Hezbollah’s Transnational Hunger War Tactics
Protester with sign "We Die Hungry/We Starve"
Throughout human history, conflict has been a source of hunger vulnerability. "Food wars" perpetuate hunger in several ways. The deliberate use of hunger as a weapon is most evident in siege warfare tactics. However, there are recent and more insidious cases of conflict in which hunger is used intentionally as an instrument of social control. In his book, renowned Africa expert Alex de Waal called this “counter-humanitarianism,” describing it as “a new political ideology and approach to conflicts that legitimizes political and military action that is indifferent to human life.” These cases result from a combination of repressive socialist government policies and transnational threats which converge to deny or restrict access to productive resources and income, often the result of discriminatory practices associated with democratic breakdowns. Consequently, hunger becomes not just a symptom of conflict, but a weapon of war.
Venezuela, Syria, and Lebanon are conspicuous cases in point. During the last 20 years, their governments, in conjunction with non-state militias and criminal gangs, systematically and insidiously imposed economic policies specifically designed to cause starvation as a catalyst for conflict and, consequently, to ensure their domination. These countries were not considered cultural nor geopolitical natural allies, but this has changed in the 21st century. They are all now controlled at different levels by Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah. In cooperation with Nicholas Maduro, the self-proclaimed President of Venezuela’s narco-dictatorship, Hezbollah successfully imposed its tactic of systemic starvation on civilians in Venezuela as a weapon of war and an instrument of social control. Scholars commonly underestimate or fail to acknowledge the influence of Iran’s proxy on Venezuela’s demise and deteriorating food crisis.
Hezbollah grew from the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) and has emerged as a political party in Lebanon. Founded in 1982 by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah (Party of God) is the most powerful group in Lebanon thanks to a heavily armed militia that fought several wars with Israel. Over the last 35 years, it has established a worldwide network of supporters, fundraising, and training camps. Hezbollah took advantage of Lebanon’s diaspora and the solidarity between compatriots in order to grow, especially in Central and South America, where nine million Lebanese are estimated to live. Over the past two decades, investigations have uncovered numerous terrorist plots planned and executed in Latin America; and the nexus between terrorism and criminal organizations involving Hezbollah is acute. While many analysts concentrate on terrorist activities in the Middle East, the fundamental role that Latin America has played, geographically, has been glossed over. Latin America became a geopolitical paradise for Hezbollah’s illicit activities and expansion. Maduro’s allies, Russia, China, Cuba and Iran through its proxy Hezbollah continue to throw a lifeline to the Maduro regime in Venezuela.
This convergence of transregional threats in Latin America, especially in Venezuela, has resulted in the worst humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere. According to the United Nations (UN) Refugee Agency, people continue to leave Venezuela to escape violence, insecurity, threats, and the lack of food, medicine, and essential services. With over five million Venezuelan people living abroad, mostly in other Latin American countries and the Caribbean, this is the largest exodus in the region’s recent history, and second only to Syria’s worldwide. Additionally, ongoing political, human rights, and socio-economic developments in Venezuela compel growing numbers of men, women, and children to flee. It is estimated that by the end of this year, there will be eight million Venezuelan refugees, making the Venezuelan refugee crisis the largest refugee crisis in the world.
During most of the decades following Venezuela’s adoption of a democratic government in 1958 through the 1980s, the country was the richest nation in South America—until the arrival of socialism. The food crisis and exodus of Venezuelans are direct consequences of the socialist policies imposed over the last two decades by Venezuela’s former President Hugo Chávez, and current self-proclaimed President Nicolas Maduro. There are three main policies implemented by Chávez since 1999 that produced the current crisis: Widespread nationalization of private industry, currency and price controls, and the fiscally irresponsible expansion of welfare programs.
Chávez was elected president of Venezuela in 1999. He brought to Latin America what is considered 21st-century socialism. He was inspired by Cuba’s Castro and the Iranian Mullah regime. One of his first actions was to nationalize the agriculture sector. His policies destroyed the market by imposing maximum prices on hundreds of food items. Renowned human rights scholar Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann writes: “When the official prices did not meet the costs of production and distribution, producers and distributors withdrew from the market...Chavez also nationalized large-scale food producers, handing over farms and ranches to citizens who did not possess the expertise of resources to cultivate them.” From 1999 to 2016, his regime robbed more than six million hectares of land from its rightful owners. As a result, Venezuela’s food production fell 75% in two decades while the country’s population increased by 33%. This was a recipe for shortages and economic disaster.
When the inevitable food shortages began, Chávez used revenue from the state-owned petroleum company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) to import food, rather than allowing PDVSA to retain its earnings. This resulted in the inability of the oil industry to reinvest in production. Predictably, with infrastructure declining and being led by incompetent managers, oil output fell and earnings could not finance food imports to replace the food no longer produced domestically.[6A]
When Chávez died in 2013, his successor Maduro intensified Chávez’s policies. Food producers were not only dispossessed by expropriation but also arrested and tortured. Maduro penalized food distributors who charged above the controlled prices, and food supplies fell even further.[6B] At the end of 2015, it was estimated there was a shortage of over 75% of goods in Venezuela. By May 2016, experts feared that Venezuela was possibly entering a period of famine, with President Maduro encouraging Venezuelans to cultivate their own food. By 2017, malnutrition was confirmed in Venezuela.
Iran and Venezuela have had diplomatic and commercial relationships since before Iran’s 1979 revolution. The two countries were founding members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Under Chávez, this relationship expanded beyond the oil industry. The two countries signed an estimated 300 agreements of varying importance and value. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, by 2012, Iran’s investments and loans in Venezuela were valued at $15 billion. Some of these were reportedly used to finance illicit activities. For Iran, Venezuela became a geopolitical paradise for diplomatic and commercial expansion into Latin America.
Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, has close ties with Maduro, which has led to drug trafficking and illegal gold mining efforts in Venezuela. Food supply is now heavily controlled by the black market, which is in the hands of corrupt businessmen who delay the release of imported food to drive up prices. These businessmen are often Maduro’s cronies in the military.[7A] Some low-income people receive subsidized food boxes, but the contents are inconsistent and insufficient. The boxes are distributed irregularly and tend to favor Maduro’s supporters. This criminal enterprise is known as the Gold-for-Food scheme and has enabled the regime to profit from military-run food imports and distribution in Venezuela. Hezbollah is an integral part of this corrupt system which keeps Venezuelans hungry while personally enriching themselves. Between 2005 and 2015, the Chavez regime implemented a series of “misiones” to lift the poorest segment of society from starvation. However, these “misiones” were designed to build a Chavista ideological base of supporters and, more importantly, build up a web of relations to move relief funds throughout its network. As a result, the social “aid” essentially became a strategy to cover up illicit operations—i.e., money laundering, mining of strategic minerals, and most important, the penetration of foreign powers like Iran (and now Turkey) into the country for the establishment of a wide-scale corruption scheme.
Strong evidence has shown that Chavismo in Venezuela is involved in terrorist actions, money laundering, and drug trafficking by working hand in hand with Iran and Hezbollah. Although the terrorist group acts in a clandestine manner, there are key individuals that have boosted its presence and operations in the South American country. These include Tareck El Aissami and Ghazi Nasr al Din (better known as Ghazi Atef Nassereddine) as shown in the graphic below. From Iran, General Aref Richany Jimenez also plays a key role among others.
Venezuela’s Missions/Social Programs Scheme (Illicit Profiting) [Source: Author Information (El Centro Rendering)}
Hezbollah has also used starvation as a military tactic for control in Syria. Its involvement in the Syrian Civil War has been substantial since the beginning of the armed insurgency phase of that war, which turned into active support and troop deployment from 2012 onwards. By 2014, Hezbollah supported Syrian Ba'athist Government forces across Syria. Hezbollah deployed several thousand fighters in Syria, and by 2015, had lost up to 1,500 fighters in combat. Hezbollah has also been actively preventing rebel penetration from Syria into Lebanon and is one of the most active forces in the Syrian Civil War spillover in Lebanon.
The siege of the Syrian town of Madaya is a case in point. In 2016, Hezbollah (allied with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) encircled and held hostage the town of Madaya. For several months, Hezbollah fighters helped Syrian troops mount a siege on the town, which is west of Damascus and only 7.5 miles from Lebanon’s eastern border. They used checkpoints, snipers, and landmines to hem in the population. Hezbollah surrounded the town and kept it under siege for six months, blocking aid and food from reaching it. According to Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), 23 people died of starvation at a medical clinic run by the organization, six of them infants. This took place in the same year that Venezuelans suffered the worst deterioration of their food crisis.
The Syrian army, backed by Hezbollah, also used starvation as a weapon of war at other besieged enclaves where starvation was used to break down resistance—possibly with the aim of totally eradicating local communities. Indeed, Amnesty International documented similar sieges which were also taking place in Eastern Ghouta, Yarmuk, and Daraya.
Across the border in Lebanon, similar sieges took place supported by the Syrian regime. Back in 1985, the Shia Amal Movement, acting on behalf of the regime of Hafez al-Assad, waged what became known as the War of the Camps—a final push by the Syrians and their allies to eradicate what remained of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s influence in Lebanon. Over the next two years, Amal would lay siege to different refugee camps around Lebanon, leading to dire humanitarian consequences and the deaths of hundreds on both sides.
While laying siege is not a novel weapon of war, Madaya, Ghouta, Yarmuk and Daraya certainly stand out in many ways as Hezbollah was a foreign entity occupying Syrian land and starving Syrian nationals. These sieges amount to a war crime and can be classified as a crime against humanity.
Lebanon has been sliding toward food insecurity for decades under a Hezbollah-controlled government. Crumbling infrastructure, a lack of state investment, and political mismanagement have left the agriculture sector contributing just 3% to annual Gross Domestic Product, despite providing jobs for a quarter of the workforce. Consequently, Lebanon is heading for famine as the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates hunger. Hit by its worst economic crisis in modern history, there are fears the country is about to experience a repeat of the 1915–18 famine. Accelerated by the pandemic, unemployment is soaring, the value of wages is plummeting, and prices continue to rise steeply. Furthermore, Lebanon is also home to around 1.5m refugees, the highest per capita figure of anywhere in the world. According to Habitat For Humanity, 58% of the 1.3 million poor Lebanese live in urban areas and are assumed to be the population most affected by the overcrowding created by the mass influx of refugees.
Like every sector in Lebanon, agriculture is riddled with corruption and powerful traders exploiting both farmers and consumers. Now, COVID-19 and the economic crisis have brought Lebanon’s unsustainable approach toward almost every part of its economy crashing down. The result is that Lebanon imports up to 80% of its food, leaving it vulnerable to price fluctuations and now the collapse of its own currency. The struggle for food importers is only set to get worse as they are now forced to use around 80% of their foreign currency for imports on the ever-increasing black market rate, apart from a list of 30 essential goods that are subsidized by the government.
A UN World Food Program (WFP) official explains that there are two pillars of food security. First, having enough food in the country, and second, people having the purchasing power to access it. As cash runs out and the purchasing power of the average Lebanese citizen continues to plummet, a barter economy is emerging. With commodities reaching almost triple their original prices, Facebook is slowly filling with posts of people trying to trade their personal belongings for basic necessities. The sight of people searching for food through bins and long queues for aid distribution have become commonplace in a city that was not too long ago a playground for the wealthy.
In March 2020, the government defaulted on around $30 billion of Eurobonds. Shortages of foreign exchange, fuel, and food have caused prices to increase enormously. In June, inflation stood at 90% overall, and for food alone it was 247%, according to the government’s statistics agency.
However, the political corruption and economic decline in Lebanon have empowered the Lebanese to unite across sectarian lines. In October 2019, Lebanese took to the streets to demonstrate in what is known as the Thawra, the revolution. All over Lebanon, people requested a neutral secular government and the removal of the Hezbollah-controlled government. In January 2020, as a result of these demonstrations, Lebanon formed a new government under Prime Minister Hassan Diab, after the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies agreed on a cabinet that must urgently address the economic crisis. Among those allies, President Michel Aoun nominated Diab as premier after efforts failed to strike a deal with Hariri, Lebanon’s main Sunni leader and a traditional ally of the West and Gulf Arab states. Protesters took to the streets of Beirut as the government was announced.
The massive explosion on August 4th in Beirut occurred at a critical time in Lebanon’s history. The explosion was the most powerful ever to rip through Beirut, a city torn apart by civil war. The blast killed at least 150 people and injured thousands. It occurred next to a storage facility for grain in the city’s port, most of which was wrecked, at a warehouse that held 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate. The huge explosion tore through major grain silos, stoking fears of shortages in a nation that imports nearly all its food and which was already reeling from economic crisis. According to the Lebanese Ministry of Economy, the day after the blast, the explosion left the nation with less than a month’s reserves of grain but with enough flour to avoid a crisis.
According to the WFP, the blast will “exacerbate the grim economic and food security situation.” One million people in Lebanon already live in poverty, and the country depends on imports for nearly 85% of its food. Whether or not the explosion can be traced to Hezbollah, anger at the terrorist group—which controls the government, the port, the country’s military, and more—will likely increase.
The port where the explosion occurred handles about 60% of Lebanon's imports, and as a result of the explosion, most other food at the port was also ruined. Consequently, there is fear of a huge supply problem. Beirut’s governor, Marwan Abboud, estimates the cost of the damage will amount to between $3 billion and $5 billion. Lebanon’s second-largest city, Tripoli in the north, will serve as an alternative port, possibly backed up by Sidon and Tyre. According to Ahmed Hatteet, the head of the country’s association of wheat importers, Lebanon has enough wheat to last around six weeks and shouldn’t face deep shortages. Ahmed Tamer, the director of the Tripoli Port, said the port did not have grain storage but cargo could be taken to warehouses about one mile away. The government used to buy wheat from local farmers at above-market prices but hasn’t done so in years. Saida, Selaata, and Jiyeh are also equipped to handle grain. Lebanon relies on privately owned mills to ship wheat from Ukraine, Russia, and other European countries.
Hezbollah’s presence in Venezuela, Syria, and Lebanon has left an indelible mark. The Iran-proxy operates within the Lebanese diaspora secretly and effectively. Additionally, the cases of Venezuela, Syria, and now Lebanon have striking similarities. These countries are all suffering from massive refugee crises, widespread hunger, criminal food schemes, death, and destruction. As Alex de Waal argues in his book, “In 2017, famines came back.”
The Middle East is famous for conspiracy theories but we cannot ascertain with certainty that Hezbollah’s hybrid food wars in these countries was coincidental. These countries are not only suffering from food shortages under Hezbollah’s helm, but hunger became not just a symptom of conflict, but Hezbollah’s weapon of choice. Dr. Anastasia Filippidou argues that Hezbollah’s success in surviving while imposing their war tactics is based on its ability to adapt and maneuver between competing forces while bargaining and compromising to maintain stability. Indeed, Hezbollah’s nature is transformative, “as it involves moving from one regime to another through the reforming of social and structural relations.”
What can the international legal framework do?
On May 24, 2018, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed the historic Resolution 2417, acknowledging the deliberate starvation of civilians as warfare. However, the implementation of this resolution is unlikely, as nations still hold the sovereign right to regulate themselves internally and even to violate their citizens’ human rights. Consequently, “States’ rights are far more important to the international governing communities than the rights of starving citizens.” This is why Russia, China, and Iran will probably oppose any moves at the UN to hold Hezbollah responsible for crimes against humanity.
There is, however, a glaring gap in international law as the applicability of the war crime of starvation only applies to situations of international conflict. To address this loophole, the 18th Assembly of State Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court made a historic decision: they voted unanimously to make starvation a war crime in non-international armed conflicts. The vote came in the form of an amendment to the Rome Statute, tabled by Switzerland in August 2019. It means that the crime of starvation can now be applied to the context where it most frequently occurs: during civil wars. The Rome Statute already prohibits starvation in international armed conflicts—now it is a crime in all armed conflicts.
The Trump administration has kept pressure on Maduro and Iran, and has imposed targeted sanctions on nearly 150 Venezuelan and Hezbollah-connected regime officials for corruption, human rights abuses, and trafficking. It is time for the US Treasury to also hold Hezbollah accountable for war crimes under the bipartisan “human shields law” for storing weapons in civilian sites.
Additionally, the European Union must also stop minimizing the threat from Hezbollah and hold it legally responsible for its actions. Only a European Union-wide ban on the entire organization can ensure that it no longer uses Europe as a base for recruiting, financing and planning its attacks. More pressure should thus be brought to bear on European governments to proscribe both the political and military wings of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
Hunger crimes will best be prevented by calling its perpetrators to account. Ending starvation crimes also entails a shift in public thinking by developing new vocabularies for defining and describing famine, and sharpening our political, economic, and legal tools of analysis.
Each case of mass starvation represents a tragic failure of accountability. The international community has the moral responsibility to expose this insidious and transregional Hezbollah tactic of war and raise awareness before it is too late to confront it. All of Hezbollah should be designated a terrorist organization, its illegal activities exposed, curbed and punished.
Astrid Mattar Hajjar is an attorney from Caraca-Venezuela of Lebanese descent. She holds a Juris Doctor degree from Universidad Catolica Andres Bello and an LLM in International Banking Law from Boston University. She is currently an International Relations candidate at the Harvard Extention School.