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Commentary Last Updated: Jan 4th, 2007 - 01:08:31

Squabbling politicians strain Lebanese unity
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Aug 23, 2006, 00:52

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With the ceasefire hanging by a thread, now is not the time for Lebanese politicians to bicker among themselves and flay around for internal or foreign scapegoats. Like it or not, Hezbollah has emerged from its face off with Israel politically stronger and with its military reputation enhanced.

For some in the Lebanese government Hezbollah's success is a source of national pride; for others it undermines their personal standing or challenges the agenda of their foreign backers.

There are those who will say Lebanon's fledgling democracy enshrines the right of free speech. No one can argue with that. But in light of the country's fractured past and given it has an enemy at its doorstep salivating to go another round, patriotism should take precedence over posturing.

Someone who appears only too cognizant of this is the Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. He can hardly be considered a natural ally of the Shi'ite militia, yet in almost every speech since Israel's bombing spree, he has called for national unity and praised the resistance for its noble defence of Lebanon.

Less surprisingly perhaps, Lebanon's pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, a Christian, and the Shi'ite Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri have strongly echoed the prime minister's sentiments defending the resistance at every turn.

Hezbollah's leader Shaikh Hassan Nasrallah has also gone out of his way to stress the need for unity.

Nasrallah stresses that his militia is Lebanese first and foremost and refers to the Lebanese army in brotherly terms. When it comes to handing out wads of reconstruction cash, Hezbollah doesn't distinguish between Shiites, Sunnis, Christians or Druze.

With the assistance of General Michel Aoun the Maronite head of the Free Patriotic Movement that has forged a marriage of convenience with Hezbollah displaced southern Shiites were welcomed in Christian villages. Church bells rang out in unison when Nasrallah publicly promised to give those who had lost their homes a year's rent and money for furniture. A poll indicates that four out of five Christians support Hezbollah.

Bonded by a common enemy, Siniora and Nasrallah two very disparate characters have been singing from the same hymn sheet. Both want the cessation of hostilities to hold and the reconstruction to begin. And both fear the re-emergence of the sectarian strife that plagued the country for so many decades.

Common cause

It is this common cause, albeit transient, that has facilitated a smooth deployment of the Lebanese army in the south. Most Lebanese understand that their army is being hosted by Hezbollah and is allowed to stay in the south on its terms. They are also aware that many Lebanese soldiers are Shi'ites from the south and are on cordial terms with at least one or two Hezbollah fighters.

Proof that the army intends to stand side by side with the militia came when a feted newly arrived Lebanese officer announced, "The army will deploy on wounded Lebanese land alongside the men of the resistance."

It's no secret that the Lebanese government has given the green light to Hezbollah to hide its weapons and allow its fighters to temporarily give the appearance of having substituted their guns for ploughshares.

It's also probable that Nasrallah sanctioned the Lebanese defence minister's promise to treat any Lebanese responsible for breaking the fragile ceasefire as "a traitor," along with his commitment that the army would prevent the import of prohibited weapons.

Elias Murr's hostile-sounding statement came on the heels of an Israeli incursion into Ba'albek when commandos wearing Lebanese army uniforms drove around for several hours until their awkward accents gave them away. A fierce battle ensued resulting in injured commandos having to be ferried from the scene under cover of Israeli jets.

Siniora backed up by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan blamed Israel for violating the truce. Israel had the chutzpah to say Hezbollah had broken the ceasefire by attempting to smuggle in weapons.

Hence, one may deduce that the defence minister's statement was made for foreign consumption. In other words he wants to get this message across: "the Lebanese government is fully committed to the ceasefire but in the event it breaks the world should hold Israel responsible."

Although most Lebanese have rallied around the flag both the Lebanese standard and Hezbollah's there are some politicians for whom Hezbollah's triumph is an anathema.

Top of the list is Druze leader Walid Junblatt, who during an interview on Al Arabiya, derided Nasrallah's folk hero status, doubted whether Hezbollah would ever recognise the Lebanese state and warned that Lebanon may become an open battlefield for Syrian and Iranian regimes.

Sa'ad Hariri, son of the slain former prime minister Rafik Hariri, has demanded that Hezbollah give up its weapons and desist in undermining the Lebanese government.

He doesn't pull any punches when it comes to Syria either.

Heaping scorn on the Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, he accused Syria of "making cynical use of the blood of children in the village of Qana, Gaza and Baghdad."

Responsible Lebanese and Syrian leaders should put their differences aside, just as the Lebanese and Syrian peoples have managed to do as we saw when Syria opened its borders to welcome fleeing Lebanese.

Lebanon is at war, Syria is threatened and the enemy of both is Israel, egged on by Washington.

Squabbles can wait. Lebanon's continued cohesion and security cannot.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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