Lebanon ‘is a hostage to the veto power’ of Hezbollah, says Lebanese economist Nadim Shehadi

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Updated 20 February 2023
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Lebanon ‘is a hostage to the veto power’ of Hezbollah, says Lebanese economist Nadim Shehadi

  • Regards Lebanese crisis as part of a ‘broader regional problem, which needs to be treated as such’
  • Says shortcomings of the political class does not justify calls for the abolition of the entire system

DUBAI: Eighteen years ago this month, Rafik Hariri, a prominent politician and former prime minister of Lebanon, was assassinated by a suicide truck bomb in Beirut. Originally a philanthropist before his engagement in politics, Hariri, who had made his fortune in construction, donated millions of dollars to victims of war and conflict in Lebanon, and later played a major role in ending the civil war and rebuilding the capital city.

Hariri’s assassination marked the beginning of dramatic political change and movements calling for democracy in Lebanon. For years after his assassination, politicians and important figures opposed to the influence of both Syria and Hezbollah in the country were targeted.

Despite an international tribunal finding members of Hezbollah guilty of Hariri’s assassination after passionate calls for an investigation into his death, the Iran-backed militia group has only tightened its grip on Lebanon, keeping the country in a dire state.

“Hariri was killed 18 years ago and it took about 15 years to destroy the whole country after everything he tried to build,” Lebanese economist Nadim Shehadi said on “Frankly Speaking,” the Arab News current affairs talk show which engages with leading policymakers and business leaders.

“The Special Tribunal for Lebanon and the independent international investigation commission came to Lebanon, and it took them about 15 years to produce their result. And for the first time in the history of Lebanon, where we have had several assassinations, for the first time, we had a conviction,” Shehadi said.

But according to him, despite a conviction in Hariri’s case, Hezbollah’s influence over Lebanon means that the real perpetrators of the assassination will go unpunished, and the group will continue to hold the country hostage.

Lebanon’s various political and economic crises have only intensified in recent years, with inflation in the country rising to the highest in the world in 2021 and the value of the Lebanese lira plummeting drastically.

Last year witnessed a series of bank holdups by armed customers seeking to withdraw their frozen deposits. In a country whose capital was formerly referred to as the “Paris of the East,” two-thirds of the population now suffers from poverty, with regular electricity blackouts and shortages of basic necessities such as medicine and water increasingly commonplace.




A protester throws a brick at a bank after setting fire to tires during a demonstration in Beirut on February 16, 2023. (AFP)

The country’s chronic instability has deepened in recent years in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the 2020 Beirut port explosion which killed hundreds, left hundreds of thousands homeless, and damaged over half of the city while inflicting massive economic losses.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the two international organizations which campaign against injustice and inequality, have called the investigation into the blast a “farce.”

Shehadi asserts that despite Lebanon’s historically “very healthy and functioning judiciary,” Hezbollah has interfered with the investigation.

This series of disasters have pushed many Lebanese to call for the removal of the entire political class, something that Shehadi views as a “ridiculous demand.”




Lebanese wait to fill their gas cylinders in the southern city of Sidon amidst a deepening economic crisis, on August 10, 2021. (AFP)

In his opinion, Lebanon’s political system is not “sectarianism,” as some observers term it, but rather “a political system based on a social contract between communities and which has maintained the country … even before the state was created.”

“We have a banking system which was the banking center of the region. We have political parties. These are pillars that distinguish Lebanon … and the revolution is asking almost for the dismantlement of all these pillars,” he told Katie Jensen, the host of “Frankly Speaking.”

While Shehadi acknowledges there are definitely issues with Lebanon’s political class, which he says was compromised by 15 years of occupation and political infiltration by the Syrian regime, “this doesn’t justify calling for the abolition of the whole system.”

Eight months after the country’s general elections, Lebanon still has not reached a consensus regarding its president or a functioning parliament.




Lebanese protesters gather to protest against tax increases and official corruption outside the Sidon branch of Lebanese Central Bank in southern city on November 30, 2019. (AFP)

Urgent political reforms are needed to unlock the $3 billion in emergency funds from the International Monetary Fund, but with Lebanon’s political system in tatters and its parliamentarians regularly staging walkouts, accessing these funds seems unlikely.

Shehadi said that while he is not opposed to a “fragmented” parliament with diverse political opinions, “what we have is not a fragmented parliament. What we have is a paralysis of all institutions that’s been building up for 15 years, 17 years almost.”

He added that Lebanon and its institutions are “a hostage to the veto power” of Hezbollah, which has gained footholds in Lebanon by means of assassinations and building of political alliances.

Shehadi compares Hezbollah’s gradual infiltration of state institutions in Lebanon to the behavior of drug cartels in power in narco-states in Latin America.




Hezbollah supporters attend a televised speech by the group's leader Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut's southern suburbs on January 3, 2023. (AFP)

“They bribe politicians, the judiciary, the police, the army. Those who cannot be co-opted, if you like, are probably dead, and those who can be framed or blackmailed — that’s how criminal organizations gain power in a country,” he said.

The Lebanese parliament has held eleven electoral sessions to elect the president since Sept. 29 last year, with every session failing to elect a candidate.

In recent days, Joseph Aoun, commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, has emerged as a potential contender. However, this would require a constitutional amendment, and consensus from the parliament, which is currently headed by Speaker Nabih Berri.

Though he calls Berri “a brilliant operator” who is familiar with the ins and outs of Lebanon’s tangled political web, Shehadi says Berri is “also a hostage himself.”

Berri is the leader of the Amal Movement, which engaged in a years-long war with Hezbollah in the 1980s which saw thousands killed.




In this photo taken on June 6, 2020, Lebanese troops block supporters of the Lebanese Shiite movements Hezbollah and Amal trying to crash through a rally in Beirut decrying the collapse of the economy. (AFP)

“It ended with an agreement between them, sponsored by Iran and Syria, whereby they basically formed one block in parliament and one list, which means they have the monopoly of Shiite representation. They do not have a monopoly of Shiite support, but they have the monopoly of Shiite representation because of the way they manipulate lists in their areas,” Shehadi said.

During multiple electoral sessions stretching from September 2022 to January this year, many MPs left their ballot papers blank, with some in early sessions even casting their votes for “For Lebanon,” “Righteous dictator,” and “Nobody.”

Shehadi explained that major decisions and appointments within the Lebanese administration must be made by consensus, and with the signature of the president, speaker of the parliament, and prime minister. In the midst of the current political power vacuum, this means that the government in Lebanon has all but ceased to function.

“We had that for 29 months, without a president, without a parliament, and without a functioning government … we had a caretaker government, until our politicians, if you like, compromised and accepted to elect the favorite candidate of Hezbollah. So, we are in the same position, and it’s a difficult position because the longer we resist, the more damage there is, and I think our economic collapse is mainly caused by paralysis,” Shehadi said.




A January 19, 2023, photo shows Lebanon's Parliament convening to elect a new president. Because of sectarian divisions, the election failed. (AFP file)

“The priority now is to have a president and a functioning parliament and a functioning government so that state institutions do not collapse further.”

Shehadi added that though there is no shortage of credible candidates, the parliament is “held hostage, and the whole system is held hostage because you need a certain majority to start the process of elections. You need a two-thirds plus one majority, which means that one-third of parliament can spoil the process.”

Even if this litany of political challenges were overcome and Lebanon managed to receive assistance from the IMF, Shehadi said that IMF funds would not be a solution to all of Lebanon’s financial problems. However, he stressed that “engagement with the IMF is crucial.”

“Following the IMF recommendations is very important, especially on fiscal and monetary policy. There’s a lot of opposition to some of the IMF reforms, which I understand,” he said, adding that many observers say that $3 billion in funds will do very little to alleviate the country’s $90 billion deficit.

“But I think, in my view, it’s more important to remain engaged. The country is being paralyzed and isolated from the West, from the Arab countries, and now will be isolated from international institutions too, like the IMF and the World Bank and the UN and all that. It’s very damaging to ignore the IMF route.”




Nadim Shehadi speaks to Frankly Speaking host Katie Jensen. (Supplied)

Shehadi concurs with the World Bank’s assessment of the meltdown in Lebanon as one of the worst modern crises in recent history. But asked if he thinks there is a way out of the quagmire, he replied: “Yes, but I don’t see it only for Lebanon. The whole region is suffering from the same problem. The Lebanese case is similar to what is happening in Palestine, in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, and this could spread to other countries in the region who could be vulnerable.”

He continued: “It should be treated as a regional phenomenon, which is, basically, the role of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The IRGC, as a paramilitary, non-state actor, has taken over the Iranian state and society in the same way as Hezbollah is acting in Lebanon, in the same way as Iranian-sponsored militias are behaving in Iraq, and definitely in the same way as Hamas has paralyzed the whole of the peace process in Palestine.”




Hezbollah supporters attend a memorial service in Beirut for Qasem Soleimani, the slain top commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. (AFP file)

Under the circumstances, Shehadi said the multidimensional crisis in Lebanon is part of a “broader regional problem, which needs to be treated as such. Lebanon is the fault line or the weakest point. A lot of the region’s ills, or problems, surface in Lebanon first.”

Because of this, Shehadi added, international and regional engagement and cooperation are crucial components to solving Lebanon’s crisis, and that the international community must refrain from seeing Lebanon as a hopeless case.

“We are definitely hostages, but we still have a say in the country and we need international support to get out of the grip of (Hezbollah). And again, the grip is regional. So, our fate is similar to Iraq, similar to Palestine, similar to Syria, and similar to Yemen,” he said.

“I don’t think one can see it in a fragmented way. And it’s wrong to abandon a place just because it’s considered to be lost. Lebanon is not a lost case.”

 

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Dubai carrier Emirates suspends check-in for onward connections, flydubai cancels Iran flights

Updated 19 April 2024
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Dubai carrier Emirates suspends check-in for onward connections, flydubai cancels Iran flights

  • Emirates suspends check-in for all customers in its network travelling with onward connections through Dubai

DUBAI: Dubai’s flagship airline Emirates is suspending check-in for all customers with onward connections through the city until 2359 GMT on Friday, three days after a record storm swept the United Arab Emirates.

Emirates, one of the world’s biggest international airlines, said customers traveling to Dubai as their final destination may check-in and travel as usual.

The suspension shows the airline and its hub, Dubai International Airport, are still struggling to clear a backlog of flights after the UAE saw its heaviest rains in the 75 years records have been kept, bringing much of the country to a standstill for two days and causing significant damage.

Thousands of passengers have been affected by flight cancelations this week, Dubai Airports Chief Executive Paul Griffiths told local radio station Dubai Eye on Friday, after the storm flooded taxiways.

Dubai Airports Chief Operating Officer Majed Al-Joker said on Thursday that Dubai International Airport would resume normal operations within 24 hours and signalled a return to full capacity and regular schedule, state news agency WAM reported.

The storm, which hit neighboring Oman on Sunday, pounded the UAE on Tuesday, with 20 reported dead in Oman and one in the UAE.

Dubai’s budget carrier flydubai meanwhile canceled flights to Iran on Friday after receiving an official alert, a statement said.

“In line with the issued NOTAM (notice to air missions), our flights to Iran today have been canceled,” said the statement.

One flight which had already departed for Tehran returned to Dubai after the Iranian capital’s airport was closed, it added.

Flights were suspended across swathes of Iran as Iranian state media reported explosions in the central province of Isfahan.

Flight-tracking software showed commercial flights avoiding western Iran, including Isfahan, and skirting Tehran to the north and east.

The main road that connects the UAE’s most populous emirate Dubai with Abu Dhabi remains partially closed, while an alternative route into Dubai requires vehicles to use a road that is entirely covered in floodwater where cars and buses have been abandoned.

In the UAE’s north, including in the emirate of Sharjah, people were reportedly still trapped in their homes, while others there said there had been extensive damage to businesses.

Rains are rare in the UAE and elsewhere on the Arabian Peninsula, which is typically known for its dry desert climate where summer air temperatures can soar above 50 degrees Celsius.

The UAE’s National Center of Meteorology said on social platform X that Monday may see light rainfall by late night and forecast “a chance of light to moderate rainfall, might be heavy at times over some areas” for Tuesday, with a fall in temperatures over some coastal areas.


Iran closes air space, commercial flights diverted after apparent Israeli retaliatory strikes

Updated 19 April 2024
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Iran closes air space, commercial flights diverted after apparent Israeli retaliatory strikes

  • Drones shot down over Isfahan, says Iranian state media
  • Israel military refuses to comment on incident

DUBAI/WASHINGTON: Israeli missiles have hit a site in Iran, ABC News reported late on Thursday, citing a US official, while Iranian state media reported an explosion in the center of the country, days after Iran launched a retaliatory drone strike on Israel.

Commercial flights began diverting their routes early Friday morning over western Iran without explanation as one semiofficial news agency in the Islamic Republic claimed there had been “explosions” heard over the city of Isfahan.

Some Emirates and Flydubai flights that were flying over Iran early on Friday made sudden sharp turns away from the airspace, according to flight paths shown on tracking website Flightradar24.

“Flights over Isfahan, Shiraz and Tehran cities have been suspended,” state media reported.

Iranian officials said its air defenses did shot down several drones but there had been “no missile attack for now” on the country.

The state-run IRNA news agency reported that Iran fired air defense batteries early Friday morning across several provinces after reports of explosions near the city of Isfahan.

Several drones “have been successfully shot down by the country’s air defense, there are no reports of a missile attack for now,” Iran’s space agency spokesman Hossein Dalirian says on X.

The Fars news agency said “three explosions” were heard near the Shekari army airbase near Isfahan.

Iran’s local media also reported that nuclear facilities in Isfahan were “completely secure” after explosions were heard near the area.

“Nuclear facilities in Isfahan province are completely secure,” Tasnim news agency reports, quoting “reliable sources.”

Israel had said it would retaliate against Iran’s weekend attack, which involved hundreds of drones and missiles in retaliation for a suspected Israeli strike on its embassy compound in Syria. Most of the Iranian drones and missiles were downed before reaching Israeli territory.

Several Iranian nuclear sites are located in Isfahan province, including Natanz, centerpiece of Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Isfahan, Isome 350 kilometers (215 miles) south of Iran’s capital, Tehran, is also home to a major air base for the Iranian military.

Meanwhile in Iraq where a number of Iranian-backed militias are based, residents in Baghdad reported hearing sounds of explosions, but the source of the noise was not immediately clear.

In Syria, a local activist group said strikes hit an army position in the south of the country Friday. 

“There were strikes on a Syrian army radar position,” said Rayan Maarouf, who runs the Suwayda24 anti-government website that covers news from Sweida province in the south.

Iranian military positions in Syria had been frequently targetted by Israeli air strikes over the past years. Early this month, an Israeli strike demolished a consular building annex of the Iranian Embassy in Sydia's capital Damascus, killing 13 people, including two generals of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, triggering the Iranian missiles and drones attack on Israel on April 13.

At the United Nations Security Council on Thursday, Iran urged member nations that Israel “must be compelled to stop any further military adventurism against our interests” as the UN secretary-general warned that the Middle East was in a “moment of maximum peril.”

Israel had said it was going to retaliate against Iran’s April 13 missile and drone attack.

Analysts and observers have been raising concerns about the risks of the Israel-Gaza war spreading into the rest of the region.

Oil prices and jumped on the reports of the Israeli strike. Brent crude futures rose 2 percent to $88.86 a barrel, the dollar gained broadly, gold rose 1 percent and S&P 500 futures dropped 1 percent.

Israel’s assault on Gaza began after Palestinian Islamist group Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel’s military offensive has killed over 33,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to the local health ministry.
Iran-backed groups have declared support for Palestinians, launching attacks from Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.


United States had advance warning of Israel attack on Iran: US media

Updated 19 April 2024
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United States had advance warning of Israel attack on Iran: US media

  • US media: Israel had provided Washington with pre-notification of the strike
  • Tehran’s two major airports resumed flights following a brief suspension

DUBAI/WASHINGTON/TEHRAN: The United States received advance notice of Israel’s reported strike on Iran but did not endorse the operation or play any part in its execution, US media quoted officials as saying.

NBC and CNN, citing sources familiar with the matter and a US official, respectively, said Israel had provided Washington with pre-notification of the strike.

Various networks cited officials confirming a strike had taken place inside Iran, with CNN quoting one official as stating the target was not a nuclear facility.

Israel told the United States on Thursday it would be retaliating against Iran in the coming days, a senior US official told CNN.

“We didn’t endorse the response,” the official said, according to CNN.

There was no immediate comment from the White House about the Israeli strike.

In response to a query from AFP, the Pentagon duty desk said: “We do not have anything to offer at this time.”

Iran activated its air defense system over several cities, state media reported, after the country’s official broadcaster said explosions were heard near the central city of Isfahan.

Israel warned it would hit back after Iran fired hundreds of missiles and drones at its arch-foe over the weekend. Most of them were intercepted.

That weekend barrage came in the wake of an attack on Iran’s consulate in Damascus widely blamed on Israel.

Tehran’s two major airports resumed flights on Friday, state media reported, following a brief suspension after explosions were heard in central Iran.

“Flights through Imam Khomeini and Mehrabad airports have resumed,” the official IRNA news agency reported.

Commercial flights began diverting their routes early Friday morning over western Iran without explanation as one semiofficial news agency in the Islamic Republic claimed there had been “explosions” heard over the city of Isfahan.

Some Emirates and Flydubai flights that were flying over Iran early on Friday made sudden sharp turns away from the airspace, according to flight paths shown on tracking website Flightradar24.

“Flights over Isfahan, Shiraz and Tehran cities have been suspended,” state media reported.

Iranian officials said its air defenses did shot down several drones but there had been “no missile attack for now” on the country.

The state-run IRNA news agency reported that Iran fired air defense batteries early Friday morning across several provinces after reports of explosions near the city of Isfahan.

Several drones “have been successfully shot down by the country’s air defense, there are no reports of a missile attack for now,” Iran’s space agency spokesman Hossein Dalirian says on X.

The Fars news agency said “three explosions” were heard near the Shekari army airbase near Isfahan.

Iran’s local media also reported that nuclear facilities in Isfahan were “completely secure” after explosions were heard near the area.

“Nuclear facilities in Isfahan province are completely secure,” Tasnim news agency reports, quoting “reliable sources.”

Israel had said it would retaliate against Iran’s weekend attack, which involved hundreds of drones and missiles in retaliation for a suspected Israeli strike on its embassy compound in Syria. Most of the Iranian drones and missiles were downed before reaching Israeli territory.

Several Iranian nuclear sites are located in Isfahan province, including Natanz, centerpiece of Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Isfahan, Isome 350 kilometers (215 miles) south of Iran’s capital, Tehran, is also home to a major air base for the Iranian military.


Meanwhile in Iraq where a number of Iranian-backed militias are based, residents in Baghdad reported hearing sounds of explosions, but the source of the noise was not immediately clear.

In Syria, a local activist group said strikes hit an army position in the south of the country Friday. 

“There were strikes on a Syrian army radar position,” said Rayan Maarouf, who runs the Suwayda24 anti-government website that covers news from Sweida province in the south.

Iranian military positions in Syria had been frequently targetted by Israeli air strikes over the past years. Early this month, an Israeli strike demolished a consular building annex of the Iranian Embassy in Sydia's capital Damascus, killing 13 people, including two generals of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, triggering the Iranian missiles and drones attack on Israel on April 13.

At the United Nations Security Council on Thursday, Iran urged member nations that Israel “must be compelled to stop any further military adventurism against our interests” as the UN secretary-general warned that the Middle East was in a “moment of maximum peril.”

 

Israel had said it was going to retaliate against Iran’s April 13 missile and drone attack.

Analysts and observers have been raising concerns about the risks of the Israel-Gaza war spreading into the rest of the region.

Oil prices and jumped on the reports of the Israeli strike. Brent crude futures rose 2 percent to $88.86 a barrel, the dollar gained broadly, gold rose 1 percent and S&P 500 futures dropped 1 percent.

Israel’s assault on Gaza began after Palestinian Islamist group Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel’s military offensive has killed over 33,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to the local health ministry.

Iran-backed groups have declared support for Palestinians, launching attacks from Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.


Hamas slams US veto of Palestinian UN membership bid

Updated 19 April 2024
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Hamas slams US veto of Palestinian UN membership bid

PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES: Palestinian militant group Hamas condemned on Friday the US veto that ended a long-shot Palestinian bid for full United Nations membership.
“Hamas condemns the American veto at the Security Council of the draft resolution granting Palestine full membership in the United Nations,” the Gaza Strip rulers said in a statement, which comes amid growing international concern over the toll inflicted by the war in the besieged Palestinian territory.
The veto by Israel’s main ally and military backer had been expected ahead of the vote, which took place more than six months into Israel’s offensive in Gaza, in retaliation for the deadly October 7 attack by Hamas militants.
Twelve countries voted in favor of the draft resolution, which was introduced by Algeria and “recommends to the General Assembly that the State of Palestine be admitted to membership of the United Nations.” Britain and Switzerland abstained.


Gazans search for remains after deadly Rafah strike

Updated 19 April 2024
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Gazans search for remains after deadly Rafah strike

  • ‘We retrieved the remains of children and women, finding arms and feet. They were all torn to pieces’

An Israeli strike hit the home where a displaced Palestinian family was sheltering in the southern city of Rafah, relatives and neighbors said as they scraped at the soil with their hands.

Al-Arja said the blast killed at least 10 people.

“We retrieved the remains of children and women, finding arms and feet. They were all torn to pieces.

“This is horrifying. It’s not normal,” he said, hauling concrete and broken olive branches from the wreckage. “The entire world is complicit.”

Soon after the war began on Oct. 7, Israel told Palestinians living in the north of Gaza to move to “safe zones” in the territory’s south, like Rafah.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has since vowed to invade the city, where around 1.5 million people live in shelters, more than half the territory’s population.

“How is Rafah a safe place?” said Zeyad Ayyad, a relative of the victims. He sighed as he cradled a fragment of the remains.

“I heard the bombing last night and then went back to sleep. I did not think it hit my aunt’s house.”

The search for remains was long and painful. The strike left a huge crater and children picked through the rubble while neighbors removed debris, tarpaulin, a pink top.

“We can see them under the rubble and we’re unable to retrieve them,” Al-Arja said. 

“These are people who came from the north because it was said the south is safe.”

“They struck without any warning,” he said.

In a separate strike on the house in Rafah’s Al-Salam neighborhood overnight on Tuesday, rescue crews recovered the corpses of eight family members, including five children and two women, Gaza’s civil defense service said.

“An Israeli rocket hit a house of displaced people,” said resident Sami Nyrab. 

“My sister’s son-in-law, her daughter, and her children were having dinner when an Israeli missile demolished their house over their heads.”