economic repercussions....The problem is how can Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states justify lending their support to Beirut when in effect they are fuelling an Iranian proxy whose grip on the government and the military is unshakeable? Unfortunately, the Lebanese people are caught in the middle and are likely to face further hardships. Nasrallah has always claimed to be Lebanese first. He’s had his day in the sun and now that he’s delivering his country to ruin, he should prove his patriotism by dismantling his militia and bowing out.”
Writing for the Qatari daily The Peninsula, Mohammed Al Rumaihi suggests that long-time Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah has lost the fear factor and some of his standing in the region, as demonstrated by the fact that neither “Hassan Nasrallah nor his Iranian backers, have ever dared to provoke another war or even a skirmish with Israel — the eight years since has proven that…. He is now risking the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese workers in the Gulf-they can go nowhere to work in fact. The big question is where is Hezbollah taking Lebanon to? Does it want to create a ‘Welayat Al Faqih’ in the style of Iran?! Could it do that in a diversified society, with Christian, Sunni and Druze, and almost ten other dominations? Until what time can it hold a gun over the heads of most Lebanese citizens, who do not share its convictions?... This being tolerated no more, which is why the GCC has declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization- nobody now fears Hasan Nasrallah!
Finally, Al Ahram’s Ahmed Eleiba points out that the impact of the Hezbollah terrorist designation will not be limited to Lebanon, saying that as Lebanon goes so does the rest of the Middle East: “when Lebanon becomes an arena for regional agents to settle political scores, the calculations that shape a regional decision with respect to Lebanon, or any of the parties in that country, obviously take into account factors that extend beyond the scope of the Lebanese domestic context. Because of this, any attempt to explain the Saudi decision, supported by Arab Gulf countries and other Arab countries, to impose a series of economic and political sanctions on Lebanon cannot be approached solely through an analysis of the bilateral relations between Riyadh and Beirut. Rather, it is crucial to situate such an analysis in the framework of regional developments as a whole....Saudi Arabia certainly realizes that current international policies will lead to sweeping changes in the region that will extend beyond the framework of the Arab order (covering the Gulf, the Levant and North Africa) and even the conventional Middle Eastern system. Both Arab and Western experts believe that political contours are shifting. So much so that that the Middle East that arose in the decades after the Sykes-Picot Agreement will no longer be recognizable once the storms of the ‘Arab Spring’ epoch subside.”
Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.