Some secular Palestinians, for their part, make plain their anger at the efforts of Nasrallah and Hezbollah to influence the Palestinian cause. I recently talked to a ranking Palestinian official who strongly disputed the analogy between occupied Palestine and South Lebanon. “There were no Israeli settlers in South Lebanon,” the official said, and “Israel would have eventually left, with or without Hezbollah.” The Palestinian, who declined to be identified, criticized Hezbollah for encouraging Hamas and Islamic Jihad to make suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. “I do not consider this resistance,” the official said.
Like most of Hezbollah’s leaders, Nasrallah studied both at religious seminaries in Najaf, with Iraqi clerics close to the pro-Iranian Islamic Dawa party, and in the Iranian holy city of Qom, with Iranian disciples of the late Ayatollah Khomeini. But he is a modern Lebanese politician, and the language he speaks is that of nationalism, albeit one saturated with the elements of Shiite theology that emphasize resistance to persecution and martyrdom. The Shia cult of martyrdom is part of a tradition going back to Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, who was slaughtered, along with a small number of his followers, by the army of the hostile caliph Yazid at Karbala in 680 AD. During the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, Hezbollah used the cult of Hussein to glorify self-sacrifice among its fighters and to launch suicide attacks, or “martyrdom operations,” against the Israeli army. Since the Israeli withdrawal, Hezbollah’s culture of victimhood has given way to celebrations of victory, but the group has used its satellite channel, al-Manar, to promote the same ideology of resistance and martyrdom among Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.
Nasrallah, who wears the full beard, dark turban, and robes of a Shia cleric, spoke with me in his office in the southern suburbs of Beirut, the so-called Belt of Misery. The office is in an apartment building in a gated courtyard on Abbas Musawi Street, named for Nasrallah’s predecessor, who was assassinated in Lebanon in 1992 in an Israeli helicopter gunship attack that also killed his wife and son. The reception room where we spoke was decorated with portraits of Musawi, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and his successor Ayatollah Khamenei; all the blinds were drawn for security. On the wall just outside hung a portrait of Nasrallah’s son, Hadi, who was killed six years ago at age eighteen while fighting Israeli soldiers.
A short, plump man with boyish features his beard does little to conceal, Nasrallah is not impressive-looking but he is a stirring speaker. His speeches—detailed examinations of Arab politics, and of Hezbollah strategy—are analytical rather than flowery. He seldom makes claims he cannot defend—a rarity in the region, where the relationship between words and deeds is sometimes comically tenuous. Nasrallah knows how to address ordinary Lebanese Shiites because he is one of them. Born in 1960 in East Beirut, he is the son of a grocer who was a follower of the Imam Musa Sadr, an Iranian cleric who settled in Lebanon in the late Fifties and awakened the long-quiescent Shiite population.
If Israel’s leaders hoped that, by killing Sheikh Abbas Musawi, they would get a more pliable, or less capable, adversary, they badly miscalculated. Not only did Nasrallah prove to be a more effective military leader than Musawi, he has adroitly translated his military successes into political gains for Hezbollah and its Shiite constituents. Immediately upon assuming power in 1992, he decided that Hezbollah should openly take part in Lebanon’s “confessional” political system, in which parliamentary seats are allocated according to religious identity. Radicals accused him of betraying his party’s revolutionary principles, but Nasrallah argued that Hezbollah was better off working within the political system than protesting from the sidelines. His gamble paid off. Hezbollah became the biggest of Lebanon’s many political factions, commanding the largest single bloc in the country’s parliament, and its leader emerged stronger than ever.
Today Hezbollah has nine of the twenty-seven seats reserved for Shiites in the 128-member Lebanese parliament; it also controls three additional seats held by allied parties and occupied, respectively, by a Christian and two Sunnis. Were it not for Syrian backing not only of Hezbollah but of Hezbollah’s principal Shiite rival, Amal, Hezbollah would have even more. (The first major Shia organization in Lebanon, Amal was created in 1974 and, along with Hezbollah and other groups, fought against the Israeli occupation in the 1980s. Although it has shared Hezbollah’s hostility toward Israel, Amal is far more secular in its politics. It was never as close to Iran, and fought a bloody turf war with Hezbollah over southern Lebanon between 1985 and 1989. Today it has eight delegates in the Lebanese parliament, and maintains a strong following among Shiite professionals, who depend on the extensive patronage network run by Amal’s leader, Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament.)
After Israel’s withdrawal, some analysts predicted—and many Lebanese hoped—that Hezbollah would soon wind down its military operations and become a purely political party. But Nasrallah has greater ambitions than to win more seats in Lebanon’s parliament, and he has had the firm backing of Iran and Syria. At once a determined radical and an astute pragmatist, he views Hezbollah both as a Lebanese party committed to assuring the welfare of its constituents and as a vanguard in the pan-Islamic struggle to destroy Israel and restore Palestine to its native inhabitants.
Nasrallah is not about to surrender power that he believes he might end up needing in the future. Although Hezbollah is a liability for Syria and Iran in their present efforts to improve relations with the American government, the party’s arsenal of long-range Katyusha rockets provides it with a defensive shield against Israel. Instead of choosing between politics and “resistance,” Nasrallah is pursuing both tracks at once, with a combination of extreme rhetoric and tactical caution that has made Hezbollah the most enigmatic and successful guerrilla organization in the Middle East. Which aspect of Hezbollah’s identity he chooses to emphasize will depend, to a large extent, on what happens in the region.
If anything has convinced Nasrallah that now is not the time to disarm, it is intensified American hostility since September 11. In early September 2002, Richard Armitage, the US deputy secretary of state, characterized Hezbollah as “the A-team of terrorists,” while “maybe al-Qaeda is actually the B-team,” and promised to “go after them just like a high school wrestler goes after opponents.” Before the US invasion of Iraq, Democratic senator Bob Graham, a former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, had told 60 Minutes that Hezbollah represented a graver threat than Saddam Hussein. Dick Cheney’s new adviser on Syrian policy, David Wurmser, a pro-Likud ideologue, is an open advocate of preemptive war against Syria and Hezbollah, a position favored by neoconservatives in and close to the Bush admin- istration, such as Douglas Feith, John Bolton, and Richard Perle. Perhaps not coincidentally, there have also been lurid accounts of Hezbollah in the American press. Jeffrey Goldberg, writing in The New Yorker, called Hezbollah an “organization devoted to jihad, not to logic,” one that “might attack American interests regardless of American interests in Lebanon.”7
Hezbollah’s reputation for violence against the West is well deserved. The group was behind some of the worst attacks against Western military and diplomatic targets of the 1980s, including the October 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut (in which 241 servicemen died) and the 1985 hijacking of a TWA flight (in which an American serviceman on board was brutally beaten, then killed and dumped on the tarmac). Western intelligence officials also believe that in the mid-1980s the group participated in the kidnapping and assassination of American citizens in Lebanon, such as Terry Anderson and CIA station chief William Buckley, who was tortured before he was killed. A Lebanese terrorist group called Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for many of these attacks, but the group shared many of the same leaders as Hezbollah, and US intelligence officials allege it was merely a cover for Hezbollah’s military wing.
In the early 1990s, Hezbollah members were connected to two notorious attacks in Buenos Aires: the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy, which killed twenty-nine people, ostensibly in retaliation for Israel’s assassination of Sheikh Musawi; and the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center, which killed eighty-five civilians. American and Saudi officials have also implicated Hezbollah in the 1996 truck bombing of Khobar Towers, a US military base in Saudi Arabia, which killed nineteen US servicemen, although their evidence has been questioned by some experts.8 According to Western officials, many of these attacks were organized by Imad Mughnieh, a shadowy pro-Iranian terrorist who is said at the time to have led Hezbollah’s “external security apparatus,” an extremist wing of the party that has organized Hezbollah cells and raised funds abroad. Reportedly based in Tehran, Mughnieh is one of three Hezbollah members who remain on the State Department’s list of “23 Most Wanted Terrorists.” He is alleged to run a network of terrorist cells and training camps in Asia, Europe, and along South America’s “triple frontier,” where the borders of Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil intersect, and may have had some contact with al-Qaeda in the early 1990s.9
In view of these attacks, the concerns of the American government are understandable. And Hezbollah’s ideology—a fiery mixture of revolutionary Khomeinism, Shiite nationalism, celebration of martyrdom, and militant anti-Zionism, occasionally accompanied by crude, neo-fascist anti-Semitism—only exacerbates concern about the organization’s potential for violence. Nevertheless, there has been little evidence of violence sponsored by Hezbollah itself against Western targets in recent years and the extent of Mughnieh’s current ties with Hezbollah’s political leadership remains in doubt. Several experts on Hezbollah I spoke to believe that Mughnieh now works solely on behalf of Iran.
Hezbollah’s announced long-term objectives—the establishment of an Islamic republic in Lebanon, and the elimination of the State of Israel—have not changed. But it interprets its founding principles with considerable suppleness, as when Nasrallah says he will not sabotage an Israeli–Palestinian peace agreement. Today it is not only prominent in Lebanese politics; it is also a major provider of schools, where the principles of Islam according to Ayatollah Khamenei and Hezbollah ideology are folded into a normal curriculum that is approved by the Lebanese government. It also provides an impressive range of social services such as hospitals and job training to the Shiite community.
In a country mired in patronage and back-room dealing, Hezbollah is respected for its lack of corruption. Although the party’s yellow-and-green flag—depicting a fist brandishing a Kalashnikov, posed against a globe—still advocates “the Islamic Revolution in Lebanon,” Hezbollah has recently said little about an Islamic state, and begun to build alliances across religious lines, particularly at the municipal level and in professional unions. In 1999, for example, Hezbollah members of Lebanon’s engineering syndicate formed a coalition with the Phalange Party, a rightist Christian group, and the National Liberal Party, both allies of Israel during the civil war. Another change that is impossible to ignore is the growing prominence of female activists in the party, a development that makes the party progressive by Islamist standards. “One would have to be blind not to notice the changes Hezbollah has undergone,” says Joseph Samaha, a secular Christian writer for the daily as-Safir. “Has Hezbollah tried to ban books or impose sharia? Not once. Their electoral program is [an] almost social democratic [one]. So we’re confronting a very different kind of Fundamentalist party.”
Moreover, as Daniel Byman, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, points out in his article “Should Hezbollah Be Next?” in Foreign Affairs, over the last decade Hezbollah’s military wing has concentrated most of its efforts on strengthening its defensive capacity; according to Byman, Hezbollah has not been linked to a “single attack on a US target” since the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers. In its guerrilla war with Israel in southern Lebanon, it targeted soldiers, not civilians, although it is said to provide both financing and training for Hamas.
While Iran continues to supply Hezbollah with money and arms, including Katyushas that arrive through Syrian ports, it has shown increasing restraint since the mid-1990s, when it used Hezbollah agents to strike at American and Jewish targets outside Israel. Iran’s foreign minister, Kamal Kharazi, has urged Nasrallah to avoid giving Israel a pretext for attacking Lebanon. Although American officials have called attention to the presence of about a hundred Hezbollah members in Iraq, few believe that they are organizing violent resistance.10 Every Hezbollah official I spoke to vehemently denied such reports, some indicating that they would welcome diplomatic relations with the United States.
Observing these changes, a growing number of American scholars, notably Augustus Richard Norton of Boston University, Judith Harik of the American University in Beirut, and Sami Hajjar of the US Army War College, argue that the party has undergone a genuine transformation, that it cannot be regarded as a terrorist group comparable to al-Qaeda, and that it would be pragmatic to engage in talks with Hezbollah and test its intentions. Their views are shared both by European diplomats such as Giandome-nico Picco, former assistant secretary-general for political affairs at the United Nations, and by retired American diplomats, such as Richard Murphy at the Council on Foreign Relations, and by some officials in the State Department. Dennis Ross, the Middle East envoy under the first Bush and Clinton administrations, has stated that Hezbollah’s resistance to the Israeli occupation, unlike its past activities aimed at Western targets, is not terrorism.11 While the United States, Israel, and Canada classify Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, European allies of the US, including Britain, say a distinction should be made between Hezbollah’s political wing and the terrorist “external security apparatus.” In their view Nasrallah and his Lebanese political organization are giving support to Palestinian extremists but are not directly involved in international terrorism.
The difference between American and Arab perceptions of Hezbollah is even wider. Michel Samaha, Lebanon’s minister of information, insists that Hezbollah has been an important ally in the war against terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. According to Samaha, who is close to the Syrian government and often meets with Nasrallah, Hezbollah has been providing the Lebanese government with intelligence on Sunni extremists operating in refugee camps in southern Lebanon. “What astonishes us is the American attempt to link Hez- bollah to al-Qaeda,” Samaha said in his Beirut office. While al-Qaeda is known throughout the Arab world as a terrorist outfit, Hezbollah is just as widely seen as a legitimate resistance organization that has defended its land against the Israeli occupying force, and consistently stood up to the Israeli army.
Which is not to say that Hezbollah is universally well-liked in Lebanon. Although support runs high among Shiites, patience with the party is wearing thin among many Christians and some Sunnis. While they may have cheered Hezbollah’s guerrilla war against Israeli troops in southern Lebanon, they are decidedly less enthusiastic about Nasrallah’s decision to continue “the resistance” after the Israeli withdrawal. Lebanon has been at peace since the signing of the Taif Accords in 1991, but at the price of losing its sovereignty to Syria, which maintains thousands of troops in the Bekaa Valley and exerts veto power over Lebanese foreign policy. By Syrian design, Hezbollah’s is the only militia that was not dismantled after the Lebanese civil war ended, and its refusal to disarm after Israel’s withdrawal is a cause of growing irritation among some Lebanese. “We want to go back to normal life,” Samir Qassir, a journalist for the daily paper an-Nahar, told me. “Hezbollah is using the struggle with Israel as leverage to gain power in Lebanon.”
Last August, a teenager in northern Israel was killed by a Hezbollah anti-aircraft missile, fired after Ali Hussein Saleh, a liaison between Hezbollah and radical Palestinian groups, died in a car bomb explosion in the southern suburbs of Beirut, an apparent “message” from Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service. Saleh, who was a Hezbollah security official and a driver for the Iranian embassy in Beirut, was suspected of channeling funds to Pal-estinian militants, possibly with Iranian assistance, although his actual role remains unclear. Within days, Israeli planes flew over Beirut and created a deafening “sonic boom.” Many people in Beirut fled the city, terrified of an invasion. It was a false alarm, but the Lebanese fear that events such as this could easily spiral out of control.
If Hezbollah is, to many Lebanese, a painful reminder of their truncated sovereignty, it also raises more visceral fears of Iran’s influence over young Shiites—some of whom march in Hezbollah demonstrations in full military dress, with red bandannas and rifles. “These people are an Iranian import,” said Gebran Tuení, the conservative, Orthodox Christian editor of an-Nahar. “They have nothing to do with Arab civilization.” Like many Christians, particularly Maronites who have seen their numbers and power decline in recent years, Tuení believes that Hezbollah’s evolution is cosmetic, concealing a sinister long-term strategy to Islamicize Lebanon and lead it into a ruinous war with Israel. “Ask Mr. Nasrallah whether there would be a place for Christians in the Islamic Republic of Lebanon,” he said, “You might remind him that we are not an external force. We’ve been here longer than the Muslims—we are not Afrikaners!”
Tuení’s fears are understandable, but they may be exaggerated. Although Hezbollah has repeatedly shown its readiness to engage in hostile action on the Israeli border, it has until now avoided large-scale attacks that might result in a broader conflict. Hezbollah’s parliamentary representatives and mayors have avoided appeals to religion; they have worked instead to raise the standard of living in poor Shiite communities. After Israel’s withdrawal, Nasrallah took steps to ensure that there were no revenge killings against Christians in the south, and that Christians who had fled to Israel during the war could return home safely, although some were sentenced to short terms in prison by the Lebanese government. When I asked Nasrallah about his views on an Islamic state, he said,
We believe the requirement for an Islamic state is to have an overwhelming popular desire, and we’re not talking about fifty percent plus one, but a large majority. And this is not available in Lebanon and probably never will be.
While Nasrallah’s pan-Islamic message of fighting the Israelis until the “liberation of Jerusalem” appeals to Hezbollah’s soldiers, the roots of Hezbollah’s popularity among Shiites lie elsewhere. Judith Harik’s surveys of Shiite opinion have shown that “deep religiosity and strong support of Islamic goals were not significant as a determinant of popular support for Hezbollah.” What is significant, in addition to the party’s success in ending a hated occupation, are its social services, especially in the southern suburbs of Beirut, the Bekaa Valley, and in the south, a region of some 250 small villages recovering from two decades of war. By emphasizing public works over piety, Hezbollah has succeeded in embedding itself deeply into Lebanese society, a fact that anyone seeking to confront its military wing will have to face. Hezbollah’s growing popularity in Lebanon will be the subject of a second article.
—March 31, 2004
Jeffrey Goldberg, "In the Party of God," The New Yorker, July 14 and 21, 2002.↩
Of all the charges made against Hezbollah, the connection to the Khobar bombing is the least persuasive. In his recent book Against All Enemies (Free Press, 2004), Richard A. Clarke cites a Saudi who claimed to the FBI that the Khobar attack was partly directed by a leader of "Saudi Hezbollah"—an Iranian-sponsored Saudi Shiite group; although Clarke suggests that some members of Saudi Hezbollah may have received training in the Bekaa Valley, he does not accuse the Lebanese party of planning the Khobar attack. When I spoke to Robert Baer, a former CIA analyst stationed in Beirut and an expert on terrorism, he expressed strong doubts that Lebanese Hezbollah participated in Khobar, which he believes to have been the work of Saudi Hezbollah, backed by Iran and possibly al-Qaeda as well.↩
According to court testimony by Alie Abdelseoud Mohammed, an al-Qaeda member and former US Army sergeant who was arrested in September 1998, Mughnieh met with Osama bin Laden in the early 1990s. ↩
"Hezbollah, in Iraq, Refrains from Attacks on Americans," The New York Times, November 24, 2003.↩
Ross stated in the daily as-Safir that the US included Hezbollah on its list of terrorist groups for Hezbollah's past activities, not for its ongoing resistance to Israel. See Sami Hajjar, "Hizballah: Terrorism, National Liberation, or Menace?," p. 48.↩
Jeffrey Goldberg, “In the Party of God,” The New Yorker, July 14 and 21, 2002.↩
Of all the charges made against Hezbollah, the connection to the Khobar bombing is the least persuasive. In his recent book Against All Enemies (Free Press, 2004), Richard A. Clarke cites a Saudi who claimed to the FBI that the Khobar attack was partly directed by a leader of “Saudi Hezbollah”—an Iranian-sponsored Saudi Shiite group; although Clarke suggests that some members of Saudi Hezbollah may have received training in the Bekaa Valley, he does not accuse the Lebanese party of planning the Khobar attack. When I spoke to Robert Baer, a former CIA analyst stationed in Beirut and an expert on terrorism, he expressed strong doubts that Lebanese Hezbollah participated in Khobar, which he believes to have been the work of Saudi Hezbollah, backed by Iran and possibly al-Qaeda as well.↩
According to court testimony by Alie Abdelseoud Mohammed, an al-Qaeda member and former US Army sergeant who was arrested in September 1998, Mughnieh met with Osama bin Laden in the early 1990s. ↩
“Hezbollah, in Iraq, Refrains from Attacks on Americans,” The New York Times, November 24, 2003.↩
Ross stated in the daily as-Safir that the US included Hezbollah on its list of terrorist groups for Hezbollah’s past activities, not for its ongoing resistance to Israel. See Sami Hajjar, “Hizballah: Terrorism, National Liberation, or Menace?,” p. 48.↩