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Global Intelligence, Stratfor, August 29, 2006

Lebanonwire

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Lebanon: Hezbollah's Political Regrouping Efforts

Summary

Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said in an Aug. 27 television interview that he would have never issued the order to kidnap the two Israeli soldiers had he foreseen what retaliatory actions Israel would take against Lebanon. By pursuing an aggressive reconstruction campaign in the south and publicizing Hezbollah's commitment to the cease-fire, Nasrallah is seeking to regain political clout lost in the debris from the conflict and deprive Israel of an excuse to restart hostilities.

Analysis

When questioned about the July 12 kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah told Lebanese news station NTV on Aug. 27, "We did not think, even 1 percent, that the capture would lead to a confrontation at this time and of this magnitude. You ask me, if I had known on July 11 ... that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not."

Hezbollah's first rocket attack on Haifa, not the kidnapping, compelled Israel to engage in an invasion for which it was not necessarily prepared. Nasrallah knew when he pushed hostilities to that point that Hezbollah was provoking Israel into a full-scale war, and he had his forces ready and entrenched to resist the onslaught. Hezbollah's motives for reigniting hostilities with Israel followed a careful strategy to re-legitimize the resistance movement, demonstrate Iran's extensive reach in the region and provide a diplomatic opening for Syria. Such an explanation, however, does not sit well with those Lebanese citizens who lost their homes, businesses, friends and family members in 35 days of continued Israeli bombardments.

Nasrallah's apologetic interview is part of his damage-control strategy to win back any popular support in Lebanon that was lost in the fighting. As more and more Lebanese are returning to homes buried in rubble, resentment against Hezbollah's leader is running through the south and Shia are questioning whether sheltering Hezbollah fighters and weapons during the conflict was worth inviting a barrage of Israeli airstrikes. To reach out to his core Shiite constituency in the south, Nasrallah must now demonstrate that Israel had been searching for an excuse to go to war with Lebanon and that the need to maintain Hezbollah as a potent militant force to resist Israeli aggression is stronger than ever.

And what better way to buy political support in Lebanon than with cold hard cash? Hezbollah is handing out an average of $12,000 as compensation for the conflict to each of the approximately 35,000 Lebanese households in the south and in Beirut's southern suburbs. This is an extraordinary amount of cash that has been primarily financed through a hefty $400 million donation by Iran. Hezbollah is essentially carving out a position for itself to be the most powerful landlord in the south, where it will use rent payments to increase its control of land, fund its own political campaigns and acquire legitimate funding for future arms purposes.

Most of this cash is flowing through southern Lebanon in an aggressive Hezbollah-led reconstruction effort designed to maintain its support base among its Shiite constituency. The Lebanese government, politically incapable of stemming the flow of Iranian reconstruction money into Lebanon, has been conspicuously absent from the south since the cease-fire went into effect, giving Hezbollah plenty of room to put its social arm to work. Hezbollah has formed local committees in every village in the south to assess the damage and assist people in filing for compensation from Hezbollah's coffers. For example, a villager living in Al Abbasiyya in the south had only one glass window broken. A specialized Hezbollah committee that dealt only with broken windows visited his house and insisted on compensating him for the window. The following day, another Hezbollah committee paid $3,000 to reinvigorate the villager's lawn, which had dried out during the conflict.

In addition to extracting political sympathy, Hezbollah is also seeking to consolidate loyalties among Shia in the south for the time when Israel climbs out of its political rut and Hezbollah fighters again need shelter and arms south of the Litani River. Nasrallah is fully aware that Israel views the cease-fire as the halftime show before it returns to substantially cripple Hezbollah forces and reverse the perception that Hezbollah is the first Arab force to impose a military defeat on the Jewish state.

With this in mind, Hezbollah is doing whatever it can to deprive Israel of an excuse to restart hostilities in Lebanon. Hezbollah has already reached an understanding with the Lebanese army that allows the militants to relocate their weapons northward to their strongholds in the Bekaa Valley while maintaining underground cells in the south. Hezbollah has even used bulldozers to block tunnels and bunkers and flatten bases in the area in the south to show its commitment to the cease-fire. With Hezbollah creating favorable conditions for a peacekeeping force, Israel faces a difficult time in resuming a military campaign, as foreign troops will be sprawled throughout the south while Hezbollah behaves responsibly.

And Hezbollah could definitely use the break. Sources in Lebanon claim Hezbollah has buried more than 700 fighters so far, with many more to go. Hezbollah needs the cease-fire period to physically recover from its losses and recover public support. Meanwhile, the Shiite nexus of Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime is using the cease-fire period as a window of opportunity to solidify the perception of Hezbollah's victory while Israel remains entangled in domestic politics.

This article is published at Lebanonwire by agreement with www.stratfor.com, the world's leading private intelligence provider. For any questions or comments on this article please write to analysis@stratfor.com

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