Lebanon stands at the abyss
By Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah
For months, Lebanon has been enduring a dire economic situation to such an extent that Lebanon’s middle class has been wiped out. The country finds itself in extreme poverty, with the “former middle class” making up part of the 50% of Lebanese who have fallen into poverty in the last year. Today, Lebanon experiences shortages in every field of life: empty gasoline stations, barely a few hours of electricity a day, no baby formula, cancellation of night landings at the Beirut International airport for lack of electricity on the runways, and no medical supplies, forcing hospitals to refuse admissions and to close clinics. Physicians are leaving the country by the hundreds, as are all those who can afford to flee from Lebanon.
With formidable inflation accompanied by an almost 100 percent depreciation of the Lebanese lira in relation to the U.S. dollar, the army has been raising funds by providing $150 ten-minute rides in army helicopters for tourists in order to survive! Campaigns to raise money from donor countries brought little assistance except 150 tons of fish from Senegal, which was distributed solely to the presidential guard.
Oil products imported by Lebanon’s government find their way to Syria where they are sold, and the monies land in the coffers of Hizbullah. Medicines are imported by Hizbullah from Syria and Iran and sold on the black market without any control or supervision of their quality. Hizbullah enjoys the porous borders, sending pomegranates to Saudi Arabia filled with amphetamines and other drugs.
The Central Bank is out of reserves, which prevents the importation of goods and subsidization of basic food products. Lebanese are allowed, under very severe restrictions, to draw U.S. dollars from their bank accounts and are limited to $100 dollars per week (for those who still receive “fresh dollars” from abroad, as they are nicknamed).
Lebanon has reached the abyss, and at present there is no safety net to prevent the fall.
The only political body able to float above this dangerous wave is Hizbullah because of the financial backing it receives from Iran. Its institutions have transformed into a parallel state that provides food, medicine, hospitals, education, and gasoline for its followers. With undisputable powers in the Lebanese political system, Hizbullah, since August 2020, has managed to block all the attempts made by Prime Minister-designate, Saad Hariri to form a government. Hizbullah is preparing for a takeover of the political system when it is opportune.
Israel’s Defense Minister, Benny Gantz, proposed on July 6, 2021, to extend humanitarian assistance to Lebanon. “As an Israeli, as a Jew, and as a human being, my heart aches seeing the images of people going hungry on the streets of Lebanon,” Gantz said.
No answer has come yet from across the border.
It is obvious that Israel cannot offer a major assistance package to Lebanon; it is beyond its capabilities. However, as it did in Lebanon in the ‘70s and at the beginning of the civil war in Syria, Israel can open the “Good Fence,” nicknamed the “Fatma Gate,” near Metulla and offer medical assistance through a field hospital and allow humanitarian goods to flow into Lebanon through the conduit of UNIFIL. In addition to it being an act of “public relations,” Israel can revive its historic contact with the population of South Lebanon, who may dare to challenge Hizbullah and accept Israeli assistance because of the dire economic and humanitarian circumstances.
Israel Is Not Enough
The solution is not to be found in a small gesture presented by Lebanon’s southern neighbor. Lebanon is facing (especially in its northern part) a state of insurgency and civil war. Militias have taken to the streets, and the army has been chased from the streets of Tripoli. All over Lebanon, roadblocks have been established, and demonstrations and angry protests have been taken place to express the Lebanese despair and powerlessness to survive this unprecedented crisis. Lebanon’s body politic has proven to be incapable of finding a solution.
The Lebanese confessional (consociational) political formula has failed: first created in 1958, amended after 15 years of civil war in 1990, and today, obsolete. The system must be refurbished, renovated, replaced by something new, innovative, and adapted to the reality of the 21st century. The Lebanese politicians, who are, in fact, chiefs of ethnic and religious tribes, have to leave the political scene and allow a massive reform in the body politic.
If Lebanon is to be saved before it sinks in an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe, the international community must step in, as Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab appealed on July 6, 2021, to the international community and the UN. It should commandeer the powers of the present Lebanese government and president and replace them with the power vested in a UN Security Council resolution for a High Commissioner to rule Lebanon for a defined period of time. This will allow the establishment of a different technocratic government and system of governance and enable the world community to extend economic and financial assistance.
This High Commissioner would be assisted by a massive military presence that would impose – at the price of a military confrontation – the disarmament of all militias – first and foremost Hizbullah. Without the neutralization of the Hizbullah military machine, it is doubtful that such a reform can be implemented.
Such a precedent occurred in Kosovo, where peace finally was established after the military intervention of NATO forces. For those who doubt the capability to confront Hizbullah, one has to remember that Hizbullah is not the Taliban, and Lebanon, with all due respect, is not Iraq or Afghanistan. All in all, it is a land of 10,452 square kilometers, half the size of Israel, Wales, or New Hampshire.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.