|Hezbollah militants parade through the streets of Nabatiyeh atop a captured SLA armored personnel carrier on June 5. (Reuters/Kamel Jaber)|
In the aftermath of the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon, Hezbollah and the Amal movement are competing feverishly for leadership of the Lebanese Shi'ite community and the patronage of Syria's new leadership. While the final outcome of this struggle is not yet clear, it appears that Hezbollah is surging ahead of its rival on both counts.
On the surface, relations between Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and Nabih Berri, the head of Amal and Speaker of the Lebanese parliament, appear to be quite cordial. However, tensions between the two militias repeatedly boiled over into bloodletting last month as both groups rushed into south Lebanon to establish their presence in the former Israeli-occupied zone. On June 5, Ahmad Haidar Alyane, 18, was seriously injured in a clash with Hezbollah militiamen that erupted when he and other Amal partisans attempted to remove a yellow Hezbollah flag in the Kalawiya district of south Lebanon.1 In mid-June, five people in Bint Jbeil were injured when the car they were riding in came under a fire and two people were reportedly hurt during the course of another clash between the two groups in Jebbain.2 On June 18, Ghalib Hammadi, 35, was wounded during a fight that broke out between members of the two militias who were hanging pictures of Nasrallah and Berri, lasting all night until a Lebanese army unit intervened. A similar clash broke out in the village of Tura on the same day, but there were no casualties.3
As Hezbollah militants staged ostentatious victory parades throughout the area, Berri desperately sought to deny Hezbollah exclusive credit for the "liberation" of south Lebanon. In an attempt to seize some of the spotlight for himself, Berri convened a special session of the Lebanese parliament in the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil less than a week after the Israeli withdrawal.
|Nasrallah and Annan
It soon became apparent, though, that Damascus was intent on elevating Hezbollah to new political heights. The worst news for Berri was the decision by Damascus to give the two groups equal representation in Lebanon's next parliament through the selection of their joint candidate lists (Hezbollah currently has fewer seats than Amal). To Berri's dismay, Syrian and Lebanese officials then persuaded UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to personally meet with Nasrallah during his visit to Lebanon--in effect crowning him as the primary political force in the south. Shortly thereafter, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud invited Nasrallah, whom he had previously dealt with at arm's length, to make an unprecedented official visit to the presidential palace at Baabda. A statement issued by the presidential palace said that Lahoud "praised the great sacrifices made by the resistance movement and those made by Mr. Nasrallah himself, including his leadership of the group."4 Berri reacted by telling the Lebanese Editors Association later that day that "the liberation effort was carried out by all the Lebanese people without exception."5
Although Berri launched a vigorous campaign to plaster the country with likenesses of Bashar and his father after the death of the Syrian president on June 10 (most of the posters and banners which suddenly appeared overnight in Beirut were the result of Amal's handiwork), Syria's shift toward Hezbollah was clearly irreversible. This is not surprising. Amal has always been plagued by corruption and a lack of broad-based support within the Shi'ite community. Hezbollah, for all its shortcomings in the eyes of most Christians and Sunni Muslims, has attained an almost mythical status among ordinary Shi'ites and one would be hard-pressed to name a single Hezbollah official that has displayed anything but the most austere lifestyle. For a young Syrian leader seeking to wage his own war on corruption at home, Hezbollah is a far more attractive ally.
1 L'Orient Le-Jour (Beirut), 6 June 2000.
2 L'Orient Le-Jour (Beirut), 17 June 2000.
3 Al-Safir (Beirut) 20 June 2000.
4 Al-Safir (Beirut) 27 June 2000.
5 Radio Lebanon (Beirut), 27 June 2000.