Perspectives - September 11, 2020

Treasury Department Targets Hezbollah Political Allies in Lebanon

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of the Treasury sanctioned former Lebanese government ministers Yusuf Finyanus, of Sleiman Frangieh’s Marada Party, and Ali Hassan Khalil, of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s AMAL Movement, stating they provided material support to Hezbollah and engaged in corruption. U.S. Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker said, “Political allies of Hezbollah should know they will be held accountable,” on a call with media outlets. When asked about future sanctions, Schenker said Lebanon should be expecting more sanctions. “I hope we can a get a bunch more of these [sanctions] out there,” he said. Officials affiliated with Hezbollah’s ally, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), could be a next target for U.S. sanctions, given its absence in this latest round.

Hezbollah condemned Washington’s decision to sanction Finyanus and Khalil, stressing that “the U.S. sanctions policy...will not lead to the subjugations of the Lebanese and force them to forfeit their sovereign national rights.” Hezbollah called the United States a “terrorist authority,” which “has no classify honorable people and resistance fighters as terrorists.” BothMarada and AMAL issued statements likewise condemning the American decision, and stressing that it would not affect their “convictions” or behavior.

Relatedly, Lebanese sources alleged that the U.S. decision to sanction Khalil and Finyanus has put the ongoing Cabinet formation process, tasked to Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib, on hold. “The U.S. sanctions’ decision, which left a negative impact on the Lebanese situation and ramped up political tensions in the country, has put the government formation process on hold,” the source told The Daily Star. The source added that Adib was wary of infuriating AMAL and Hezbollah by forging through with forming a cabinet against the backdrop of U.S. sanctions.

Whether this is true, or a cover for habitual Lebanese dawdling, is unclear. Reports have arisen of conflicts regarding cabinet formation that are entirely unconnected to U.S. sanctions, including a disagreement between Adib and FPM Chairman Gebran Bassil regarding the “Christian share” of the new government’s ministries. Moreover, while President Michel Aoun, Hezbollah, and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri are insisting on a mixed technocratic-political cabinet of 24 ministers, Adib wants a smaller government of 14 or 16 ministers. He also wants its members to be “political moderates or non-provocative figures.”

Hamas Delegation Arrives in Lebanon, Meets with Several Lebanese Officials

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh was in Beirut for a week-long visit, where he met with Palestinian factions over growing cooperation between Israel and Arab states. Haniyeh’s trip, his first to Lebanon in 27 years, comes after an August 13 announcement that the Jewish state had normalized ties with the United Arab Emirates.

Haniyeh’s meetings included Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, and the two stressed “the firmness of the axis of resistance in the face of all pressures and threats.” Hezbollah Sunday released a statement saying that Nasrallah and Haniyeh discussed the “development of cooperation and coordination mechanisms between the two parties” during their meeting. Haniyeh also met with caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt. According to Hamas’ Saleh Al-Arouri, the delegation also convened with “all official Lebanese sides and political parties, including the Future Movement.”

Lebanon’s Central Bank Launches a Forensic Audit of Central Bank

On Wednesday, Lebanon started a forensic audit of its Central Bank. This is a step that donors have demanded in order for Beirut to secure international aid. Relatedly, the Governor of Lebanon’s Central Bank Riad Salameh refused to resign this week, telling CNBC “You cannot resign…in an environment of a crisis, because it would look like going away from the task you have to perform.” He also said the current economic crisis was not his fault, but that it “was provoked by other elements…and it was my duty to moderate the effects.” This comes amid reports Salameh inflated the Central Bank’s assets by over $6 billion in 2018.

Firefighters Extinguish Massive Beirut Port Blaze One Month After Blast

Firefighters Thursday extinguished a massive blaze that broke out at Beirut Port, near the site of the August 4th explosion that devastated half the capital and killed at least 192 people. Hours after the fire erupted, first responders extinguished all flames in the vicinity. A thick plume of smoke covered the city in a black cloud, blocking out the sun and causing residents still traumatized from the port explosion to panic and evacuate the area. The exact cause of the fire is not yet clear, an Army source told The Daily Star. Caretaker Public Works Minister Michel Najjar, who is in charge of overseeing the port, said preliminary information indicated that the fire had been caused by sparks from a welding tool used at the warehouse. This was the second fire at the port this week. On Tuesday, a small fire erupted, also creating some panic, that was quickly extinguished.

More Explosives Found at Beirut Port

On Friday, Lebanese media reported that an Army officer told President Michel Aoun that more explosive materials stored in 143 containers were found at the Beirut Port. These materials had been allegedly stored at the port for 15 years.

U.S. Envoy Reports Progress on Israel-Lebanon Border Talks

U.S. Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker said that he hoped to sign a framework agreement in the coming weeks for Lebanon and Israel to start discussing their disputed maritime border. “I believe that we are making some incremental progress,” he said. “I'm looking forward to finishing up with this framework agreement so you and the Israelis can...move on to actually negotiating about your borders,” he told Lebanese journalists during a telephone conference. “I hope to be able to come over to Lebanon and sign this agreement in the coming weeks,” he added. “This will open the opportunity for both Lebanon and Israel to start to actually make some real progress,” Schenker said.