There are many ways to read the latest war in Lebanon. It may rightly, for instance, be seen as a proxy war, a nasty skirmish at the margins of a strategically bigger struggle. Like those cold war subconflicts in Africa, Indochina, and Central America, it pits adversaries equipped, ideologically inspired, and goaded by more powerful patrons. In this case, the patrons, waiting in the wings to see how their weapons and tactics performed, and hoping to frighten their bigger foes while limiting losses to themselves, are Iran and America, each using a pampered, martially minded client to defend against perceived threats to their interests in the region.
For America’s leaders, Hezbollah represents not just the long arm of Iran’s Islamic Republic, a hostile Shia power which has, since its inception, funded, trained, and armed the Lebanese Shia group. It also represents a form of what George Bush has taken to calling Islamic fascism. In other words, making war against Hezbollah is seen as a natural adjunct to the wider war against Islamist terrorism. Defeating it can only be good for America, and good for the vaguely defined cause of holding the Middle East within the international system that American power has for so long underpinned. So it is that America lent its diplomacy not to stopping the fighting as soon as possible, but to providing an umbrella for Israel to “finish the job” of crushing Hezbollah.
To Iran’s leaders, and particularly to the current administration of religious conservatives whose main support base lies with such ideologically zealous institutions as the security services and Republican Guard, Hezbollah is more than a like-minded organization deserving of support. It is also a watchdog for the Islamic Republic’s perceived mission of protecting itself, and the wider region, from American domination. Hezbollah’s soft-spoken and charismatic leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has himself indicated that Iran sees his party, and especially its rocket arsenal, as a deterrent against possible Israeli or American aggression aimed, for instance, at disabling Iran’s nuclear program.
Hezbollah serves another Iranian goal, too. Its example of determined resistance to Israel and passionate support for the Palestinian cause rallies fellow Muslims to the notion of confrontation with, rather than accommodation of, the “forces of international arrogance.” This model defuses, to some extent, the growing tension between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, as exemplified by the turmoil in Iraq. In this way, it reinforces Iranian pretensions to wider Islamic leadership, to the detriment of “soft” rivals such as Saudi Arabia.
Yet just as plausibly, the fighting can be seen as having been simply another round in the far older struggle between Israelis and Arabs. It fits well into the mold. As long ago as the early 1950s, “fedayeen” groups (meaning those who sacrifice themselves), often representing nonstate actors such as the Muslim Brotherhood, launched pinprick raids on the nascent Jewish state, which responded with savage reprisals that typically targeted not fedayeen themselves but Arab civilians as well as governments that the Israelis accused of shirking the responsibility of reining in troublemakers.
This cycle’s most vicious turn came in the early 1980s, when Israel invaded Lebanon and battered its capital, Beirut, in an ultimately successful, if brutal and costly, effort to chase out Palestinian guerrillas. A decade later, following the Oslo peace accords, many of the same fighters arrived in Palestine itself under the leadership of Yasser Arafat. But again, his inability, or unwillingness, in the eyes of Israelis, to tame a new set of nonstate actors led to large-scale Israeli reprisals, which in turn stripped his government of legitimacy and promoted the rise of more radical, more determined parties such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Like those parties, Hezbollah was a product of conflict. The cultlike intensity of its following was spawned by bitter personal experience of Israeli domination, not only under the direct military occupation of a large swathe of south Lebanon, which lasted between 1978 and 2000, but as a result of frequent Israeli punitive raids, such as the 1996 “Grapes of Wrath” offensive that caused the slaughter of 106 Lebanese civilians who had taken refuge at a UN peacekeeping base in the village of Qana. Such memories have allowed Hezbollah to pose as the protector not just of Shias but of Lebanon as a whole, with the argument that its guerrilla force performs a function that the weak Lebanese state and its ill-equipped army are incapable of.
Whatever Israel’s protests, Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers, and killing of eight more, on July 12 was clearly a military operation, an act of banditry perhaps, but not of “terrorism.” The most notorious incident associated with the group is the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, which killed 241 US servicemen. But Hezbollah was not formally founded until two years later. Its responsibility for two deadly attacks on Argentina’s Jewish community in the early 1990s is highly likely, but has not been definitively proven. Since then the group has cheered suicide attacks in Israel and the Iraqi resistance, but is not known to have taken part in international terrorism. It condemned the September 11 attacks on the United States and shuns Sunni extremist groups such as al-Qaeda—with good reason, since such groups are often virulently anti-Shia, and Hezbollah takes a relatively enlightened view of issues such as women’s rights. Aside from its military branch, the party fields twelve representatives in Lebanon’s parliament and one cabinet minister, and it runs an impressive number of social services, from schools to hospitals and orphanages.
Even so, from the Israeli perspective, the existence of a potent nonstate force on its northern border has been seen as an intolerable nuisance. This is particularly so since it has been backed by one state, Iran, whose leaders have declared a resolve to destroy Israel, and by another hostile state, Syria, which has used Hezbollah as a prod to remind the world that despite peace deals with other neighboring states, Israel remains in occupation of Syria’s Golan Heights.
Iran and Syria, in other words, have long had an interest in pushing Hezbollah to challenge Israel. That interest has intensified of late. America’s intervention in Iraq is seen by the two as an aggressive effort to weaken them by physically sundering their twenty-five-year-long alliance. Both have tried, in different ways and quite successfully, to ensure that America burns its fingers in Iraq. Meanwhile, Iran has grown increasingly concerned by international pressure for it to stop, or at least fully disclose, its nuclear program, while Syria’s government has grown increasingly frustrated by the Bush administration’s imposition of a diplomatic freeze that has allowed Israel to spurn repeated Syrian offers to resume negotiations over the Golan.
For Israel’s part, while the continuing existence of a last hot stretch of border has been an annoyance, the growth of Hezbollah’s offensive rocket capacity has been seen as an unacceptable threat. Israel tried to defuse it, via its superpower patron, with a Security Council resolution—1559—passed in 2004 that demanded the disarmament of all Lebanese militias. Lebanon’s delicate internal politics rendered the application of Resolution 1559 impracticable, however, while in Palestine, the election of Hamas to power and continued unrest in Gaza, including rocket attacks on Israel, raised fears of an emerging pan-Islamist front. Following the kidnapping of a soldier on the Gaza border in late June, Israel was hardly in the mood to react mildly to Hezbollah provocations, as it had sometimes in the past, releasing Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners in exchange for smaller numbers of Israelis. Hence the determination, once Hezbollah launched its July 12 raid, to smash the pest completely.
But the ongoing conflict in Lebanon can be understood in yet another light, as the latest episode in Lebanon’s own civil war. That vicious, fifteen-year-long conflict is generally held to have ended in 1990, with the signing of the Taif Accords that reapportioned power between the country’s main sects, and confirmed the role of neighboring Syria as a final arbiter. Yet the accord left important strings untied. While diminishing the dominance of Christians, to reflect changing demographics and the failure of Christian forces to unite during the civil war, it did not fully account for the rise in power, numbers, and ambitions of the long-deprived Shias, who had emerged as Lebanon’s largest single sect. It also left Israel in control of a thick wedge of territory in the largely Shia-populated south. This enemy occupation legitimized an exception to the Taif rules by which the main Shia resistance force, Hezbollah, remained the only Lebanese militia allowed to retain its arms.
Two subsequent changes brought these weaknesses in Lebanon’s political arrangements to the fore. The first was Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from its “security zone” in the spring of 2000. This move enhanced Hezbollah’s prestige, since the group’s relentless and skillful fighting was what prompted Israel to cut its losses and go. Yet at the same time it put into question, for other Lebanese, the party’s right to claim a legitimate monopoly of arms. This question came into the open following a second change, which was the withdrawal of Syrian troops, forced out by the popular uprising that came in response to Syria’s suspected involvement in the assassination, in February 2005, of Rafik Hariri, a Sunni Muslim politician and billionaire who had emerged as Lebanon’s main postwar public figure. In the wake of this unrest, an anti-Syrian coalition of parties known as the March 14 movement captured the reins of power in Beirut.
In the year since Lebanon’s so-called Cedar Revolution, the anomaly of Hezbollah’s weaponry emerged as the most dangerous and divisive issue in the country’s notoriously tricky politics. Lebanon’s 1.2 million Shias tended to see the party’s arms as a guarantor of influence for their sect, which has historically been the country’s poorest and most disenfranchised. Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Druze, by contrast, tended to view Hezbollah as both a tool of Syrian and Iranian meddling and an obstacle to the assertion of full control by the Lebanese state.
In the spring of 2005, Nasrallah had warned, ominously, that he would “cut off any hand” that reached for Hezbollah’s weapons. A series of assassinations targeting critics of the party, and of Syria, looked to some like the carrying out of this threat. To others, however, the killings were a suitable reward for what they regarded as the treachery of the traditional Lebanese political and business elite, which, reasserting itself through the March 14 movement in the wake of Syria’s departure, seemed intent on acting as a regional bridgehead for Western influence.
Meanwhile, the necessary inclusion of a Hezbollah minister, along with allied Shias, in the sectarian-balancing coalition formed in the summer of 2005 by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora had the effect of stymieing efforts at reform, such as a push to remove the Syrian-installed president, Émile Lahoud. In a belated attempt to break months of deadlock and to contain the growing polarization, Siniora agreed to a series of dialogues that brought together sectarian leaders and prominent politicians. The talks made progress on some issues, but the key question of disarming Hezbollah, as called for by the Security Council, was repeatedly postponed as too contentious. A session to resolve the issue was at last scheduled for mid-July, but the flare-up of war on July 12 preempted it.