Lebanon State Institutions Are a Platform to Advance Hezbollah’s Interests

As the fighting between Hezbollah and Israel continues along the Israeli-Lebanese border for the third month now, fears of an all-out war are rising. Two events in recent weeks are contemporary examples of how Hezbollah operates in Lebanon on the strategic and domestic internal levels. They demonstrate how Hezbollah has overtaken and dominated the Lebanese state.

On the strategic level, which includes the spheres of security and foreign relations, the organization has exhibited its total independence and autonomy from the formal state institutions as it conducts military activities in southern Lebanon without regard to the government or the national army. Hezbollah continues to operate freely in south Lebanon and has used the area as a platform for attacking Israel over the last three months since the Hamas massacre on October 7 as a part of the Iranian encirclement campaign against Israel. South Lebanon, under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 that ended the 2006 Lebanon War, was supposed to be controlled by the Lebanese army with no Hezbollah presence. But its leaders reject the suggestions presented by international mediators to stop the fighting there. Not only that, but Hezbollah has also presented its own set of demands as pre-conditions. Those include the cessation of the war in Gaza and territorial claims along the Israeli-Lebanese border.

The curious point is that those negotiations in which Hezbollah’s positions are presented to Israel are not done directly with Hezbollah’s leaders but rather through two figures holding the highest positions in the Lebanese state administrative system: Najib Mikati, the caretaker prime minister of Lebanon for the more than three years, and Nabih Berri, the head of the Lebanese parliament for the past two decades. Both of those politicians are closely affiliated with Hezbollah, and none of them represents a formal state position regarding the fighting with Israel – as no such position was agreed upon in the government.

Nevertheless, during their meetings with the foreign mediators involved in the diplomatic efforts, both Mikati and Berri represent Hezbollah’s stances and serve the organization’s interests. They essentially act as Hezbollah’s messengers. Lebanese opposition parties have even opened a campaign criticizing Prime Minister Mikati and blaming him for adopting Hezbollah’s linkage between stopping the war in Gaza and a halt to the fighting along the Israeli-Lebanese border.

Concurrently with the ongoing fighting in southern Lebanon and the inability of the government to fulfill its responsibility and sovereignty, another event caught the public’s attention in recent weeks on the domestic internal level. Once again, the state institutions acted on behalf of Hezbollah’s interests and stirred harsh criticism from the opposition, but this time, the context was a local matter: a controversial decision by Lebanon’s top courts that canceled arrest warrants for Hezbollah-affiliated ministers wanted for interrogation over their roles in Beirut Port blast case.

The devastating tragedy that hit Lebanon in August 2020, causing the death of 200 civilians and damages estimated at more than $15 billion, stemmed from the explosion of a stockpile of ammonium nitrate, which was stored in the Beirut Port. This highly explosive material is used as an agricultural fertilizer, but at the same time, it is known to be used by terrorists to produce homemade explosives, including Hezbollah.

Although Hezbollah formally denies any involvement in the disaster, several facts contradict the organization’s claims and arouse strong suspicions regarding its role in the event and the fact that after more than three years of investigation, no clear conclusion has been presented to the publicHezbollah is known for using ammonium nitrate for terror plots across Europe. There are also reports about huge deliveries of this material from Iran to the organization in recent years. Continued political interference with the investigation prevents its completion, going as far as toppling the previous government that initiated the probe. Hezbollah also pushed for appointing a friendlier prime minister, Najib Mikati. These events raise serious questions.

The recent cancellation of the arrest warrants against former Public Works Minister Youssef Fenianos and former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil is most likely another manifestation of Hezbollah’s “behind the scenes” influence on the state institutions meant to cover its involvement in the 2020 catastrophic explosion.

These two very different situations – the clashes with Israel and the disruption of the Beirut Port investigation – demonstrate Hezbollah’s ability to exploit the Lebanese government to achieve its goals. This ability to use political alliances, collaborators within the state administrative systems, and violence, when needed, shows the way Hezbollah has mastered its hybrid state/non-state actor status to maximize its freedom to employ Lebanon’s soil as a platform for its terror and military goals.

The grim conclusion derived from this reality is that Lebanon’s formal state institutions are not a relevant tool to curb Hezbollah’s power and influence. Any effective international assistance to Lebanon should first focus on finding appropriate alternatives in Lebanon through civil society, private organizations, or turning to internationally imposed mandates through the U.N. Security Council.

Dror Doron is a senior advisor at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) focusing on Hezbollah and Lebanon. He spent nearly two decades as a senior analyst in the Office of Israel’s Prime Minister. Dror is on Twitter @DrorDoron.