Nasrallah’s “Bring it on!” Moment

The Secretary General of Hezbollah’s speeches are always purposeful and addressed to specific audiences. On this occasion, he wanted to buck up his Shia supporters and warn Arab states and his internal Lebanese adversaries not to be encouraged by any Western initiatives to think they could defeat his party.

“We, the Shia of Ali Bin Abi Taleb, the Islamic, Shia, Twelver Party of God, will not abandon the people of Palestine. Tell that to Israel, the U.S. and the Arab regimes with them, that we will shoulder our responsibilities!”

With this phrase, the Secretary General of Hezbollah ended yet another speech to his party faithful and the world. Tumultuous applause erupted as did shouts of Labbaika Ya Nasr-allah (“We are at your beck and call, O Nasrallah”), a pun on the leader’s name, Nasrallah, which means  “God’s victory” in Arabic. In tone, substance and chosen venue, this speech does not bode well for Lebanon or the region. Lebanese state institutions are grinding to a halt because of the stalemate between the rival March 8 and March 14 groups, and the battle for Syria drags on and is gradually drawing not only Lebanon but the whole region in to the fight.

Nasrallah’s words indicate that his group is girding for a long fight on all levels with no hint of any readiness for compromise. He chose to deliver this speech live, with him present on the stage and not broadcasting it from an underground studio as has been his wont for obvious security reasons. This, most likely, was deliberately done to dispel any notion that Hezbollah is on the defensive.

In terms of substance, Nasrallah wanted to drive home the following points:

  • The Israel-Palestine peace initiative proposed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is a sham.
  • Palestine does not belong to Palestinians alone; it belongs to every Arab, Muslim or Christian, and to every Muslim, Arab or non-Arab.
  • No one individual, organization or state has the right to give up even one grain of Palestinian soil.
  • Palestine is defined as all of historic Palestine, from the sea (Mediterranean) to the river (Jordan).
  • Israel is a cancerous entity (quoting Imam Khomeini), which must be excised.
  • We, the Party of God (in Arabic, Hezbollah), will shoulder our responsibilities in this regard.

Nasrallah’s speeches are always purposeful and addressed to specific audiences. On this occasion, he wanted to buck up his Shia supporters and warn Arab states and his internal Lebanese adversaries not to be encouraged by any Western initiatives to think they could defeat his party. First, to the Shia, Nasrallah invoked a history of victimization of their community (both perceived and real) at the hands of Sunni Muslims and the world. He began this by saying, “I’ve often spoken to you as an Arab, a Muslim, you name it, but this time I want to speak as a Shiite.” Nasrallah cleverly responded to the increasingly sectarian tone of the discourse growing out of the Syrian conflict and the involvement of Sunni Arab states on the side of the rebels versus the involvement of Iran, Iraq’s Shia government and Hezbollah on the side of the Syrian regime.

Nasrallah blamed this sectarianism on those behind the Arab regimes who incite their citizens against Shia minorities. He added that, “they,” presumably the West, “have tried to dissuade us over the years from facing the real danger in our midst, and that is Israel, by turning the attention of Arabs towards Communism (as in Afghanistan), then towards Iran (in the Iran-Iraq war), eliciting billions of dollars for those conflicts. Finally, with nothing else working for them, the West now discovered the danger of Shia expansion! They now want to turn ‘us’ (Arabs/Muslims) against one another by creating this Sunni-Shia conflict.” To paraphrase, Nasrallah is saying “Fine, if they want to pick on us as Shia, let us tell them who we are and what we stand for.”

Nasrallah, not only stressed that Hezbollah is a Shia organization, but he specifically described it as part of the Twelver paradigm—the leading school of thought followed by Iran’s clergy. Note here that not all Shiites are members of this particular school of thought, even in Lebanon. In a stroke, Nassrallah broke the taboo of using sectarian terms and poked that particular hornet’s nest himself, telling his audience that if the others (Arab states and Sunnis) want to be drawn into a sectarian conflict, they could go ahead and do so. To use the American vernacular, Nasrallah is defiantly saying, “Bring it on!”

Futhermore, Nasrallah trashed the latest peace process initiative in order to remind his audiences and adversaries that Hezbollah is a resistance/liberation group, a main reason for the party’s alliance with Iran and the Syrian regime, and a reason for the continued maintenance of militia and weapons. Even though Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has accepted the resumption of talks with the Israeli government, Nasrallah remains defiant. If the Palestinians accepted to negotiate over Palestinian territory, his party would not accept any resultant compromise. Nasrallah also sent an olive branch to Hamas with this position since they too have opposed the Kerry initiative and have been somewhat distant from Iran and Hezbollah since a rift between the Assad regime and Hamas on how the Syrian uprising was being handled led to the departure of Khaled Meshaal from Damascus last year.

In the end, the most important audience for Hezbollah is  Lebanese. Thus, he warned his domestic adversaries not to derive any confidence from the European Union listing of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. None of that is relevant to what happens in Lebanon, according to Nasrallah. “Our positions on the domestic issues remain the same. We cannot be intimidated into changing them.” These positions include the rejection of the election law of 1960, and the extension of the Lebanese parliament’s term and that of the Lebanese Army’s chief of staff. The latest attempts to form a new Lebanese government do not provide Hezbollah the representation it desires. March 8, the coalition led by Hezbollah, has already succeeded in extending the life of the current parliament and the term of the chief of staff of the army, all while blocking the formation of a new cabinet unless it meets their preferred criteria.

The defiant tone and content of this speech do not augur well for a Lebanese national dialogue or reconciliation. Far from being willing to discuss a turn to nonviolence, something the March 14 group, and now President Michel Suleiman, have demanded, Nasrallah sounded like a man on a warpath. More ominously, he has put the Sunni population in Lebanon on notice, suggesting that the Shia community could be mobilized against them and, with Hezbollah at their head, would form a formidable adversary. But that sort of sectarian incitement cuts both ways.

Nabeel Khoury is Senior Fellow for Middle East and National Security at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He previously served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Yemen (2004-2007), Deputy Director of the Media Outreach Centre in London (2002-2004), and Consul General in Morocco (1998-2002). In 2003, During the Iraq war, he served as Department spokesperson at U.S. Central Command in Doha and in Baghdad.