Alexandra Taylor is a Research Intern with the New America Foundation.
The rocket fire from a southern Lebanese village into Israel a little over a week ago by a relatively unknown militant group, the Ziad Jarrah Division of the Abdullah Azzam Brigade, is the most recent reminder of the tenuous peace across the Blue Line.
Hezbollah quickly denied any responsibility for the rocket attack, a fact that some have taken to indicate that Hezbollah does not exert as much control over its territory as previously believed. World Politics Review columnist, Frida Ghitis, also warns of a growing competition between Hezbollah and Al Qaeda elements in Lebanon, emphasizing that the implications of the recent attack are to “undercut the perception that Hezbollah is the only real power in southern Lebanon.”
Yet it is premature to claim Hezbollah has lost control of its territory. Instability and a lack of external control are not new and, rather, characterize Palestinian camps in Lebanon.
In October 2007, violence broke out between militants from Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese Armed Forces in the Nahr al-Bared Refugee Camp north of Tripoli. And since the end of hostilities in 2006, there have been sporadic rockets fired at Israel from Hezbollah’s territory within Lebanon; these incidents have mainly been attributed to Palestinian militant groups, especially during Israel’s operation in Gaza last winter.
According to this 2009 International Crisis Group report: “Lebanon’s weak central state, combined with the camp’s institutional, security and political vacuum,” created conditions that have allowed the camps to serve as both “a safe haven for fugitives and a travel agency for jihadi volunteers.”
Indeed, these attacks are isolated incidents, and do not represent an erosion of Hezbollah’s power. The power relationship between Hezbollah and these actors better resembles the situation in Gaza between Salafist groups and Hamas.
An important indication of Hezbollah’s undiminished status is actually the Israeli response to last Friday’s events. Israel returned fire, but hostilities did not escalate further despite Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statements that Israel would hold the Lebanese government as a whole responsible for any aggression originating from Lebanese territory. This shows that small militant groups, such as the Ziad Jarrah Division, do not alone have the power to provoke Israel and Lebanon into a war.
We should not assume that Hezbollah’s power is diminishing just because they neither launched nor prevented the rocket attack. Reportedly, Hezbollah’s weapons caches and capabilities are only growing. Hezbollah’s ability to flout the arms ban established by Resolution 1701, despite the efforts of UNIFIL, indicates that Hezbollah retains firm control of the south.
The role of Hezbollah is still crucial, especially against the backdrop of a governance crisis in Lebanon. As the Council on Foreign Relation’s Mohamad Bazzi argues in a recent article, the inability of PM designate (yet again) Saad Hariri to overcome wrangling with opposition leaders and form a government since the June elections reveals the opposite problem: the existence of a Hezbollah “shadow government.” Bazzi writes that, “This political vacuum gives Hezbollah free rein to continue building up its military and escalating its rhetoric of war. In the absence of a strong central state, Hezbollah will remain the most powerful force in Lebanon — and its weapons will guarantee its dominance.”
— Alexandra Taylor