Zvi Bar’el/Haaretz: In Fight Over Lebanon’s Future, Bishop’s Detention After Israel Visit Crosses a Red Line/تقرير من جريدة هآررتس الإسرائيلية يتناول هرطقة وجريمة اعتقال المطران الحاج للكاتب تسفي برئيل تحت عنوان: في الحرب على مستقبل لبنان، اعتقال المطران بعد زيارته لإسرائيل يتخطى الخطوط الحمر


تقرير من جريدة هآررتس الإسرائيلية يتناول هرطقة وجريمة اعتقال المطران الحاج للكاتب تسفي برئيل تحت عنوان: في الحرب على مستقبل لبنان، اعتقال المطران بعد زيارته لإسرائيل يتخطى الخطوط الحمر

Analysis | In Fight Over Lebanon’s Future, Bishop’s Detention After Israel Visit Crosses a Red Line
Zvi Bar’el/Haaretz/July 24/2022

Maronite Christian leader becomes latest target in arm-twisting between the various forces vying for control over Lebanon – and Iran-backed Hezbollah appears poised to do whatever it takes to make sure it has the upper hand when the next president is picked. On Monday morning last week, Maronite Bishop Moussa el-Hage and his entourage crossed from Israel back into Lebanon at Rosh Hanikra, after visiting Israel and the West Bank. This is far from being the first time this has happened. As part of his duties as archbishop of the Maronite Christian community in Haifa and the Holy Land, the bishop and his entourage regularly cross the border, and always pass without a hitch.

Each time he brings money donations from the Maronite community in Israel for their needy coreligionists in Lebanon. And it’s not only the Maronite who donate money. The Druze community in Israel and Palestinians from the West Bank also use the bishop’s courier service to transfer funds to their families and communities across the border. This time, however, he was detained by Lebanese intelligence for 12 hours and interrogated. They confiscated his baggage, phone and some $460,000 in cash.

His detention ignited a firestorm. Not only did the interrogation take place at the Military Intelligence’s headquarters, it also contravened the custom in Lebanon, by which clergy are questioned – and if necessary, also tried – by the Vatican. At first, the archbishop refused to get out of his car, but since the order came from a civil judge, Fadi Akiki, who represents the civilian judicial system in military courts, el-Hage finally acceded. Only around midnight was he finally released. He went straight to his boss’ home, and from there, the affair spread and became a political imbroglio that reached Lebanese President Michel Aoun. The Christian and Druze political leadership stirred a commotion and accused Hezbollah and other “internal and external” officials of trying to drag Lebanon into civil war.

A meeting of Maronite leaders, headed by Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, quickly released a sharply worded condemnation, stating: “The security, legal and political show should end immediately, and all the money and medications confiscated should be returned, so they can be distributed to the needy who are waiting for them, the legal case should be closed and Judge Akiki should be questioned and suspended.”“The money that the bishop transferred is not the property of the church. It derives from collaborators who live in Israel,” Akiki retorted, hinting at former officers with the Israeli-backed Southern Lebanese Army who came to Israel after it withdrew its forces from southern Lebanon in 2000, “most of whom work for the enemy.”

According to Akiki, “This money is subject to the law in Lebanon, which relates to anything that comes from the occupied territories, and is applied to anyone who comes from there… there is a law boycotting Israel and it is my job to enforce it.”The affair is still not over. The bishop has been summoned to appear again before the judge for more questioning, but he has made clear that he does not intend to appear without authorization from his superiors. Meanwhile, it seems that political pressures are working, and the case could soon be shelved or forgotten. The case might disappear, but the tensions it has already generated will continue to reverberate across Lebanese society and politics.

For the Maronite leadership, which holds the state presidency according to Lebanon’s constitution, this is a particular embarrassment when Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Sunni Muslim, is struggling to form an agreed-upon government. President Aoun is meant to end his tenure in October – unless it is extended in the event that political troubles delay the nomination of his replacement. Aoun sided with the bishop, but thick hints from Hezbollah opponents – including the Druze leadership and the head of the Lebanese Forces party, Samir Geagea – that the Iran-backed militant group is responsible for el-Hage’s interrogation, are amplifying the affair and moving it to the political arena.

Now it has also become tied to the issue of maritime border talks between Lebanon and Israel; Hezbollah is involved in both issues, and in both, it’s trying to cross red lines and dictate the rules of the game. Aid and funds from Israel, negotiations over the disputed gas field, the formation of a government or loans from the International Monetary Fund – Hezbollah leaves no loose threads it doesn’t wrap around its finger. President Aoun said last week that an agreement on delineating the maritime border between Lebanon and Israel is moving ahead, and Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib predicted that it would be signed in September.

It is difficult to know what these optimistic assessments are based on, when Lebanon has still not received Israel’s response to its proposed border map. Hezbollah’s position, however, is as clear as can be: that Lebanon will not sign an agreement that does not ensure its full rights, most importantly to the Qana gas field, right in the heart of maritime territory claimed by Israel. Hezbollah has stated that it will support whatever the Lebanese government decides, but is working to ensure that the government does not decide anything against its will.

What worries Hezbollah is not necessarily the fate of the gas field, but the composition of the government in Lebanon, who will be its next president and how the group can maintain its leverage of power. The gas field is a powerful leverage, and the affair of the bishop’s interrogation serves its goals. As Foreign Minister Bou Habib said exactly two years ago in an interview with Lebanese website Asas Media: “Hezbollah is the de facto ruler of Lebanon.” No great news there, but the interrogation of the bishop crosses a red line, in a country where red lines are impressively flexible.