Constructed in 2010, on the site of an old Hezbollah military camp in Southern Lebanon, Mleeta (otherwise known as “the Hezbollah Museum”) offers a unique look into the group’s development into the paramilitary/political/social organization that we know and love today. The museum is, by all accounts, an extraordinary tourist destination that offers insight into how the terrorist group has tried to manage its public image as both a militia and an official Lebanese political party. Recent developments in the Syrian civil war have threatened that image, and ultimately caused the group to retreat from visions of popular legitimacy, back to what it knows best: the use of violence to ensure its survival.
Meagan Bean, 2015, visited Mleeta last year while studying in Lebanon. She recalls how the whole atmosphere declares one message: Israel’s resounding defeat at the end of 1982-2000 Lebanese-Israeli war. Wreckage of Israeli tanks and arms line the pathways; artistically strewn about in a central ravine called “The Abyss”, supposedly the site where an Israeli missile struck the camp during the war. Scraps of metal and a Merkava tank, with the gun barrel twisted into a knot, showcase the impotence of IDF troops in the face of fierce Lebanese resistance. Behind the triumphant declaration of victory, there’s an even more important takeaway for the museum’s visitors: that the war is still ongoing and that the only thing standing between Lebanon and another Israeli invasion is the same group that drove out the invaders the first time: Hezbollah. Donation boxes shaped and painted like large golden colored rifle rounds line the pathways, lest anyone forget that resistance is expensive.
Overall, the structure is huge, “surprisingly well-done and impressive” Bean says. The architecture exemplifies Islamic Modernism with stark lines contrasted against religious and party imagery. This aesthetic, combined with the dual messages of victory and ongoing struggle suggest that Hezbollah would like to build a vision for the future grounded in the legitimizing events of the past. The group is admired by many because of its success in expelling Israel, but as time passes that victory begins to fade, and further success is needed to maintain the group’s relevance. For a while, it looked like the party might seek such success through peaceful means. The Mleeta Museum is only the latest in a line of efforts the party has made to transition from a pure paramilitary force into a political party and social organization. Others include creating the affiliated television station Al-Manar, participating in the democratic political process, and funding health and social services for Lebanon’s Shia population.
The likelihood that Hezbollah could ever become politically socialized enough to participate honestly in Lebanese politics, renounce terrorist tactics, and even disarm has always seemed low. But the fact that they’ve put any effort into managing their public image suggests that they are concerned with maintaining legitimacy and public support. One factor has risen, however, to complicate their trajectory and ultimately disprove the notion that the group has Lebanon’s best interests at heart. Namely the Syrian civil war.
In May this year Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, doubled down on his commitment to keeping Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria. By throwing the political and military weight of the party completely behind the Syrian regime, Nasrallah clarified where his priorities lie. Spoiler: they’re not with Syrians seeking freedom from decades of oppression, not even with the party’s own constituents, and most importantly, not with the welfare of Lebanon.
The Lebanese state is already fragile, divided on sectarian lines. The more Hezbollah has committed to fighting the Syrian rebels (largely Sunni), the more these sectarian divides have sharpened into violent outbursts, with pro-rebel Sunnis and pro-Assad Shi’ites fighting in the streets of Tripoli, Baalbek, and even Beirut. Moderate politicians in the Lebanese government, including recently-resigned Prime Minister Najib Mikati, have attempted to keep the country out of the conflict, and maintain stability, but weren’t able to convince Nasrallah of their view. This is not surprising considering that Hezbollah maintains its life-line to Iran and fresh military supplies through the Syrian regime, and has done since its inception.
Casualties of Nasrallah’s decision now include his own constituents. On August 15th a car bomb exploded in a Hezbollah neighborhood in southern Beirut, killing 27 people. Ben Gilbert, writing for NBC News in Beirut, states that “Many residents believe the attack was direct retaliation for Hezbollah’s support for Assad.”
Signs that the party is losing legitimacy, as a result of its involvement in Syria, began to show in the polls this spring. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, Palestinian approval ratings of Hezbollah dropped from 61% in 2011 to 43% in 2013.
If Hezbollah’s goal was to remain relevant and even gain power after the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, it has definitely succeeded. They now have more missiles (60,000) than ever before, and effectively dominate politics in Beirut. If their goal was to maintain legitimacy as the defender of Lebanon, however, they’ve done a poor job. The country is now being degraded from within, yet again, by sectarian strife. Finally, if they hoped to craft a vision for the future based on a discourse of resistance to oppression, social welfare, and Lebanese unity, they’ve utterly failed. They support tyranny, encourage suffering, and allow Lebanon to crack along sectarian lines because, ultimately, they believe that the power of their organization depends on the survival of the Syrian regime.
The sheer amount of money invested in Mleeta shows that somewhere along the way Hezbollah decided they wanted to be legitimate, inspire pride, and create a vision by which to lead the next generation of Lebanese and resistance fighters everywhere. As that vision recedes the place and the party will have to stick to a simpler meaning: resistance to Israel. That’s really all they’ve got left.