The stated objective of the Hezbollah-coordinated press tour of southern Lebanon was to see new Israeli defensive installations on the border – indications, according to the powerful Shiite Lebanese militia, of Israeli fears of Hezbollah’s growing military might.
But as the convoy of vehicles carrying a large group of Lebanese and foreign reporters reached the outskirts of this village on the Mediterranean coast, around a dozen uniformed Hezbollah fighters came into view in an orange orchard on the side of the road. Clutching rifles, machine guns, and grenade launchers, their faces streaked in black cream, the fighters stood still and silent, in a frozen tableau.
The unprecedented spectacle appeared to be a deliberate and calculated breach of a UN Security Council resolution that bans non-state forces from bearing arms in southern Lebanon, and it illustrated the unmatched sway Hezbollah wields, and the impunity it enjoys throughout the country. That is the culmination of more than a decade in which Iran's key ally amassed influence and power to defend its military priority against those who wish to see the group disarmed.
Viewing Hezbollah fighters in the field is rare enough, but this brief, subtly-delivered roadside display served to signal Hezbollah’s defiance and autonomy to multiple audiences. They included Israel, the Lebanese government, and UNIFIL, the United Nations peacekeeping force deployed in south Lebanon, whose headquarters lay less than a mile away from the orchard.
The display of defiance was staged at a time of growing Hezbollah-Israel tensions. Hezbollah’s main strategic objective, analysts say, and one of its guiding principles in the complex arena of Lebanese politics, is to preserve its right to bear arms and its military prerogatives vis-à-vis Israel.
“Hezbollah wants to protect its right to fight Israel at a time of its choosing, and to secure its Shiite base’s political and economic rights in an antiquated sectarian political system,” says Randa Slim, a Hezbollah expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “To do the former, it needs a secure strategic depth in Syria, maintain and fully control its weapons arsenal in Lebanon, and a home-front that is not at war with itself.”
Opponents of Hezbollah say the border tour was another example of the party behaving above the law and holding the country hostage to its anti-Israel agenda.
Hezbollah’s opponents say the party controls the levers of power over the Lebanese state in order to safeguard its own interests. While that is generally true, such criticism can ring hollow in a country where politicians of all political persuasions are widely seen as routinely exploiting state resources either for personal enrichment or to fund patronage networks on which their popular support rests.
And while Hezbollah’s influence within the Lebanese state today reaches into political, economic, security, and judicial spheres, analysts say its principle motive is less the acquisition of power but to defend and sustain what it calls its resistance priority – the anti-Israeli military component that lies at the heart of the party’s ideology.
When Hezbollah spent the 1990s battling Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon, its armed status was sanctioned by successive Lebanese governments and guaranteed by neighboring Syria, then the dominant force in Lebanon. After Israel withdrew its troops in May 2000, Syria continued to provide cover for Hezbollah’s military wing despite growing calls in Lebanon for its disarmament.
A senior Israeli army officer warned on Tuesday that an impending power outage in the Gaza Strip could lead to a conflict between Hamas and Israel.
The coastal enclave is on track to completely run out of fuel for its power plant due to a spat over taxes between Hamas, which rules the Strip, and the Mahmoud Abbas-led Palestinian Authority.
“There’s a chance this could lead Hamas to a clash with Israel,” he added.
According to Palestinian sources, Abbas could soon cut off all fundingfor power in Gaza, in a move that would greatly exacerbate the crisis.
Fuel supply for the Strip’s two million inhabitants has been a long-running source of dispute. As of last week, Gazans had just four hours of electricityeach day, followed by 12-hour blackouts, down from two eight-hour periods of electricity a day when the plant is operating normally and supplies are coming in from outside the enclave.
The dramatic events around Syria, namely the April 4 massacre of the civilian population in Idlib by toxic gases, which was immediately followed by the US missile strike on the Syrian airbase of Shayrat on April 7, finally culminating into very heated discussions in the UN Security Council, have pushed other tragedies of the Middle East far into the background.
The terrorist attacks against the Coptic community in Egypt, which brought the fate of Christians in the region back onto the agenda again, is worthy of first mention.
Firstly, a few words about the sad event itself. On April 9, on Palm Sunday, a significant day for Christians, two powerful explosions struck two Coptic churches in the two Egyptian cities of Tanta and Alexandria during a festive service, killing 49 and injuring 120 people. The authorities reacted immediately by introducing a state of emergency for three months, and by creating a Supreme Council to fight terrorism. To this, the United States and other Western countries, instead of feeling compassion for the Christians, immediately reacted by sharply criticizing the regime for ‘clamping democracy’.
However, we indeed must afford more thought to the fate of Christians in the Middle East, including Egypt, than what we can possibly notice right now. The Coptic community has always been one of the most important keepers of Egyptian national identity, although, according to different estimates (as no official figures since 2006), they constitute between 7 and 11 percent of the nation’s total population, which makes up between 6 and 13 million people. For centuries, the Copts have played an important role in the economy, in politics and in the cultural life of the Egyptian state. Secretary-General of the United Nations Boutros Boutros-Ghali (his grandfather, Boutros Ghali, was Prime Minister of the country from 1908 to 1910, and was later killed by an Egyptian nationalist) is one of the famous Copts one can recall. Although, throughout the twentieth century, the role of the Copts in politics and the economy has been steadily decreasing; no more than between 1 and 2 people have been appointed members of government in recent years, or as governors, and there were only six of them in the parliament under H. Mubarak.
At the same time, during the twentieth century, until about the beginning of the 1990s, the Copts did not face any particular oppression. Of course, their participation in the economy, politics and population was decreasing. Nevertheless, this did not affect their status.
Problems started to slowly increasing with the victory of the 1979 ‘Islamic Revolution’ in Iran and with the crisis of the secular governance model, which was aggravated by the collapse of the USSR, and with it, of the leftist secular vector in the politics of the Arab States. Many Arab countries, previously oriented either toward the socialist model or toward the liberal Western, like Egypt (however, secular, in any case), began to feel the pressure of the Islamists, especially the “Muslim Brotherhood”, which raised the slogan “Islam Is The Solution.”
When “Muslim Brotherhood” came to power after the January 25 Revolution and the presidential elections in 2012, which their protégé Mohamed Morsi won, the position of the Copts became sharply worse. This was primarily because during the elections, they had overwhelmingly supported Ahmed Shafiq, a secular politician close to H. Mubarak. Despite the promises of the new authorities to protect Christians, Christian oppression only increased. As clearly demonstrated by “The Association of Victims of Abduction and Forced Disappearance”, 550 Coptic women and girls were abducted between January 2011 and March 2014. Attacks and murders of followers of Jesus Christ in different parts of the country have increased. However, in the West, these facts were either hushed up or interpreted as a “perversion of reality”, as if Coptic girls themselves marry Muslims and then the Copts put it as abductions.
Recent events, like explosions in the Coptic Churches, as well as the latest threats by the “Islamic State” to the Copts in the Sinai Peninsula, challenge the relative calm of Christians in Egypt.