South Lebanon, 10 years later

When contemplating the 10-year anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from South Lebanon, I keep coming back to an admission a Lebanese friend once made to me: In the aftermath of the withdrawal, he told me rather sheepishly, he had sported a T-shirt emblazoned with Hezbollah’s emblem to a soccer match. By driving the Israelis from Lebanese ...

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

When contemplating the 10-year anniversary of Israel's withdrawal from South Lebanon, I keep coming back to an admission a Lebanese friend once made to me: In the aftermath of the withdrawal, he told me rather sheepishly, he had sported a T-shirt emblazoned with Hezbollah's emblem to a soccer match. By driving the Israelis from Lebanese territory, the "Party of God" had earned that small show of support. I heard this story in 2008, when my now fiercely anti-Hezbollah friend was a supporter of a Lebanese coalition that was doing its best to establish limits to Hezbollah's impunity in South Lebanon and Beirut's southern suburbs.

This is perhaps not an ideal time to make a full-throated argument that the Israeli withdrawal laid the groundwork for the collapse of Hezbollah's domestic support. Lebanon's anti-Hezbollah coalition was forced to abandon its agenda following Hezbollah's invasion of West Beirut and the Chouf, and now only exists as a shadow of its former self. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, once at the movement's vanguard, was obliged to confer with Hezbollah's ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, before arriving in Washington today. One of the coalition's other pillars, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, now describes support for Hezbollah as a "political and strategic requirement" and has recently begun attacking senior members of his own party for keeping ties open to the few remaining anti-Hezbollah figures.

And yet -- the Israeli withdrawal has peeled off a layer of the party's supporters, including my soccer-playing friend. In 2001, Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir became one of the first major figures to call for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, a step that would have been impossible if Israel was still occupying the south. The patriarch would get his wish in 2005, following massive anti-Syrian protests. Lebanon's anti-Syrian coalition even won a majority in the May 2009 parliamentary election; its recent shift to accommodation of Hezbollah is not the result of conviction, but the militia's overwhelming military strength.

When contemplating the 10-year anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from South Lebanon, I keep coming back to an admission a Lebanese friend once made to me: In the aftermath of the withdrawal, he told me rather sheepishly, he had sported a T-shirt emblazoned with Hezbollah’s emblem to a soccer match. By driving the Israelis from Lebanese territory, the "Party of God" had earned that small show of support. I heard this story in 2008, when my now fiercely anti-Hezbollah friend was a supporter of a Lebanese coalition that was doing its best to establish limits to Hezbollah’s impunity in South Lebanon and Beirut’s southern suburbs.

This is perhaps not an ideal time to make a full-throated argument that the Israeli withdrawal laid the groundwork for the collapse of Hezbollah’s domestic support. Lebanon’s anti-Hezbollah coalition was forced to abandon its agenda following Hezbollah’s invasion of West Beirut and the Chouf, and now only exists as a shadow of its former self. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, once at the movement’s vanguard, was obliged to confer with Hezbollah’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, before arriving in Washington today. One of the coalition’s other pillars, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, now describes support for Hezbollah as a "political and strategic requirement" and has recently begun attacking senior members of his own party for keeping ties open to the few remaining anti-Hezbollah figures.

And yet — the Israeli withdrawal has peeled off a layer of the party’s supporters, including my soccer-playing friend. In 2001, Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir became one of the first major figures to call for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, a step that would have been impossible if Israel was still occupying the south. The patriarch would get his wish in 2005, following massive anti-Syrian protests. Lebanon’s anti-Syrian coalition even won a majority in the May 2009 parliamentary election; its recent shift to accommodation of Hezbollah is not the result of conviction, but the militia’s overwhelming military strength.

In the wake of the withdrawal’s 10-year anniversary, the old partisans have recycled their old arguments. In Israel, some have painted it as an ignominious retreat in the face of the growing Iranian threat. In Lebanon, Hezbollah portrays it as a first step in the long march to Israel’s destruction. But, at the end of the day, this is hollow rhetoric:  No serious voice in Israel calls for the reoccupation of a "security zone" in Lebanon. And, in its heart of hearts, Hezbollah must realize that its position would be more secure if there was still an Israeli enemy in Lebanon to demonize.

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.