Lebanon’s Impending Catastrophes

Lebanon is teetering on the brink of an abyss that it is not equipped to deal with. If Hezbollah drags Lebanon into a war, the consequences will be catastrophic for a country that is already deep in economic and political crisis.

At the time of writing, Hezbollah, together with Palestinian groups in southern Lebanon, has attacked targets in Israel for almost two consecutive weeks and Israel has responded to the attacks.

Lebanese women, wave Hezbollah flags after a rally in support of Palestinians in Gaza on October 20, 2023 in Beirut, Lebanon. Photo: Manu Brabo / Getty Images

So far – and here things could change rapidly – the border clashes have remained within the limits of an understanding between Israel and Hezbollah as to what kinds of combat can take place without further escalation. 

But what will happen when the Israeli ground forces enter Gaza?

Will the pressure on Palestinian groups and Hezbollah to join the conflict become so intense that they will be forced to become more involved? If so, will Israel restrict its counteroffensive to southern Lebanon or will it also bomb other parts of Lebanon, where Hezbollah has its power centres?

The tragedy of Lebanon is that the state is so weak that it will not be able to prevent such developments, and Hezbollah is a stronger military force than the state. There are two reasons for this situation: firstly, Hezbollah has highly trained troops and an enormous arsenal of weapons; and secondly, Hezbollah is a de facto arm of the Lebanese state.

The only thing that could prevent this nightmare scenario is for Hezbollah itself to conclude that the costs of a large-scale war against Israel would be higher than the costs of losing face among those who support the so-called ‘axis of resistance’.

Such a war would be catastrophic for a country that is already more capable of generating its own crises than solving them.

Scars of the past

In August 2020, a warehouse in the Port of Beirut exploded. Shockwaves from the blast blew out windows in large parts of the city. It was one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded.

Even now, three years on, the city still bears the scars. As with the bullet holes from Lebanon’s civil war (1975–1990), many buildings still have window frames that were blasted askew.

The explosion worsened Lebanon’s crisis, but it was largely symptomatic of it. The explosive chemicals had been stored in the warehouse for years without anyone taking responsibility for dealing with them.

The catastrophe was avoidable, but the dysfunctionality of the state meant that there was no one to take charge of the problem. More than 200 people died. This is a large number, but watching video clips of the explosion, one has the sense that the city had a guardian angel watching over it.

An investigation was initiated to identify those accountable, but there is little to suggest that it has made any progress. The Lebanese state is made up of elite political networks that look after their own.

Sectarian identities and political affiliations are closely aligned with financial interests. Through complex political alliances, the elites protect each other. These are the same elites that had the upper hand when Lebanon’s civil war ended, and they have further cemented their grip on power since. They have also driven the country’s economy into the ground.

In 2021, the World Bank ranked Lebanon’s economic collapse as one of the three worst of the past 100 years. In April 2023, food price inflation was calculated to have been at 350 percent for the past year. The Lebanese pound collapsed. Banks crashed and stopped ordinary people from withdrawing their money.

Quite simply, it is difficult to comprehend how it is possible to live in such circumstances. The crisis is visible on the streets. There is more begging and shops have closed down everywhere.

An unknown number of refugees

Lebanon is also home to an unknown number of refugees, mainly Palestinians and Syrians.

The Palestinians have been living in what are now 12 refugee camps ever since they were forced to flee in 1948. According to UNRWA, there are 500,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

The Syrian refugees started to arrive after the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Estimates put the number of refugees at 1.5 to 2 million, but no one knows for certain.

Official figures from UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, suggest that there are around 800,000 Syrian refugees, but the Lebanese government ordered the agency to stop counting back in 2015. The reason was that demographic data is political dynamite in Lebanon, which has a sectarian power-sharing structure based on the results of a census conducted in 1932.

But even without an actual census, we can assume that there are  between 2 and 2.5 million refugees in a country with slightly over 5 million inhabitants. Consequently, Lebanon has the most refugees per capita of any country in the world.

Both the Syrian and Palestinian refugees are highly dependent on external aid, since the Lebanese state is utterly incapable of providing for them.

Meanwhile, UNRWA is struggling on the brink of financial collapse and, given all the other serious crises around the world, we can only assume that UNHCR will also experience cutbacks. Such cutbacks would be catastrophic for an already vulnerable population.

Not equipped to deal with a war

While the Syrian refugees have become integrated to varying degrees into Lebanese society, the Palestinian refugees live a segregated existence in refugee camps that the Lebanese army is not permitted to enter. As a result, the camps have become lawless slums in which various political and military Palestinian factions compete for dominance.

Sometimes these power struggles erupt into full-scale armed conflict. Most recently this occurred at the Ein el-Hilweh camp in the south of Lebanon, where there have been several outbreaks of serious violence, most recently in August and September this year.

While such conflicts are tragic for all the residents of the camp, they are nonetheless primarily local in their nature.

If Lebanon is drawn into what is already the biggest war ever seen in Gaza, the situation will become catastrophic and the Lebanese state will be completely incapable of dealing with it.

  • Jørgen Jensehaugen is a Senior Researcher at PRIO
  • This text is an updated version of a text that was first published in Norwegian i Panorama 13 October 2023
  • Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext


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