Interesting story about an escalation of tension between the Lebanese government and Hezbollah arising out of a dispute over Hezbollah control of a private phone network, reported by The New York Times. Hezbollah claims shutting the network constitutes an “act of war.” The article points to control of information networks and surveillance cameras by Hezbollah as a target for prosecution by the Lebanese government:

The government has said it would prosecute those responsible for operating the network, which was mainly used for communication between Hezbollah members during the war with Israel in 2006. It also accused the militant group of placing several spy cameras on a road outside the Beirut airport to monitor pro-government officials. The cabinet dismissed the airport’s director of security, a figure close to Hezbollah.

An act of war has limited legal justification of course, one of which is self-defense. Hezbollah’s claim for the right to manage its own communications network is akin to a sovereignty claim, as communications networks are traditionally under the jurisdiction of each state, to “regulate[ ] its telecommunications in the way it sees fit.” It’s telling that turning off a phone network is construed as a threat to sovereignty, as is the removal of spy cameras. But then, Hezbollah has access to advanced telecommunications equipment which allows it to monitor both Israeli and Lebanese government communications, and this is evidently an important element of their military tactics. Lebanese Telecoms Minister Marwan Hamadeh claims the source of this kit as Iran, as reported by both mainstream and online media, and also here. Hezbollah is also reported to have been able to hack Israeli communications during the 2006 fighting with Israel, also with Iranian equipment. Israel, of course did the same to Hezbollah, as part of its psy-ops tactics in that war.

If control of information space has become a constituent element in sovereignty, what does this say about the nature of sovereignty in the 21st century? I recently heard Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart speak about their new book, Fixing Failed States – A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World. One of their many points – if in the 19th and most of the 20th century, state sovereignty was constituted by a monopoly on violence, in the 21st century globalization of the weapons trade and of communications means that for most states, such a monopoly is now practically impossible. Instead of coercion based on control of violence, or threat of violence, a state’s effective sovereignty must rely to a considerable degree on persuasion, and on buy-in of its citizens into the project of creating/maintaining the state. Hezbollah, it seems, would agree.

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