The July-August 2006 war with Israel proved the validity of Hezbollah’s contention about the LAF, but raised new questions about the party’s monopoly over decisions pertaining to war and peace in Lebanon. The party had miscalculated Israel’s response to the abduction of soldiers along the Lebanese-Israeli border, leading to much death and destruction, especially for its own core Shia constituency. Hezbollah’s military capabilities to resist Israel’s attacks stunned its domestic supporters and opponents alike, and its swift mobilisation of a Herculean reconstruction effort demonstrated its commitment to its “resistance society”.
Nevertheless the resulting sense of invincibility unleashed some unruly practices inside and outside the southern suburbs that sullied the party’s hitherto untarnished image. Similarly, growing consumerism and clientelism among some middle-level party cadres exposed Hezbollah to serious criticism even from within the Shia community.
The party would not compromise on its weapons arsenal, however, and snubbed all attempts to limit its operational autonomy after the 2006 war. The 14 March Alliance insisted that UNSCR 1701, adopted in August 2006 to call for an end to hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel, banned Hezbollah’s military presence south of the Litani River. However, the party interpreted the resolution as referring only to visible military installations and movements. In fact, Hezbollah went on to replenish and expand its weapons arsenal after the war, further rebranding its strategic utility for Lebanon’s defence.
The stand-off between Hezbollah and 14 March peaked when all five Shia ministers resigned from the Siniora government on 11 November 2006, protesting against his unilateral decision to table draft by-laws for a proposed international court to investigate the Hariri assassination. When the Siniora government passed the by-laws on 13 November 2006 despite the absence of all Shia ministers, Hezbollah responded by organising a massive sit-in in Beirut’s central district that began on 1 December 2006 and lasted uninterrupted for 18 months. Hezbollah was determined to paralyse the Siniora government and deny it any semblance of domestic legitimacy.
The political deadlock that predated the 2006 war, overlapping with a grander geopolitical regional contest between Tehran and Riyadh, climaxed in May 2008 when Hezbollah, supported by the Amal Movement and other pro-Syrian militias, undertook a lightning military operation to occupy West Beirut and decimate the Future Movement’s skeletal military structure.
The trigger for this astonishing offensive was the Siniora government’s 5 May 2008 decision to consider Hezbollah’s clandestine telecommunications network illegal, a charge akin to declaring the party an outlawed militia. It was the first time in post-war Lebanon that Hezbollah turned its firepower and military expertise inwards, against fellow Lebanese, despite frequent promises by the party’s leadership that its weapons were aimed solely at Israel.
The Qatari-negotiated 21 May 2008 Doha Accord temporarily resolved the political stand-off between the 8 and 14 March coalitions, but it was unable to heal the sectarian scar created by Hezbollah’s military takeover of West Beirut. For at least half of Lebanon and a substantial cross-section of the country’s Sunni community, Hezbollah’s weapons were now nothing more than the firepower of an illegitimate militia. In contrast, the other half of the country, and especially most Shia Lebanese, saw Hezbollah’s military operation in West Beirut was a tactical pre-emptive strike aimed at eliminating potential military threats in the party’s own security environment.
Hezbollah later unfolded its Political Document of 30 November 2009 in part to restore a measure of domestic legitimacy and consent around its military capability. It now formally accepted the confessional political system it had condemned in the 1985 Open Letter, underscoring the post-Taif veto power enjoyed by the three main sectarian communities in government formation and cabinet decision-making. Moreover, Hezbollah insisted that its arms were part of a trinity responsible for deterring any future Israeli attacks that also included the LAF and the Lebanese population – a doctrine labelled al-jaysh, al-sha‘b, al-moqawama (the army, the people, the resistance). Combined, the consociational proviso and deterrence posture guaranteed the party veto power on future deliberations pertaining to a national defence strategy, Hezbollah’s role in it, and the modalities of any prospective demobilisation and disarmament.