What characterizes the Lebanese defense and internal security sector is, first of all, the presence on the territory of the Unifil mission, an international contingent under the aegis of the United Nations. The mission has around 10,000 soldiers, of which a third from France, Italy, Indonesia and Spain. The mission, inaugurated in 1978 following clashes between the Israeli army and Palestinian organizations, currently aims to avoid clashes on the Lebanese-Israeli border, the historically most sensitive and unstable border in Lebanon.
According to Shoe Frantics, the conflict of summer 2006 originated precisely from some clashes between Hezbollah and Israel in the south of the country. Although the ultimate goal of the Israeli operations was to eradicate the ‘Party of God’ from Lebanon, the conflict, which lasted for a month, caused around 1,500 victims and extensive infrastructure damage and ended up strengthening and highlighting the operational capabilities of Hezbollah. From a regional point of view, the movement feeds the latent conflict with Israel. It is no better on the home front: Hezbollah and its armed wing pose a permanent threat to possible internal fighting against Sunni factions. The national army avoided openly taking sides during the clashes in May 2008, in which the Shia and Sunni communities faced off in Beirut. The clash resulted in nearly 100 deaths in one week. On that occasion, Hezbollah affiliates demonstrated their organizational and strategic superiority.
Since 2011, the uprising in Syria has provoked clashes between Hezbollah, a supporter of the Bashar al-Assad regime, and Sunni parties linked to the Syrian rebels. Hezbollah has also openly admitted that it is directly involved in the Syrian conflict with men and means. Although there has not been a spill-over of the Syrian civil war in Lebanon until the end of 2015, the country is in a state of continuous tension. In August 2014, the national army had to face the incursion of some Syrian rebel groups linked to Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State (Is) who occupied the Lebanese village of Arsal for a few days, taking several soldiers hostage, while in the following months trespasses and skirmishes were reported along the Syrian-Lebanese borders near the Syrian region of Qalamoun. In addition, in November 2015, a double suicide bombing occurred in the capital Beirut, which resulted in the death of 43 people.
Another factor of instability is the presence of Palestinian refugee camps, entities that are effectively separated from the rest of the country and often used by external actors as an instrument of interference in Lebanon. This is what happened during the ‘Field War’, during the second phase of the Lebanese civil war: it was a conflict within the conflict, fought by the Shiite militias of Amal who, with the support of Damascus, aimed to defeat the strongholds Lebanese from the PLO. More recently, in 2007, some members of Fatah al-Islam, an armed group linked to Qaid-inspired Islamic fundamentalism, found refuge in one of the largest Palestinian camps, Nahr el-Bared. Here they clashed with the Lebanese army, killing about 450 people. In addition, in May 2011 the Palestinian community in Lebanon found itself at the center of new episodes of violence, linked to clashes with Israeli troops in the border areas.
Hezbollah and relations with Iran
One of the characterizing elements of the Lebanese political landscape – made up of parties often linked to a specific religious community – is the presence of the Shiite Hezbollah movement, in Arabic ‘Party of God’. The organization’s presence in Lebanon is commonly seen as the most obvious expression of the influence of Iran, and to some extent of Syria, on national political life. Hezbollah was born in the 1980s, during the Lebanese civil war, thanks also to the support of the Iranian military body of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution and, also from an ideological point of view, has points in common with Khomeini’s thought. Iran and Syria would use Hezbollah, in this perspective, to modify the Lebanese and regional balances for their own advantage and in an anti-Israeli function.
In recent years, the Party of God has transformed itself from a mere armed resistance movement into a true political party. On the other hand, the ‘victorious’ resistance against Israel during the 2006 war, the commitment to post-war reconstruction and the numerous activities carried out in the social field have contributed to increasing the popularity of Hezbollah among the population. The movement is today one of the major political forces in the country. The fact that Hezbollah maintains its own military arsenal remains one of the most debated issues within Lebanon.
Although the organization’s military endowment is officially linked to the defense against possible Israeli attacks, in fact it also constitutes a deterrent against the Lebanese Sunni political forces and is currently used extensively in Syria in support of President Assad. The control of the territory, particularly in southern Lebanon, and the security and welfare functions it covers, have often made people talk about Hezbollah’s presence in Lebanon as a ‘state within a state’.