While negotiations over the formation of the new Lebanese government are still ongoing, the Lebanese press published last week the names and respective portfolios of the Shiite ministers nominated by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement. Hezbollah, which has been orchestrating the entire government formation process, had made it clear that the Ministry of Public Health will be part of its share. According to these press reports, Hezbollah has nominated Dr. Jamal al-Taqesh for Minister of Public Health.
Al-Taqesh was a Hezbollah MP from 2005 to 2009. He specialized in general surgery in Iran in 1994, and is the medical director at Hezbollah’s al-Rasoul al-Aazam hospital, where he is still listed as a surgeon, and where Hezbollah fighters injured in Syria and elsewhere are treated (along with, reportedly, Iraqi Shiite militiamen). In addition, al-Taqesh has directed Hezbollah’s Dar al-Hikma hospital, which is part of the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee (IKRC) network in Lebanon. The U.S. Treasury Department designated the Lebanon branch of the IKRC in 2010. During the 2006 war, Israeli commandos performed a night raid at the hospital, where they engaged Hezbollah fighters for several hours.
Al-Taqesh is from Lebanon’s northeast Baalbek-Hermel district, a Hezbollah stronghold that has provided a significant number of fighters for Hezbollah’s regional campaigns. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah singled out the region ahead of the parliamentary elections this past May, and Hezbollah’s list swept the Shiite seats in the district. In his pre-election address, Nasrallah acknowledged the region’s economic grievances, and al-Taqesh’s appointment could reflect Hezbollah’s intention to use state funds to provide for these constituents.
While the Lebanese have fretted about how the U.S. might respond to Hezbollah taking the ministry, the terror group is clearly not concerned with the possibility of U.S. sanctions. Indeed, the U.S. has shied away from imposing sanctions that could hit humanitarian services, even when Hezbollah runs, and leverages, hospitals like al-Rasoul al-Aazam (which is part of the designated Martyr Foundation), and the St. Georges Hospital, which was recently acquired by al-Rasoul al-Aazam, to name but two.
If the U.S. continues to provide this loophole, then, in addition to expanding its involvement in the healthcare sector, Hezbollah would also use the ministry’s funds to benefit its own services. It is also likely to exploit the pharmaceuticals market and the import of medical equipment.
Hezbollah also receives other government funds for social services that are financed through grants from international donors. For example, in 2017, the Ministry of Social Affairs awarded Hezbollah’s Mahdi Scouts, a youth organization, grant money provided by the World Bank’s State and Peace Building Fund.
President Trump recently signed into law the Hizballah International Financing Prevention Amendments Act of 2018 (HIFPAA). The new law imposes sanctions on agencies and instrumentalities of foreign states that move money to Hezbollah. With Hezbollah now certain to control directly the Ministry of Public Health, the Trump administration should not make any exceptions for Lebanese state actors and ministries financially supporting Hezbollah or allocating international grants to the terror group.
Current U.S. policy is based on the notion that strengthening Lebanese “state institutions” is the way to counter Hezbollah. But when Hezbollah controls these institutions, Washington should not look the other way.