Lebanon Faces External and Internal Threats to its Sovereignty and Independence

Saturday, February 13, 2021
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

Recent events pose fresh challenges to the country’s integrity as a state. The assassination of Lukman Slim, the resulting fallout, and statements by senior Israeli officials threatening massive retaliation if Hezbollah attacks Israel, make it clear that Lebanon’s stability remains questionable at best under continuous pressure from domestic and regional actors.

The international and domestic response to the Slim’s slaying has once again galvanized civil society and many governments and organizations to call on the Aoun government for a full and transparent investigation, something the country has not even been able to do for Beirut Port explosions six months ago. At a memorial service for Slim, the crowd was interdenominational, featuring religious and political leaders from many sects, although major government figures were absent. A Shia cleric who showed up was vigorously criticized and made an apology for coming to pray for the deceased!

There are concerns that the murder of Slim is a warning to critics of Hezbollah and its partners in the government to have a change of heart or become invisible. Many of these critics oppose a new bill in Parliament that would further limit all forms of expression, forcing the once vibrant Lebanese media further underground. With economic and political conditions worsening daily, added constraints on freedoms of expression and association will only serve to further erode Lebanese society.

Even humanitarian support is not free from political manipulations. The recent $246 million loan from the World Bank has to be approved by Parliament before it can reach needy Lebanese families, both in the form of cash cards for basic necessities, and payments to enable students to remain in secondary school. Funds are also included for building a new social security registration system to help speed and process social safety net payments. The government of Lebanon insisted initially that the funds be distributed in Lebanese currency at a conversion rate of 3900 lira. After some negotiations, a rate around 6400 lira to the dollar was agreed, allowing a margin of 20+% to the banks for processing the payments through their ATMs. More subsidies for a broken banking system!

The international community is well aware of the issues of working with the government and is looking for ways to provide humanitarian relief directly to Lebanese families and organizations. A number of solutions have been proposed, including an independent international agency that could vet partners in Lebanon and provide the oversight needed for an efficient and effective delivery of services throughout the country. This same challenge exists in administering vaccines. Several NGOs and private sector parties want to independently secure vaccines to distribute, but Western manufacturers are still dealing government to government and have not yet come up with a system that provides vaccines to the private sector while keeping prices reasonable. Having multiple sources of vaccines to inoculate the largest number of people is the only way forward if Lebanon is to reopen before the end of the summer.

Israel threatens
Continuing its campaign of intimidation towards Lebanon to diminish popular support for Hezbollah, senior Israeli defense and military officials again made clear the Israeli policy of making all of Lebanon pay dearly for Hezbollah’s transgressions against Israel. While “disproportionate response” is a consistent claim against Israel’s actions towards the Palestinians and towards Lebanon in the past, the all-encompassing threat has become more severe with Israel’s growing concern over Hezbollah’s manufacture and placement of precision-guided missiles throughout southern Lebanon.

As the IDF monitors and attacks arms depots and Iranian facilities in Syria, they intrude into Lebanese airspace daily, increasing the likelihood of “unintended consequences.” This tinderbox will be a challenge to the Biden Administration which, while generally providing Israel with carte blanche to defend itself, seeks to avoid being dragged into yet another military episode in the region.

The Lebanese Armed Forces are caught in a bind between responding to territorial violations and safeguarding the people in the South and throughout the country. UNIFIL reports the territorial violations on a continuing basis but no one on the UN Security Council is prepared to take on Israel’s right to defend itself if attacked, even when it allows its military to take forward-leaning opportunities that undermine Lebanese sovereignty.