In Lebanon, Gaza killings bring shock but also added fuel to political narratives

Hezbollah was among the loudest voices in Lebanon slamming the killing of the protesters in Gaza.
Saturday 19/05/2018
Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah speaks on a screen via a video link in the southern suburbs of Beirut, on May 14. (AP)
Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah speaks on a screen via a video link in the southern suburbs of Beirut, on May 14. (AP)

TUNIS - The Lebanese condemnation of the killing of at least 62 unarmed Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza by Israeli security services on May 14 was both quick in coming and fiery in nature. But the bloodshed took its place within the political jockeying for power, influence and cabinet positions that followed on the heels of the recent election.

Iran-supported Hezbollah was among the loudest voices slamming the killing of the protesters on the day the United States relocated its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said: “People have no money or food. The Gaza Strip is about to turn into Yemen, in the hopes that it will lead to its surrender.” None of his rhetorical outbursts were surprising as they are among the main features of the legitimising narrative of the Shia party and its Iranian patrons.

For Hezbollah, hoping for a dominant role within the country’s cabinet, the situation is especially acute. Lina Khatib, the head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, said:  “Hezbollah is more concerned with capitalising on the results of the parliamentary elections to form a cabinet with a majority favourable to itself than with what is happening in Gaza.”

The current Lebanese cabinet is due to resign on May 21 to allow the incoming government to take its place. While much currently remains a matter for negotiation and speculation, it is inevitable that the killings in Gaza plus the increased showing of some of Hezbollah’s allies in the May 6 elections could still serve the Party of God’s ends.

“Hezbollah is likely to use Israel’s violence in Gaza to bolster its rhetoric,” Khatib noted. “But this symbolic response will not translate into serious action against Israel because it is not in Hezbollah’s interest to spark war with Israel in Lebanon or Syria.”

That both Hezbollah and its allies in Tehran were reluctant to commit to any real action to confront Israel became apparent in the days following the latter’s strikes on Iranian positions in Syria on May 10. Despite the loss of eight Iranian lives among the 15 killed, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, no retaliatory response has been forthcoming. The death of 62 Palestinians in Gaza similarly look unlikely to change that.

Hezbollah itself only picked up one seat in the parliamentary elections, despite what had been seen as widespread public disillusionment with both Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Party and the country’s endemic corruption. The largest gains were made by the staunchly anti-Hezbollah Christian Lebanese Forces and President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, which, despite a longstanding tradition of cooperation with Hezbollah, cannot be guaranteed upon for blind agreement.

Writing in the US online publication The Hill on May 15, Toufic Baaklini, a Lebanese American who heads the In Defence of Christians organisation, pointed out that although Hezbollah’s bloc had gained enough seats to present a serious disruption to any Western agenda, about two thirds of the seats were won by candidates who, either actively or passively, aligned with the West over Iran.

The results of its elections have divided a parliament that, by its nature, is reliant upon cohabitation. That all of Lebanon’s parties feel sincere shock over the killings in Gaza is beyond doubt. That some will seek to use it to their own ends is almost certain.