Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has taken his eye of the Israeli ball.
His anti-Israel rants have long been a familiar feature in his weekly address, screened to thousands of crooning supporters.
The message was simple: Israel was the enemy. It was effective too, routinely rallying the Arab street.
But in the last two weeks, the Shi’ite militant group seems to have found a new enemy: Sunni Muslims.
The change of target came after Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria’s civil war could no longer be denied. Hezbollah (Shi’ite) has chosen to fight alongside Syria’s president (an Alawite offshoot of Shia Islam) against Syria’s (overwhelmingly Sunni) rebels, but the rebels have of late taken the fight to Hezbollah’s door, attacking the group’s strongholds in Lebanon itself.
There is an increasing bitterness and hostility. On the battlefield, the latest grisly reminder was the news this week that 60 Shi’ite Muslims had been killed by Sunni insurgents in a town in eastern Syria. A video posted online, entitled ‘The Storming of Hatla,’ showed dozens of gunmen carrying black Islamist flags celebrating and firing guns in the street. “This is a Sunni area,” shouts one fighter. “It does not belong to other groups.”
In addition to the images, words are being used to fan the flames.
At the end of May, when he was supposed to be commemorating Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon, Nasrallah left little doubt that Syria was now a sectarian conflict (and that Hezbollah fighters were now dying for this cause), using his speech to launch a blistering attack on Syria’s Sunnis, who he repeatedly called takfiris (apostates).
The feeling is mutual. General Salim Idriss, chief of staff of the rebel Supreme Military Council, says he will “chase Hezbollah to hell,” while Colonel Abdul-Jabbar al-Aqidi, commander of the Military Council in Aleppo, told Hezbollah that he would “strike at your stronghold in Dahiyeh,” a Beirut suburb.
It’s not just the fighters that have turned their sights on Israel’s arch enemy. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a prominent Sunni cleric, issued a fatwa against Hezbollah “infidels” and urged Sunnis worldwide to join a jihad against them, while in Egypt, a senior Muslim Brotherhood preacher called Hezbollah “the party of Satan” on national television.
But apart from the human tragedy of it all, it also makes a complicated geopolitical situation even more complicated. Such talk aggravates the split between countries allied to Shi’ite power Iran and those aligned to Gulf Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia.
It seems to be Muslim versus Muslim once again, explains Sheikh Mohammad al-Mubarak al-Sabah, a Kuwaiti minister. “Unfortunately, Syria has become the new battleground for a very ancient tug of war,” he sighs.
Analysts say this is yet another of the region’s lurches towards identity politics and tribalism. Additionally, Hezbollah’s turn towards sectarianism will likely mark the end of Lebanon’s relative stability, they say.
If it does, yet another of Israel’s Arab neighbours will convulse.