For many years, Hezbollah has focused on building consensus among the Lebanese people by taking advantage of a state plagued by economic difficulties, political uncertainty and sectarianism. As a typical hybrid terrorist organization, it should exploit Lebanon’s weaknesses and present itself as a valid substitute for the state through a comprehensive and well-organized system of social services. After years of training and success in building a “state within a state” in 2020, Hezbollah had another chance to demonstrate its capabilities and regain the support it lost in recent civil protests. Taking advantage of the economic crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing political vacuum, Hezbollah has expanded its social services to the secular and non-Shiite segments of the population who have traditionally spoken out against the organization. Gaining power and legitimation among these communities would lead to Hezbollah growing autonomy both vis-à-vis the state and Iranian sponsorship, making it an even more unpredictable actor in the region.
Lebanon’s fragility and Hezbollah raison d’etre
As a typical hybrid terrorist organization (Ganor, 2015), Hezbollah (“Party of God”) has developed three branches: the military, that of the classic terrorist group, the political and the social branch. They all work together and are deeply anchored in the Lebanese sectarian system. Indeed, the political and social weapons support and legitimize the military. For this reason, hybrid organizations have the opportunity to grow and prosper in states where the political and social spheres are particularly weak. First, they exploit institutional weakness to the extent that the efficiency of state institutions is minimal. This includes the lack of a monopoly on the lawful use of force, taxes and the provision of public goods (Atzili, 2010). In the Lebanese context, Hezbollah’s political wing has stalled the creation of a new cabinet and facilitated the expansion of its welfare system, which provides services that the state would otherwise provide. Second, they are recognized by the low level of legitimacy of the state (ibid). Although the Lebanese bureaucracy appears modern and central, the political and military systems are feudal and based on sectarian principles. The social pact, which enables compromise between communities, is also the main cause of the low legitimacy and insurrection of militant groups like Hezbollah.
Due to its low legitimacy and institutional weakness, Lebanon has faced several political crises. In October 2019, when the government announced new taxes, the October Local Revolution began in Lebanon, a series of protests against the political establishment that led the country to an economic impasse. The government’s corruption and irresponsible financial policies threatened people’s access to health and food and drove large parts of the Lebanese population into poverty. Hezbollah was not immune to criticism; However, it distanced itself from the state establishment and focused its efforts on regaining support by providing the necessary social benefits. The creation of a parallel welfare system highlighted the failure of the state and challenged its legitimacy by maintaining people’s loyalty to the alternative welfare provider.
This strategy has evolved with the current COVID-19 pandemic. The Lebanese government’s inability to provide solid and comprehensive guidance and assistance to its people provided Hezbollah with an opportunity to demonstrate its ability to overcome the state’s sectarian modus operandi (Melani; Sukriti, 2010) and the good governance of the organization to demonstrate. Indeed, the health emergency has exacerbated the political, economic and social crisis and shed light on the ingrained system of mutual assistance between Hezbollah and the Lebanese people. In particular, the party has used two types of social services within the COVID-19 pandemic to get support from the population. The first is medical assistance, which covers a variety of services from emergency tasks to COVID-19 testing to medication distribution. The second is financial support in the form of banking services, special discount cards, cheap products from Syria and agricultural projects.
Health care Services: View organization and resources
Despite several preventive measures announced by Hezbollah-appointed Health Minister Hamad Hassan, the government was heavily criticized, claiming it was incompetent in dealing with the emergency. Initially, Hezbollah agreed to work with the state that used its medical resources. However, as soon as the pandemic spread, it began developing its own plan to assist the local population. In March, the Hezbollah Executive Council set up an “Crisis Management Operation Room”. It takes care of technical committees that deal with the various aspects of the pandemic. Among them is the Technical-Professional Committee, which sets the preventive instructions; the People’s Administrative and Organizing Committees; and the Medical Management Committee, which works on various portfolios such as the portfolio for hospitals and isolation centers, the transport and disinfection portfolio, psychological support, the location of the pandemic, and the guidance and instruction portfolio.
By mid-July 2020, in addition to the 20,000 health care workers deployed for the Ministry of Health (Moubayed 2020), Hezbollah had 1,500 doctors and 3,000 nurses in needy areas, 5,000 medical team workers and 15,000 local service workers and 100 ambulances ( Barak 2020). In addition, it organized workshops for more than 15,000 people, instructed its staff to sterilize neighborhoods in South Beirut and to make face masks with their logos (see Sunniva 2020). Buildings have also been emptied to accommodate COVID-19 patients, hotels have been assigned to people in quarantine, St. George Hospital converted into a corona hospital, and resources and personnel have been used to build ventilators. To demonstrate the party’s versatility, Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah gave a televised address claiming that China was ready to do business with Hezbollah-led Lebanon. On June 11, Beijing donated 17,500 masks and 1,500 protective suits to the Ministry of Health. Similar donations have been recorded by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (Moubayed, 2020).
Hezbollah made it clear that all of its services, from testing to medical treatment, were available to all free of charge, demonstrating its full response. In fact, Hezbollah, through its Islamic health organization, launched the door-to-door campaign to educate residents of Sidon and the surrounding area about surface disinfection, carried out widespread disinfection in churches, and assisted Syrians with refugees (Barak, 2020) . So successful was the party’s health care strategy that it was copied in Iraq, and Iraqi politician Muqtada al-Sadr declared that he saw Nasrallah as a role model (Moubayed, 2020). With control of the entire health sector and this efficiency, Hezbollah could expand its services to affiliated companies and communities outside of the group.
In addition, the violent explosion in the port of Beirut in August sparked outrage and disgust with the political system (Faour, 2007). In particular, despite the firm denial of any responsibility for the explosion, the Party of God was largely accused and the picture of Nasrallah was hung on the street (Devereux 2020). Despite the allegations, Hezbollah has revived its hands-on assistance to the victims of the explosion and the general Lebanese population, making its resources available to residents and the state. Martyrs Foundation and Islamic Health Organization hospitals and medical centers have carried out blood drives and injured hundreds of people in the blast. Local government officials affiliated with Hezbollah have opened helplines for assistance, sheltered those whose homes have been damaged, and dispatched rescue workers and medical teams to the port of Beirut. At the same time, the Hezbollah youth movement was tasked with organizing clean-up operations. In order to improve the results of this strategy, Hezbollah leaders repeatedly invited the media to cover their services, not only to show the medical aid on the ground, but also to promote their new financial relief plan.
Financial plan: banking, smuggling and agricultural projects
The second problem that the pandemic brought to light is the economic crisis. After months of closings due to the COVID-19 pandemic and without government aid, the number of Lebanese living in poverty has risen sharply (Moubayed, 2020). After the Lebanese lira hit a new low in early March 2021 and the banking system collapsed, it was not only Shiite low-income households who turned to Hezbollah, but also the secular and non-Shiite populations who have always opposed the terrorist group. When traditional banks closed their doors and freezes dollar accounts, Hezbollah was able to deliver hard currency through its parallel banking system known as the Al-Qard al-Hasan Association. The Al-Qard al-Hasan Association (AQAH), literally “benevolent credit,” is managed as a charity but can be viewed as a banking system in all respects. The association, sanctioned by the US Treasury Department since 2006, reports to the Hezbollah Executive Board and has practiced quasi-banking activity that has become the country’s largest microloan. The services offered include the provision of loans and charitable funds under Islamic law, which prohibits the charging of interest. In order to gain access to the association’s loans, clients must be sponsored by a depositor or a mortgage with an amount of gold in excess of the value of the requested loan.
In late October 2020, the Al-Qard al-Hasan Association began providing three new services. It equipped its branches with ATMs from the southern suburbs of Beirut. It equipped its branches with ATMs so that its customers could withdraw dollars when needed, began buying and selling gold for dollars, and provided gold stores for a small fee. The association also made sure that its services remained competitive and did not withhold funds during the demonstrations. As independent from the Lebanese central bank, AQAH can take precautions and boost its parallel economy with the aim of recovering the hard currency. In one of his recent speeches, Hezbollah leader Nasrallah encouraged depositing the money with al-Qard al-Hasan, claiming that the bank has already provided loans totaling $ 3.7 billion to around 1.8 million people. He portrayed the association as absolutely solid and stated that the party’s supporters who deposited money with al-Qard al-Hasan managed to keep their money when the banks claimed they could not pay their depositors in dollars . Regardless, Hezbollah’s parallel banking system has been the target of a hacking group called “Spiderz” who have accessed the association’s system and exposed the identities of online customers to warn them that they may be subject to American sanctions. However, AQAH’s customers do not seem afraid of the potential consequences of the leak and continue to trust the organization.
In addition to the work of Al-Qard al-Hasan, the group opened a chain of co-operative grocery stores called Makahzen Nour in the southern suburbs of Beirut, which offer a wide range of goods such as groceries and furniture. Most goods are manufactured or smuggled from Iran and Syria to be sold at lower prices than imported goods from competing supermarkets (Alami 2020). These stores are accessible with a discount card distributed by the party. There are two types of cards; Nour is attributed to Hezbollah fighters, and another, Sajjad, was distributed to low-income families. The group charges the cards 300,000 lira per month, which is a substantial sum in poorer communities. In this way, Hezbollah not only uses the core Shiite community, but also uses the opportunity to make profits in Lebanese pounds and exchange them for US dollars on the black market.
In addition, Hezbollah recently issued a series of statements announcing large-scale donations to Shiite communities, particularly in southern Lebanon. Among other things, the estimated donations to improve health and education in the provinces of Tire, Bint Jbeil and Marjayoun for 2020 as a whole totaled twenty-two billion one hundred and thirty million Lebanese pounds, while a further 600 million Lebanese pounds were directed to power the residents of a- Fund Teqal in the Beqaa region. It must be taken into account that while Hezbollah is helping millions of Lebanese citizens in the short term, Hezbollah’s money comes from illegal activities in South America, such as smuggling drugs, cigarettes, cars and identity theft. illegal diamond trade in West Africa and illegal financing by Iran through oil smuggling.
To address the growing risk of food insecurity, Hezbollah has implemented several agricultural programs called “farming arable land” to produce agricultural products at the lowest cost and transform society from a consumer society into a productive one. Nasrallah announced these initiatives as part of the agricultural jihad to deal with the current financial troubles. The projects are carried out by Hezbollah’s Jihad al-Bina Foundation, which is one of the most important executive bodies of the organization and is involved in the development and construction of Hezbollah’s civil and military infrastructures. In fact, the foundation is involved in the construction of offensive tunnels along the border with Israel and in the concealment of missiles and rockets.
In summary, Hezbollah has used the special situation in Lebanon since its inception to gain power and recognition, particularly through the implementation of a wide range of social services. Despite recent troubles due to social protests, Hezbollah reacted violently and reaffirmed its ability to care for Lebanese citizens in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and financial crisis. Starting from the Shiite community, the Party of God expanded its membership to a wider audience by taking advantage of people’s alienation from the state and taking advantage of the political vacuum and the collapse of the banking system. The organization successfully expanded the geographical and sectarian spectrum of its followers and strengthened the network of its infrastructures. The lack of a central government and the deepening economic crisis have led secular populations and other Lebanese religious sects to turn to the organization for basic services. This development and expansion has allowed the organization to gain autonomy from both the Lebanese state and its Iranian sponsorship, which poses a greater threat to Lebanon’s legitimacy and regional security.
Alami, Mona (2020) Hezbollah supports us low-income Lebanese with grocery stores. Al Arabiya English https://english.alarabiya.net/en/features/2020/12/20/Lebanon-crisis-Hezbollah-steps-up-support-for-low-income-Lebanese-with-grocery-stores-microloans
Atzili, Boaz (2010) State weakness and “vacuum of power” in Lebanon. Studies on Conflict and Terrorism33 (757-782)
Barak, Michael (2020) Hezbollah and the global corona crisis https://www.ict.org.il/images/Hezbollah%20Corona.pdf
Devereux, Andrew (2020) Beirut Port Blast Punctures Trust in Hezbollah. Terrorism monitor, 18 (19)
Faour, Muhammad (2007) Religion, Demography, and Politics in Lebanon. Middle East Studies43 (6)
Ganor, Boaz (2015)) Global Alert: The Rationality of Modern Islamist Terrorism and the Challenge for the Liberal-Democratic World. New York: Columbia University Press.
Melani, Cammet; Sukriti, Issar (2010) Clientelism of mortar and bricks. Word politics 62 (3)
Moubayed, Sami (2020) Hezbollah sees COVID-19 as an opportunity. Center for Global Politics, 154 https://cgpolicy.org/articles/hezbollah-sees-an-opportunity-in-covid-19/ Sunniva, Rose (2020) Lebanese Hezbollah shows “readiness for war” for Covid-19. The nationalhttps://www.thenationalnews.com/world/mena/lebanon-s-hezbollah-shows-war-preparedness-for-covid-19-1.1006942
Further reading on e-international relations