Lebanon’s Jews were once clustered around the old town in the port city of Sidon, one hour south of Beirut. Carpentry was their staple livelihood and today the sounds of axles grinding wood still ring out in the mazy streets of the souk. But on entering the shops and talking to employees, it becomes clear there are no Jews left in Sidon.
Walls that once housed the city’s 9,000 Jews are plastered with posters of Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, occasionally accompanied by Yasir Arafat’s image, smiling down on him beatifically from above.
Yellow and green Hizbollah flags flutter from the windows, while the only remaining synagogue, in an area which once boasted 17, is abandoned. Only two Jewish names are left on the electoral register for Sidon in the parliamentary elections this Sunday — everyone else fled when political stability collapsed during the civil wars of 1958 and 1975.
The dominance of Hizbollah, even in an area once deemed Jewish, seems typical of many Lebanese neighbourhoods nowadays, and may lead to the electoral defeat of the current majority in the Lebanese Parliament, the pro-western “March 14” coalition led by Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated Lebanese former President Rafiq Hariri.
The main challenger is the “March 8” coalition of Hizbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, running alongside former prime minister Michael Aoun, a Christian general who once declared war on Syria and was removed forcibly from the country by the Syrian army during Lebanon’s civil war.
“The General”, as Mr Aoun is known, has made an unprecedented political u-turn by joining forces with Hizbollah and declaring Lebanon to be at war with Israel. Success for Hizbollah on Sunday may well ride on whether Mr Aoun can convince enough of the Christian vote, which traditionally goes with the government’s party, to u-turn with him.
Only three years after a 34-day bombardment at the hands of the Israeli army, there is no doubt that Hizbollah has recuperated. While the organisation’s military capacities were damaged during the war, its political clout was sealed; Hizbollah could now claim it alone held back the Israeli advance.
Even traditionally pro-western Lebanese voters had to admit that it was Hizbollah forces, not the state army, which stood between them and the Israeli advance. Then, on May 7, 2008, Hizbollah proved its continuing capacity to mobilise men and munitions beyond any doubt when the government ordered the closure of one of its communications networks. Hizbollah responded by capturing the capital, including the perimeter of the Presidential Palace, within 48 hours.
But the most important factor in Hizbollah’s resurgence, as a political entity, is the level of support it receives from Iran and Syria. According to a recent report by a French parliamentary mission in Beirut, relations between Iran and Lebanon “pass through Hizbollah, and not the government”. It described Hizbollah as the “main pillar” of the strategic Syrian-Iranian alliance, adding that the party’s weapons “give it the ability to hit Israel in the event vital Syrian or Iranian interests were subject to any threat or danger”.
If the Hizbollah-Aoun coalition achieves a majority in parliament on Sunday, their leaders project a new, “third” Republic, which is unlikely to include members of the current administration. Mr Hariri has vowed not to participate in a government of National Unity if his party loses at the polls.
Amar Fouri, Campaign Manager for the current incumbent Hariri Party was not upbeat. “Lebanon would have a black day, a very black day indeed.”