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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: Hezbollah

ISRAEL: Natural gas deposits stir waters with Lebanon

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Five years after what Israel calls the Second Lebanon War, the border seems quieter than ever -- although this could always change.

The war prompted the Israeli military to dust off routine drilling of forces and other things neglected due to budget cuts and the assumption that "those kinds of wars" were gone. It also showed that the civilian population was the new front line, after a third of the country was pinned down in bomb shelters for a month. 

Hezbollah has turned a corner too, Israelis observe, improving its capabilities and replenishing its arsenal above and beyond what it had in 2006, which calls into question the effectiveness of U.N. Security Council resolution 1701, which ended the war and was supposed to curb such armament.

Fifty tons of explosives could be dropped on Israel in the next war, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told a parliamentary committee recently, quickly adding that Israel could retaliate with 1,500 tons of its own extremely precise ammunition.

But at present, Israel and Lebanon are fighting a different kind of war -- over maritime borders and economic issues. If past maritime disputes were mostly about fishing rights, today's squabble concerns a far bigger matter -- billions of dollars worth of natural gas.

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LEBANON: Hezbollah chief calls on Syrians to stand by Assad regime

ALeqM5jJihxtKGkKr1vax_gqdAhQbyQrxw-1You don't bite the hand that feeds you.

After heartily hailing popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has been unenthusiastic about the wave of anti-government protests in Syria, the Shiite militant group's close ally. 

In a speech late Wednesday, Nasrallah threw his full support behind the Syrian regime and denounced international sanctions slapped on Syria for an ongoing brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators that human rights  activists say has left more than 1,000 people dead.

Speaking via video link before a large crowd of supporters in a Hezbollah stronghold in the Lebanese Bekka valley marking the 11th anniversary of Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon, Nasrallah called on Syrians to stand by the regime led by president Bashar Assad and urged them to give the Syrian leadership a chance.

"We call on all Syrians to preserve their country as well as the ruling regime, a regime of resistance, and to give their leaders a chance to cooperate with all Syria's communities in order to implement the necessary reforms," he was quoted as saying in media reports.

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BAHRAIN: GCC troops to remain, face increasingly radicalized youth

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Sunni monarchs determined to maintain control after crushing opposition protests in the kingdom of Bahrain may soon face a new threat from increasingly alienated youths in the majority Shiite nation.

On Thursday, Bahrain’s state news agency reported that troops from the Gulf Cooperation Council are expected to stay on even after the country’s state of emergency is lifted June 1.

Sheikh Khalifa Al Khalifa, head of the Bahrain Defense Force, told the state news agency that the forces, known as the Peninsula Shield, were sent to Bahrain after protests erupted in February to defend against foreign threats, including Iran. He said Iranian, Iraqi and western agents helped orchestrate the anti-government protests.

Timeline: Repression in Bahrain

Earlier this week, the GCC, a group of six Persian Gulf nations formed in 1981, invited Jordan and Morocco to join in what some analysts have called a consolidation of power by the “Sunni Kings’ Club” in the face of popular Shiite uprisings in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen.

Salman Shaikh Picture Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Centre, said gulf leaders, led by Saudi Arabia, have become a “club of counterrevolutionaries” trying to reestablish an old order, with some resistance from Qatar and Kuwait, which is home to a sizable Shiite minority.

So far, gulf leaders have achieved an “uneasy calm” in Bahrain, he said, but have been unable to broker a political agreement there or in Yemen that would transform the states into constitutional monarchies.

“If you don’t come to some sort of political agreement, you’re going to have a young generation of Shiite youth who will not forget this and will be radicalized,” Shaikh said. “The danger is that they won’t be listening to anybody except maybe Iran.”

Already, he said gulf leaders may have missed their chance in Bahrain, where the government’s violent suppression of protests and alleged torture of political dissidents and medical staff, reported this week by Al Jazeera, has weakened their ability to negotiate with the opposition.

“A lot of young Bahrianis I talk to now dismiss those people, especially young Shiite Bahrainis, and seem to be moving on,” Shaikh said of the government.

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BAHRAIN: King announces early end to emergency rule as opposition stands trial

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Bahrain's king announced plans Sunday to lift the Persian Gulf state's emergency rule on June 1, two weeks earlier than the official end of the three-month rule, imposed March 15 in an attempt to halt anti-government unrest.

The announcement by King Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa appeared timed to distract a world audience from the trial of activists accused of attempting to overthrow the monarchy amid protests by the country's majority Shiite population.

At least 30 people have been killed since protests began in February in Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

In a speech last month, the country's crown prince defended the government crackdown.

"We were immensely concerned that some of our youth were pushed toward a destructive path and that the nation was drawn along with them," Prince Salman ibn Hamed Khalifa said, according to an official transcript.

"We took necessary action to preserve lives and the livelihood and interests of all the people, based on our commitment to Islamic and Arab values," he said.

King Hamed's declaration that he would suspend martial law early gave no details of what would take its place, including whether the nighttime curfew would end or the numerous checkpoints be dismantled, according to the Associated Press.

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LEBANON: The Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s communications problem

Editor's note: Analysts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace are included among contributors to Babylon & Beyond. Carnegie is renowned for its political, economic and social analysis of the Middle East. The views represented are the author's own.

6a00d8341c630a53ef0147e2e4070f970b-800wi The absence of a coherent and disciplined communications strategy by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is one of the main factors contributing to the current political crisis in Lebanon.

One of the tribunal’s most serious communications problems has been the frequent leaks of information to the media — specifically, its alleged controversial plan to accuse members of Hezbollah of killing former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whose son Saad Hariri’s government collapsed in January. The leaks were widespread, appearing in outlets from Germany’s Der Spiegel to Canada’s CBC television. With little response from the tribunal, it appeared as an uncontrolled institution at the top. Most importantly, much of the Lebanese public believes today the highly charged information is true.

The tribunal also has lacked any real communications plan to build its credibility as a politically independent judicial body, including in the eyes of pro-Hezbollah and March 8 coalition supporters, who have doubted its credibility.

The public’s perceptions are hardly surprising. From its inception, the STL should have established itself as a new institution completely independent from the initial organization — the Detlev Mehlis investigation commission — charged with investigating Hariri’s assassination. That commission publicly accused Syria of Hariri’s murder and has received strong political backing from Western powers that have historically opposed Syria and Hezbollah.

In the extremely volatile Lebanese political environment, the STL should have better explained that its role was to conduct a thorough judicial investigation, looking at all possibilities no matter where they led. Instead, the tribunal gave the impression that it was continuing the political work of the commission by focusing only on Syria and then Hezbollah.

For example, when Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah accused Israel last August, in a TV appearance, of assassinating Hariri, the STL should have publicly expressed more willingness to explore the leads he suggested. Those leads made sense in the opinion of many Lebanese. Instead, the tribunal only asked, in a press release, for more documents, leaving the public with the impression that it did not consider the idea that Israel could be responsible for Hariri’s death.

In addition, the tribunal has missed important opportunities to clarify misperceptions about its work. In April 2009, when the tribunal’s pre-trial judge, Daniel Fransen, released the four Lebanese generals arrested after Hariri’s assassination, the public perceived this act as the tribunal’s attempt to correct its earlier mistake. However, the arrests were actually made in 2005 by the separate investigation commission. The release could have been used positively to remind the public that the tribunal disapproved of the commission’s decision to make the arrests shortly after they occurred.

These message mistakes, the communication strategy inconsistencies and the constant bickering among the STL’s communications staff, have caused many senior members to leave. They have also undercut the tribunal’s reputation — the exact opposite of what a communications strategy is intended to do. And they have contributed to rising tensions as Lebanon eagerly and nervously awaits the tribunal’s findings.

-- Nadim Hasbani in Beirut  

Nadim Hasbani is communications director at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

MIDDLE EAST: Ignoring Egyptians, Iran continues to hail 'Islamic awakening'

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Both the Egyptian foreign ministry and the opposition Muslim Brotherhood have said the popular protest movement sweeping the country has nothing to do with Iran, or Islam.

But that hasn't stopped Iranian officials from continuing to try and cast the uprising as an "Islamic awakening" in the tradition of their own 1979 Islamic Revolution.

On Tuesday, a spokesman for the foreign ministry praised the "justice-seeking" protest movement sweeping Egypt and warned against the meddling of foreign powers in Egypt's affairs.

"Anyone who tries to interfere in the internal affairs of this country and cause a diversion on the path of the popular movement will have to deal with the Egyptian nation," Ramin Mehmanparast told a news conference, according to state television.

When asked specifically about the Egyptian foreign ministry's statements, Mehmanparast questioned the authority of the ministry to speak for the people.

"A great movement is taking place in Egypt, and the first step of this movement was to question the trust and authorities of a person who controlled the government," he said. "Therefore, if someone is not to be trusted from the Egyptian people's point of view, their remarks will definitely have no authority for us."

Many in the Iranian opposition, however, have accused members of the government of being hypocritical in their support of protests in Egypt and Tunisia after brutally cracking down on Iranians who went to the streets following the 2009 disputed presidential elections.

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LEBANON: Journalists bear brunt of Hariri's 'day of rage'

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Press advocacy groups have joined politicians and others in condemning Wednesday's attacks on journalists after a national "day of rage" organized by former prime minister and Washington ally Saad Hariri spiraled out of control.

The largest riots took place in the northern city of Tripoli, where an angry mob set fire to a satellite truck belonging to the pan-Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera. The news crew, which was reporting from the roof of a nearby office, took refuge in the building along with reporters from the local Lebanese station New TV until they were evacuated by the Lebanese army, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists and others.

By all accounts, Hariri's supporters made life a nightmare for journalists trying to cover one of the biggest international news stories so far this year. 

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LEBANON: Showdown between Hezbollah and Hariri expected over naming of premier

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Following a week of twists and turns in Lebanon's unfolding political crisis over a United Nations-backed tribunal, feuding Lebanese parties are heading for a showdown as scheduled talks to pick a new prime minister threaten to stall once again.

On Sunday night, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah took to the airwaves to say that his group and its political allies would decide "in the coming hours" whether talks could take place on Monday as scheduled.

According to Lebanon's confessional political system, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, but Hezbollah and its main Christian ally have flat-out rejected the reelection of current caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Hariri is a Washington favorite and leader of the movement championing the tribunal, which is currently reviewing indictments thought to implicate Hezbollah members in the assassination of Saad Hariri's father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

“Our initial response was to topple the government, which was unable to protect Lebanon and face the repercussions of the [tribunal]," said Nasrallah, referring to the mass walkout of opposition lawmakers last week that led to the collapse of the government.

"If [Hariri and his allies] want to use this stage to pressure us, my response is that after the release of the indictment, we will not yield to anything that has been imposed on us," he said without elaborating.

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LEBANON: Another descent into a long crisis

Following last week’s decision by Hezbollah to bring down the government of Saad Hariri, Lebanon has likely entered a period of extended crisis with a caretaker government. It will be marked by fitful attempts to form a new government; negotiations, scheduled to begin this week, have already been postponed.

This is the latest escalation in the long crisis over the U.N. special tribunal investigating the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

For the time being, the security situation remains calm, although tense. The crisis remains at the political level, and Hezbollah’s overwhelming military force makes it unlikely that its opponents will try to challenge it on the street.

Cargenie On Monday, the tribunal announced that the prosecutor had submitted his sealed indictment to the pre-trial judge. The judge, Daniel Franson, is expected to take between six and 10 weeks to weigh the evidence. Franson can confirm or reject the indictment in whole or in part, or ask for more evidence.

Parliament remains divided between the March 8 coalition, backed by Hezbollah, and the March 14 coalition of Saad Hariri. Although the March 14 coalition has made clear that it will nominate Hariri for another term and the bulk of the opposition has said it will nominate an alternative -- probably former Prime Minister Omar Karami -- the outcome is uncertain. Druze leader Walid Junblatt and parliament speaker Nabih Berri have been urging both sides to return to negotiations. But tensions are riding high and no consensus is emerging.

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LEBANON: Hezbollah leader speaks for first time following government collapse

IMG_0974 Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah gave an address on TV on Sunday night to lay out Hezbollah's rationale for orchestrating the collapse of the government last week.

On Wednesday, Hezbollah and its allies withdrew from the cabinet, dissolving the government and throwing Lebanon into a new phase of tense uncertainty.

Nasrallah explained in the clearest terms yet Hezbollah's demands of the Lebanese state regarding the U.N.-backed tribunal that is expected soon to indict members of Hezbollah accused of involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

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MIDDLE EAST: Activists, Arab leaders on edge as Tunisia hangs in the balance

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Emboldened Arab citizens are taking on their own leaderships as the region watches with anticipation to see whether Tunisia's recent uprising will successfully replace the oppressive regime of Zine Abidine Ben Ali that ruled for 23 years.

Most regional leaders have stayed silent on Ben Ali's flight into exile amid national riots, a reticence that many observers have interpreted as fear. But even staunch supporters of the Tunisian protest movement are cautious to call "revolution" too early.

"Right now the Arab regimes are annoyed, but they aren't afraid," said Munsif Ben Ali, a Tunisian expatriate in Beirut and the head of the local solidarity movement in Lebanon (he shares a last name but no relation to the ousted president).

Ben Ali spoke to Babylon & Beyond on the sidelines of a demonstration on Sunday as several hundred activists gathered in front of the United Nations headquarters in downtown Beirut to express support for the Tunisian protesters.

"Many of the symbols of Ben Ali's regime are still in place," he said. "When real change is completed, then [the Arab leaders] will be terrified."

While the official reactions have been muted, reactions to any perceived support for Ben Ali and his government have been swift and angry, and not just from secular reformists like the ones who made up most of the rally in Beirut.

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LEBANON: Proposed ban on sale of land between Muslims and Christians sparks controversy

ChurchMosque Labor Minister Butros Harb on Tuesday vigorously defended his controversial draft law that would ban the sale of land between Christians and Muslims for the next 15 years on the pretext of protecting Lebanon's Christian community.

Outraged critics have pointed out that the law is not only discriminatory and unconstitutional, but also fails to address the economic and political pressures pushing Lebanese of all sects to leave the country.

"There are suspicious sales of Christian lands as if there is a tendency to uproot Christians from their areas," he was quoted telling a local television news station by the news website Naharnet.

Harb's proposal does not appear to affect the sale of land by Christians to wealthy Muslims from Saudi Arabia and other Arabian Peninsula countries who have invested heavily in the Lebanese real estate sector. Civil-society activists, politicians and ordinary people have reacted with disgust to the proposal, which some have called fear-mongering.

The draft law "is actually a direct violation of the constitution and the coexistence that is part of the constitution," said Kamel Wazne, head of the Center of American Strategic Studies. 

"Today they are calling for not selling land to someone from another sect, tomorrow they will want to outlaw intermarriage," he said. "The premise for the law is very racist, and if this is allowed to pass in Lebanon, it will set a very bad precedent for the country."

Harb did not respond to several requests for comment.

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