At least seven people were reported killed and dozens were injured in Beirut on October 14, amidst another day of grief and bloodshed for the city. The unrest took place during a mass protest in front of the Justice Palace, where the demonstrators called for the dismissal of Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the Beirut Port explosion inquiry.

The vast majority of the protesters, who blamed the judge for being politically biased, were members and affiliates of Amal and Hezbollah, the two leading Shia organizations in Lebanon. The members of both groups, well-known for their militant activism, carried weaponry in plain sight, including AK-47 rifles and RPG launchers.

[One Year After the Beirut Blast, Lebanon Still Awaits the Truth]

This latest mutual gathering of Amal and Hezbollah made headlines due to its violent outcome and exemplifies the ever-changing political dynamics and fluidity of Lebanese society.

Lebanese army guards the Justice Palace as supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal groups protest against Judge

Lebanese army guard the Justice Palace as supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal groups protest against Judge investigating last year’s seaport blast, in Beirut, Lebanon, Oct. 14, 2021. (AP Photo Hussein Malla)

The Historically Oppressed Lebanese Shia Community

The Shia community in modern Lebanon constitutes approximately 30 percent of the population, and currently holds a significant position in the stormy domestic political scene. However, this has not always been the case. The Shia presence in the geographical region of modern Lebanon goes back to the seventh century AD and can be mostly found in the southern regions of the country, the Beqaa Valley — predominantly in the Baalback-Hermel Governorate — and in Beirut, including certain suburbs.

Over the centuries, the political representation and standing of the Lebanese Shia were mostly marginalized and constrained. Regardless of the country’s circumstances, the Shia community was mistreated and faced a hostile attitude. This was the case during the Mamluk period, under Ottoman rule, and the French mandate.[1]

Over the centuries, the political representation and standing of the Lebanese Shia were mostly marginalized and constrained.

This could be mainly attributed to the fact that the Lebanese Shia were often at odds with the country’s rulers. They have also been heavily relying on the problematic, clientelist Za’im system, which depends on a leading family figure and lacks a unified leadership representing the community as a whole.[2]

Furthermore, from the 19th to the late 20th century, the Shia Lebanese were not supported by any sizeable foreign power, in the way France, Britain, and Russia backed the Maronite, Druze, and Greek Orthodox communities respectively.[3]

This situation would gradually shift in the 1960s and especially after 1970. The catalyst for this change was the return of Imam Musa al-Sadr to Lebanon. Musa al-Sadr was an emblematic figure for all Shia in Lebanon and abroad, regardless of political affiliation. Between 1970 and 1974, Imam al-Sadr set up a plethora of councils and institutions to promote the interests and political inclusion of the Lebanese Shia. The Committee for the Aid of the South, the Council for the South, and the well-known Movement of the Deprived have been among them. These entities sought to establish a just context for the disadvantaged Shia community, consolidate an integrated political presence, and eliminate the harmful Za’im system.

The Birth of Amal and Hezbollah

All of these social changes did not take place in a smooth and peaceful environment. Since the early 1970s, the sectarian antagonism among competing groups across Lebanon, combined with the massive flows of Palestinian refugees and militants in the aftermath of Black September, had created an extremely unstable atmosphere within the country. The ever-growing tension gradually evolved into a full-scale civil war by 1975. The Maronite Lebanese Forces’ militias (including Kataeb/Phalange) and the Lebanese National Movement militant groups in cooperation with the PLO, revealed that the key socio-political and religious groups, namely the Christian and the Sunni Muslims, had already established their armed presence in the country.

This underlined the existing security vacuum for the Shia community, prompting al-Sadr to lead the formation of Amal, the military wing of the Movement of the Depressed. Amal, which means “Hope” in Arabic, but also stands as an acronym for “Lebanese Resistance Regiments,” was created to ensure the safety, political rights, and demands of the underprivileged Shia Lebanese. During 1978, a crucial year for the movement, the Israeli invasion in Southern Lebanon, known as “Operation Litani,” emphasized the inability of the PLO to act as a deterrence force and protect local populations, urging many Lebanese to join Amal. However, the turning point for the group remains the 1978 disappearance of al-Sadr, who at the time was on a tour of the Arab world to seek support for the Lebanese cause. Al-Sadr went missing while visiting Muamar Ghaddafi’s Libya. The subsequent lack of a leader contributed drastically to the eventual split of Amal.[4]

Another event that could explain the fragmentation of the group was the 1978-79 Iranian revolution.

Another event that could explain the fragmentation of the group was the 1978-79 Iranian revolution. This milestone development for the global Shia community sparked antagonism between two internal trends within Amal: those supporting the religious character of the movement and seeking closer ties with Tehran, as expressed by founder Husayn Al-Musawi, and those focusing on a more politically strict and secular approach, expressed by Amal’s elected leader, Nabih Berri. These dynamics, combined with the massive Israel Defense Forces (IDF) military operation and invasion of Lebanon in 1982, cemented Amal’s final split and the birth of Hezbollah (the “Party of God”).

[Who is Hezbollah? A Brief Background History]

Financially and logistically backed by Iran through the involvement of top Iranian diplomats and the deployment of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon, Hezbollah emerged as a new dynamic alternative for the Lebanese Shia. Young radical members of the Shia clergy, including the party’s current leader Hassan Nasrallah, and numerous frustrated former Amal members have been at the very core of Hezbollah during its initial years. Nabih Berri’s decision to join the National Salvation Committee governmental scheme, alongside the Lebanese Forces, an occasional collaborator of Israel, further strengthened the newly born Hezbollah at the expense of Amal.[5]

In this May 31 2019 file photo Hezbollah fighters march at a rally to mark Jerusalem day or Al Quds day in the southern Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh Lebanon.

In this May 31, 2019 file photo, Hezbollah fighters march at a rally to mark Jerusalem day or Al-Quds day, in the southern Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh, Lebanon. . (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)

Controversies Over the Palestinian Struggle and the Brothers’ War

Since the formation of Hezbollah, the two organizations managed to maintain a modus vivendi within the turbulent context of the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 to 1990. Besides fundamental differences over domestic politics, their common stance against Israel, and the narrative of a wider Shia revolutionary perspective, the Palestinian presence in Lebanon has been the most controversial issue between the two groups. In 1984, Amal directly confronted the Palestinians through military operations against the refugee camps of Beirut, Burj al-Baraji, Sabra, and Shatila. Between 1985 and 1987, and with the complicity of the Israeli forces and Christian militias, Amal conducted the infamous “War of the Camps,” a devastating full-scale combat operation against Palestinians in Lebanon to eliminate their power and capabilities in the country.[6]

Amal’s hostilities against the Palestinians prompted Hezbollah to take an active and fierce stance.

During this time, the Palestinian struggle was internationally recognized as an act of resistance against Israeli offensive actions and demands in the Middle East. This was particularly important for the Lebanese Shia, who have been heavily impacted by the Israeli invasion and occupation of Southern Lebanon. Amal’s hostilities against the Palestinians prompted Hezbollah to take an active and fierce stance, while numerous disillusioned former Amal members continued joining the “Party of God.” The gradual escalation between the leading Shia groups, amidst the War of the Camps, fueled by the antagonism between their key foreign backers—Syria and Iran respectively— eventually led to a full-scale confrontation, known as the “War of Brothers.”

From 1988 to 1990, Amal and Hezbollah engaged in a grim and bloody fight, resulting in the death of over 3,000 Lebanese Shia. After continuous battles, Hezbollah managed to establish its presence in Beirut, including in Haret al-Hreik and other Amal’s former strongholds. The transfer of the operations to Southern Lebanon, in the Iqlim al-Toufah and Iqlim al-Kharoub areas, had further disastrous consequences for both sides until 1990, when this “Brothers’ War” was concluded.[7]

Reaching Consensus and the Cynicism of Political Pragmatism

The close of the Lebanese Civil War with the Taif Agreement, the catastrophic toll on Amal and Hezbollah after two years of intense fighting, combined with a more tolerant Iranian stance following Khomeini’s death, led to a ceasefire in 1990, negotiated and supported by Tehran and Damascus. The early 1990s found Hezbollah in a new position. The military approach and structure would begin to co-exist within the same political wing, defining the Lebanese scene for the decades to follow. In this novel pragmatic context, Hezbollah’s leadership understood that the old rivalries had to be left behind and their next moves had to be aligned with their long-term strategic objectives.

The alliance has not always been ideal, but both sides are managing to keep the balance.

Since then, the two parties have been working closely, consolidating their rule in Shia-dominated Southern Lebanon. The alliance has not always been ideal, but both sides are managing to keep the balance in the domestic and international context. Tellingly, Amal’s representatives visited Iran in 1996 for the first time in the party’s history, even as Tehran had been consistently opposed to Amal’s secular strategy and actions.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian issue has remained a point of friction between the two. Hezbollah has continued to support Palestinian civil rights. Thus, when in 2001 the Lebanese Parliament voted for the prevention of Palestinian ownership and property inheritance rights, Hezbollah ministers tried to block the process. However, once the legislation was approved, the Party has abstained from any further legal action to overturn the result and accepted the outcome. [8]

In September 2002, Hezbollah led the organization of memorial events for the 1980s massacres in Palestinian camps. Hezbollah’s decision to invite the Amal MP, Abdullah Musa, to participate in the memorial raised widespread controversy among the vast number of attending Palestinians, considering Amal’s role in the War of the Camps. This incident highlighted Amal and Hezbollah’s political cynicism in their effort to downgrade or even erase adverse past events.[9]

The formation of the March 8 alliance in 2005 sealed the cooperation between Hezbollah and Amal and underscored their political gains. Since then, the parties have managed to elect numerous MPs in the country’s elections and appoint ministers in the Lebanese Cabinet. While Hezbollah has fortified its position and influence in Lebanon year after year, capitalizing on its social policies and military activities against Israel, Amal’s leader, Nabih Berri, remains a key figure in Lebanese politics, holding the Speaker of Parliament position since 1992.

The latest events in front of the Justice Palace on October 14 underscored the unique and unpredictable nature of Lebanon’s political landscape. Amal and Hezbollah’s armed members stood side-by-side to promote their mutual goals, while members of these same groups harshly fought each other to death in the not-too-distant past.

Ultimately, the alliance remains based on a pragmatic approach, serving mutually beneficial political interests, that is until, under different circumstances, today’s allies could yet again turn into tomorrow’s bitter enemies.

 

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[1] Siklawi, Rami. “The Social and Political Identities of the Shi’i Community in Lebanon.” Arab Studies Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 4, Pluto Journals, 2014, pp. 278–82.

[2] Hamzeh, A. Nizar. “Clientalism, Lebanon: Roots and Trends.” Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 37, no. 3, Taylor & Francis, Ltd., 2001, pp. 167–78.

[3] Korn, David A. “Syria and Lebanon: A Fateful Entanglement.” The World Today, vol. 42, no. 8/9, Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1986, pp. 137–38.

[4] Saad-Ghorayeb, Amal. “Factors Conducive To The Politicization Of The Lebanese Shīʿa And The Emergence Of Ḥizbuʾllāh.” Journal of Islamic Studies, vol. 14, no. 3, Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 273–307.

[5] Siklawi, Rami. “The Dynamics Of The Amal Movement In Lebanon 1975-90.” Arab Studies Quarterly, vol. 34, no. 1, Pluto Journals, 2012, pp. 13–15.

[6] Stork, Joe. “The War of the Camps, The War of the Hostages.” MERIP Reports, no. 133, Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), 1985, pp. 3–7.

[7] Shaery-Eisenlohr, Roschanack. “Postrevolutionary Iran and Shi˓i Lebanon: Contested Histories of Shi˓i Transnationalism.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 39, no. 2, Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp. 271–89.

[8] Khalili, Laleh. “‘Standing with My Brother’: Hizbullah, Palestinians, and the Limits of Solidarity.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 49, no. 2, Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 284.

[9] Ibid, pp. 286-287.