A visitor trying to discover who controls Lebanon’s south, the heartland of Lebanese Shiism, soon finds that Hezbollah flags fly from the wreckage of demolished tanks abandoned by the Israeli army when it withdrew from Lebanon in 2000. The smiling face of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the prominent Shiite cleric who is Hezbollah’s political leader, is ubiquitous, and posters of Hezbollah’s “martyrs”—guerrilla soldiers who died fighting Israeli occupation troops—hang from utility poles along the main roads. These images are sometimes accompanied by detailed descriptions of the fighters’ final “operations”—guerrilla ambushes on Israeli troops and military installations, occasionally in the form of suicide bombings. (Although Hezbollah is notorious for having developed suicide bomb attacks in the 1980s, the group has used the tactic sparingly, unlike Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The last known Hezbollah suicide attack in southern Lebanon was in 1995).1
But “Hezbollahland” is more than a shrine to Shiite martyrdom. It is also central to the party’s efforts to increase its following through civic activities, the promotion of Islam, and charitable work. Jihad al-Bina, the party’s Iranian-subsidized construction company, has repaired thousands of houses destroyed by Israeli raids in southern Lebanon. And though the region remains poor, its economy is slowly improving, thanks to support from Iran and donations from well-to-do Shiites. The arid hills are now dotted by white mansions, built by Shiites who made their fortunes in Africa and the Gulf states and who have returned home, many of them pouring money into Hezbollah’s large welfare system.
At least 100,000 Lebanese children attend Hezbollah-run schools, and several hundred thousand Lebanese (including a significant number of Christians who live in predominantly Shiite areas) receive health care in Hezbollah’s four hospitals and fifty health clinics. As many as half a million Lebanese—Palestinians in several of Lebanon’s miserable refugee camps among them—get their drinking water from water tanks provided by Hezbollah. And an estimated 35,000 to 50,000 Lebanese Shiites work on farms and in small businesses, shopping malls, hospitals, and other enterprises run by Hezbollah. For many of these people, Hezbollah is also a source of interest- free business loans and advice on everything from child-rearing to the cultivation of olives.
Hezbollah’s ideology of permanent resistance and martyrdom can be found in these social programs in both subtle and more pronounced ways. The Hezbollah-run Hospital of the Martyr Salah Ghandour in Bint Jbeil, for example, is named after a Hezbollah fighter who in 1995 drove a car rigged with explosives into an Israeli convoy, killing himself and twelve Israeli soldiers; at the hospital’s main entrance there are two buckets for donations labeled “services” and “resistance,” respectively. In Hezbollah’s fifty state-approved secondary schools, which are mostly in the south and the Bekaa Valley, Lebanese youths are instructed in party doctrine and play games designed to reenact Hezbollah battles against Israeli soldiers in south Lebanon.
Unlike the madrasas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the curriculum includes a solid grounding in the sciences, social studies, and to some extent literature. (As Sami Hajjar has noted in “Hizballah: Terrorism, National Liberation, or Menace?,” Hezbollah has a high regard for Western advances in science and technology, and some of its members are “graduates” of Western schools who “use their knowledge in the service of the party’s social, medical, and information activities.”) But students also spend four to five hours each week learning about the pillars of Islam as interpreted by Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei, and there is an emphasis on jihad, both spiritual and military. Some children take part in Hezbollah parades. In all these activities, the Israeli withdrawal is presented as a historic defeat by Hezbollah’s Islamic resistance—a defeat that has empowered the Shiite community as never before.
“For the first time, the Shiites here feel they have some power,” said my translator, a Palestinian Christian woman who is a Lebanese citizen and was educated in the United States. The biggest irony of the long civil war between Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians, she said, is that the most oppressed people have emerged with the most political power. “We used to laugh at the Shia. We saw them as riff-raff,” she said. “Well, look who’s had the last laugh.”
As a result of its political gains, Hezbollah now has a growing stake in the stability of southern Lebanon. Timur Göksel, a retired UN official in Beirut who was senior adviser and spokesman of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon for twenty-four years, thinks that Nasrallah is aware that Hezbollah’s survival in the future depends on its electoral success, and that “he’s not going to play with fire” by dragging Israel into a war that neither Syria nor Iran wants him to fight. Nevertheless, Göksel adds, the passion for battle runs high among Hezbollah fighters in the south.
Hezbollah depends on volunteer fighters to staff its military wing in southern Lebanon. Although the party also enlists new members through its schools and party organizations, the main places of recruitment are local mosques. Some Lebanese Shia join Hezbollah as early as age fifteen, and would-be recruits must show a high degree of intelligence, zeal, discipline, and motivation. Once a volunteer fighter has joined the military force, he receives training in guerrilla warfare and other military skills from Hezbollah leaders. There have been reports in the Western press, and by anti-Syrian Lebanese Christians with ties to the Israel lobby in Washington, of large Hezbollah training camps in southern Lebanon and elsewhere. But most Hezbollah experts I have spoken with say that much of the training takes place underground—in basements, caves, and in the mountains—through small, highly mobile units, to avoid detection by Israeli intelligence. In a recent article in the Daily Star, an English-language newspaper in Beirut, Nicholas Blanford, a journalist who has covered Hezbollah for many years, noted that “Hezbollah long ago abandoned its training camps in the Bekaa to deny targets to the Israeli Air Force.”
In addition to reminding Israel that “the resistance” is alive, Hezbollah’s intermittent attacks along the Israeli border provide these young recruits with an opportunity to fight. For the most part, their actions are aimed at the small patch of disputed border territory—called Shebaa Farms—still held by Israel. Covering about ten square kilometers near the Lebanon–Syria border, Shebaa Farms has remained in dispute since the Israeli withdrawal. Israel says it is Syrian territory that will only be returned in a comprehensive peace settlement with Syria; Hezbollah and Syria maintain that it belongs to Lebanon.2
But Hezbollah has also launched rocket attacks in response to Israeli operations in the Occupied Territories. At the height of the Israeli invasion of the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank in 2002, Hezbollah fired rockets into northern Israel. It recently did so again, following the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and may mount another attack should Israel take military action against Syria as Sharon has threatened.3 And if Israel assassinates one of Hezbollah’s leaders or another prominent leader of Hamas or Islamic Jihad,4 or proceeds with Sharon’s recently announced plan to build nine hundred new houses in the Golan Heights, Hezbollah’s activities on the Israeli border could become more intense. At least some Hezbollah fighters say they would welcome a new offensive. My Hezbollah guide in the south, a lean, rugged man who fought the Israeli army for seventeen years, told me: “When I’m late coming home for dinner, my wife no longer has to worry that I’ve become a martyr. But I miss those days. There was a real joy in fighting together.” As for now, he says, “We’re just waiting for Sharon to make a mistake. We are ready.”
Thanks to Ariel Sharon, who masterminded the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and to Ehud Barak, who ordered Israel’s withdrawal, Hezbollah now controls Lebanon’s border with Israel. Hezbollah’s recent prisoner exchange with Israel, in which the party secured the release of 429 Arab political prisoners, including 400 Palestinians, in exchange for returning a single Israeli hostage and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers kidnapped in December 2000, showed how important this control continues to be. To the astonishment of many Israelis, Sharon’s cabinet approved the exchange, even though it did not include the body of a fourth soldier, Captain Ron Arad, a pilot whose plane was shot down by the Amal militia, a rival Shiite group, in 1986, and whose capture was arranged by Mustafa Dirani, one of the prisoners released by Israel. Israel’s interest in Arad may provide Nasrallah a means to obtain the release of yet another prisoner, Samir Qantar, a Lebanese Druze serving a 542-year sentence for killing three Israeli civilians during a 1979 raid in northern Israel.5 Despite the recent hostilities between Hezbollah and the Israeli military on the border, Qantar’s case is now “under review,” and he is expected to be released by Israel later this year in exchange for new information about Arad. (The negotiations are being handled principally by Iran, which also hopes to get back the remains of four Iranian diplomats abducted by the Israeli-backed Phalange in Beirut in 1982.)
Shortly after the kidnappings in October 2000, the Israeli army built a large military outpost at Sheikh Abad on the border with Lebanon. It is covered in layers of coiled barbed wire, through which it is all but impossible to see the soldiers inside. On the day I visited the Hezbollah encampment just opposite, there was a strong wind, and the flags of Israel and Hezbollah almost touched. A young Hezbollah fighter wearing a Calvin Klein shirt and jeans and carrying a walkie-talkie manned his post. He looked bored but insisted he wasn’t. “Would you like to throw a stone?” he said, referring to the popular Lebanese activity of throwing stones at the Israeli side.
But Hezbollah has more than stones at its disposal. The group has hidden an unknown number of Iranian-made Katyusha rockets, perhaps as many as nine thousand, throughout south-ern Lebanon. Some of these rockets reportedly have enough range to reach Israel’s industrial center at Haifa. Israel has said that it will not tolerate the continued presence of Hezbollah or its arsenal along the border. The official reason they give is that the Israeli government fears unprovoked rocket attacks on Israel’s northern settlements. But analysts suggest that Hezbollah has also developed enough firepower to become a factor in Israel’s own military strategy toward Syria and Iran, which have come under increasing threat since September 11. As Amir Oren, a military affairs columnist for Haaretz, points out, “Hezbollah’s rockets have a deterrent effect. They create a balance of ter-ror on the entire northern border of Israel.”
So far, clashes between Hezbollah and Israel since the Israeli withdrawal in 2000 have resulted in only four civilian casualties (one Israeli, three Lebanese).6 For the hostilities that do take place, it is a case of reciprocal, painstakingly calibrated combat that one Lebanese analyst described to me as a “complex poker game.” That dangerous game has “rules” that both parties have for the most part respected since 1996, when the so-called “April Understanding” was reached between Israel and Lebanon, in consultation with Syria and then United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher acting as broker. The parties were hastily brought together following Israel’s “Operation Grapes of Wrath,” a fifteen-day raid into Lebanon in response to Hezbollah rocket attacks in northern Israel. Some 400,000 Lebanese were displaced during the raid, and 154 civilians were killed—100 of them in Israel’s shelling of a UN base in the ancient village of Qana.7 The agreement, which was not signed, called for a cease-fire on the Israel– Lebanon border and urged both parties to avoid attacking civilians. (Although Hezbollah was not party to the talks, it agreed to “honor” the accord.) These stipulations complemented a cease-fire agreement between Israel and Syria that had been in effect since 1974.
The October 5, 2003, Israeli strike on an alleged Palestinian training camp outside Damascus, the first attack on Syrian soil since 1974, showed an eagerness on Sharon’s part to break with the restrictions of the past. He had firm backing from the Bush government. Although Nasrallah emphasized his party’s adherence to the April agreement, he also said that if Israel attacks either Syria or Lebanon, “we are ready to defend ourselves.” Syria did not reply to the October 5 strike, but Hezbollah did, launching its first attacks in Shebaa in three months.
“The first thing you need to address in strategy is how to confront potential threats, and Israel poses a constant threat to Lebanon,” Nasrallah told me. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, it was with the announced aim of crushing PLO militants who posed a threat to northern Israel. But Nasrallah argues that the invasion was an act of unprovoked aggression:
There was no fighting on the border in the period just before. On the contrary, there had been a cease-fire [between Israel and the PLO]. There was an attempted assassination in London of the Israeli ambassador [Nasrallah was referring to gunmen working on behalf of Abu Nidal, who tried to kill Shlomo Argov, the Israeli ambassador to England] and under the pretext of this attack the Israelis reached Beirut! What guarantee do we have this won’t happen again?
Nasrallah has a point. Although Abu Nidal was a sworn and deadly foe of Arafat’s PLO, Israel invoked the attack as a reason for taking military action once and for all against the PLO in southern Lebanon, which—to Israeli’s surprise and irritation—had respected the cease-fire brokered by the United States in July 1981.
The question today is what interest Israel would have in invading Lebanon again, since the PLO has been evicted and the occupation of southern Lebanon ended almost four years ago—unless, of course, Hezbollah launches an especially deadly attack on northern Israel, or deepens its alliance with Hamas. If Hezbollah is a “deterrent to Israeli aggression”—the argument put forward to me by both Nasrallah and Lebanon’s minister of information, Michel Samaha—it is, paradoxically, a deterrent to an invasion whose most likely pretext would be violence by Hezbollah itself.
There are some Lebanese who worry that Hezbollah will provoke Israel’s wrath, but most people I talked to believe that Nasrallah will show restraint, and have a much greater fear of what would happen if Hezbollah evacuated southern Lebanon. If that should occur, many fear that the Lebanese army would be unable to prevent the Palestinian guerrillas who are still in Lebanese camps from crossing into Israel, as they did throughout the 1970s, killing civilians in Israeli settlements and often provoking harsh Israeli reprisals. An influential Shiite businessman said to me, “We are so glad the wise men of Hezbollah are guarding the border.”
Not that the Lebanese government has much say in the matter. Visiting Beirut last spring, Colin Powell demanded that Hezbollah disarm immediately, and that Lebanese troops be deployed to the border. He was addressing the wrong government. Syria, a militarily weakened country, wants Hezbollah’s fighters on the border, and Lebanon’s pro-Syrian Christian President Emile Lahoud is not about to oppose his patrons in Damascus. Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon’s billionaire prime minister, a liberal, secular Sunni, is said to favor disarming Hezbollah, but there is little he can do about it. On February 15, 2001, Hariri assured a group of investors in Paris that Hezbollah would no longer be conducting raids across the Israeli border. “We have a clear agreement with our Syrian brothers in this matter,” he told them. “There will be no provocations on our part.” The next day, Hezbollah carried out its first attack in nearly two months, killing an Israeli soldier in the Shebaa Farms. Hariri was humiliated—but found himself forced to defend the attack as a legitimate act of resistance.
But Shebaa is a pretext to continue fighting, rather than a cause that ignites genuine passion. And apart from resisting Israel’s continued occupation there, Hezbollah would appear to be at risk of becoming “rebels without a cause,” as the International Crisis Group calls its informative recent report:
Today perhaps more than ever since its establishment in 1984, the organisation’s purpose and fate hang in the balance…. Uncomfortable in its current pose yet unwilling to change in fundamental ways, it has opted for a posture of wait-and-see, maintaining the rhetoric and armed capability of a militant organisation but few of its concrete manifestations.
This is not how Nasrallah says he sees things. “Hezbollah is at the heart of the Arab–Israeli conflict,” Nasrallah told me. “This [the conflict] is one whole, and you cannot partition it. It is ultimately one reality.”
It is, indeed, difficult to see how Hezbollah’s armed wing can be disbanded in the absence of a regional peace agreement, so deftly has Nasrallah inserted his party into the conflicts over the Golan Heights and the Occupied Territories. The recent prisoner exchange, moreover, showed that the “Hezbollah model” of negotiation, combining aggressive diplomacy and calculated but not indiscriminate violence, can succeed where other Arab efforts in dealing with Israel—whether by the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Morocco, or Syria—have conspicuously failed.
A peace deal between Israel and Syria, whose leader has repeatedly insisted that Hezbollah’s armed wing will be dismantled once the Golan Heights is returned, is the last thing Nasrallah wants, since it would mean the end of his movement as a military organization. By leading Hezbollah into Lebanon’s parliament, Nasrallah has been preparing for an outcome he hopes to prevent. The ambiguities of Nasrallah’s strategy are evident even on the question of Palestine, where Hezbollah’s animosity toward the Jewish state is otherwise clear. On the one hand, Nasrallah upholds Hezbollah’s successful war in southern Lebanon as a model for Palestinian militants, calling for the “liberation of Jerusalem” in speeches to his followers. He regards Israel as a “usurper state,” a view that is not likely to change. Yet it is worth recalling that Hezbollah’s leaders are now rarely heard uttering the party’s slogan, “the Islamic revolution in Lebanon.” As has been said, Nasrallah indicated in conversations with Seymour Hersh and with me that if a two-state settlement emerges he would not sabotage what is “a Palestinian matter.” But his good faith has not yet been tested. He continues to make statements encouraging Palestinian suicide bombers.
A few days before our meeting last autumn, Nasrallah gave the keynote speech at a conference on Palestine organized at the UNESCO Palace in Beirut by al-Manar (“Beacon of Light”), Hezbollah’s popular and stridently anti-Israel TV station, which has devoted much of its attention to each Palestinian “martyr” and has broadcast extensive coverage of the carnage caused by suicide bombers in Israeli cities, pirated from Israeli television. Attending the conference were hundreds of Muslims from across the Islamic world. Most were bearded men in black suits, wearing Palestinian-style shawls decorated with images of the Dome of the Rock. Toward the back was a row of pale-skinned women in black chadors.
To his rapt audience, Nasrallah outlined his case for armed struggle in the Occupied Territories, and assured his audience that Hezbollah would continue to support Palestinian militants by any means necessary. A reader of the Israeli press, he said that Israel’s economy had been devastated since the beginning of the second intifada and that suicide bombers had struck fear into the hearts of Israelis. As the conference brochure chillingly put it: “The Zionists do not dare to move in the streets and he who ventures out is not sure if he will come back alive.” Nasrallah is firmly convinced that if the Israelis are hit hard enough, they will eventually leave the Occupied Territories, just as they left southern Lebanon. A Lebanese journalist, a left-wing Christian who is a confidant of Nasrallah, told me that he tried in vain to convince Nasrallah that he was wrong in believing that Hezbollah’s “model” of guerrilla warfare could be exported to the Occupied Territories. “I read the Koran and the Koran tells me the Jews are cowards,” Nasrallah replied.
This perspective is reflected in Hezbollah’s main contribution to the intifada. The incendiary television coverage of “martyrdom operations” by al-Manar reaches an estimated 15 percent of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, and its slickly produced news reports and its children’s programs that exalt suicide bombers as martyrs are especially popular in the refugee camps. “Hezbollah has tried to use al-Manar to Islamicize the Palestinian struggle,” says Samir Kassir, a Palestinian-Lebanese journalist with an-Nahar, a Lebanese newspaper.
Still, although he obviously took pride in the fact that the Palestinians had chosen Hezbollah’s way, the violent path of resistance, Nasrallah’s approach to violence is different from that of Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Unlike those groups, which tend to favor bomb attacks at random civilian targets, causing maximum fear and instability, Hezbollah is selective in its use of bombs and artillery, generally picking military targets that it believes will advance its strategic aims or display its considerable military potential. It has calibrated its attacks against Israel so as not to make peace or war, but to get a better deal in any negotiations. Indeed, Nasrallah devoted much of his speech last autumn to describing Hezbollah’s efforts to negotiate the prisoner exchange with Israel—a negotiation whose success has caused his already enormous prestige among Palestinians to increase, at the expense of moderates in the Palestinian Authority.
Nasrallah clearly enjoys upstaging Arab moderates, and relishes the attention he is getting. Yet he also knows he cannot afford to jeopardize his relationship with Syria and Iran, or, more importantly, with his Shiite constituency, which would be exposed to Israeli retaliation if he recklessly orders attacks on Israel. The Shiites may despise the Israelis, but they have no love for the Palestinians, who ruled southern Lebanon harshly in the 1970s and often treated Shiites with contempt. Apart from Hezbollah militants, they are not about to sacrifice their lives once again for the sake of Palestine. Many Shiites initially welcomed the Israeli army precisely because they had grown tired of the PLO’s thuggish behavior, and because they had to absorb the heavy blows of Israeli retaliation. Nasrallah knows that his followers are not likely to tolerate any activities that would bring back the Israeli army.
The biggest dilemma facing Hezbollah today is over strategy not in Palestine, however, but in Iraq. (Not to mention the United States, which some reports suggest has contemplated a possible military operation against Hezbollah. “We are not engaged in fighting the Americans,” Nasrallah told me, but added that if his group was attacked, “we are prepared to defend ourselves”—an allusion, possibly, to the retaliatory capacity of Hezbollah’s cells in South America and Asia.) As Samir Kassir, the Lebanese journalist, observes, “On the one hand, they want the Americans to be defeated. On the other, they have a historic opportunity with the Shia there.” The Lebanese and Iraqi Shiite communities are linked by centuries of intermarriage, and their clerics have studied in the same seminaries in Najaf and Qom. “Whatever happens in Iraq we feel, and vice versa,” Nawaf al-Musawi, Hezbollah’s foreign affairs minister, told me.
Initially, however, the American war in Iraq placed this relationship under severe strain. In the months that led up to the war, Hezbollah vehemently opposed an American invasion. “We tell them, do not expect that the people of this region will receive you with flowers, rice and rose water,” Nasrallah told a Hezbollah gathering in March. “The region’s people will receive you with rifles, blood, weapons, martyrdom and martyrdom operations.”
According to Nasrallah, the Iraq war was an American-Israeli conspiracy to dominate Iraq’s natural resources, and to reshape the Middle East in Israel’s interests. But the American invasion looked different to many of Iraq’s Shiites, who had suffered under decades of Saddam’s oppression. Nasrallah—who was chased out of Najaf as a young man by Saddam’s thugs—well understood that his coreligionists would benefit from Saddam’s overthrow. His speeches against the war were all the more irritating to some of his allies in Iraq, who bitterly reminded him that in 1982 Lebanon’s Shiites had initially welcomed the Israelis as a way of getting rid of the PLO. “If Nasrallah would decide tomorrow to visit Iraq, very few Iraqis would show up to welcome him,” a leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), told the International Crisis Group.
That no longer appears to be the case, partly because of Hezbollah’s assiduous diplomacy in postwar Iraq, and partly because of growing hostility to the American occupation among Iraqi Shiites.8 Since the Anglo-American invasion, Nasrallah has worked hard to repair his ties to Iraq’s Shiites. “We must respect the will of the Iraqis,” he said in his speech at the UNESCO Palace, criticizing Sunnis who refer to Iraqi Shiites as “traitors” for cooperating with the Americans. So far, Hezbollah has also refrained from calling explicitly for resistance, respecting the wishes of the influential Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward the Americans. Nasrallah’s calculation was that the occupation would be far less popular than the war was among Iraqi Shiites, and that his message of uncompromising resistance to America and Israel would eventually find a following.
Just how shrewd this calculation was became clear on April 4, when the young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr—a hard-line opponent of America’s occupation based in Kufa, a city just outside the holy city of Najaf—launched the first large-scale Shiite uprising since the American invasion began. In a challenge not only to the American forces but to al-Sistani, who has cau- tioned against violent resistance, mem- bers of al-Sadr’s three thousand–strong Mahdi militia battled American troops in Shiite-dominated Sadr City, a slum on the outskirts of Baghdad; in Najaf; and in Kufa. Militiamen, who succeeded in taking over checkpoints and police stations in all three cities, fired rocket-propelled grenades at coalition forces, and seven Americans and one Salvadorean were killed. In the ensuing days, there were reports of joint attacks on American soldiers by al-Sadr followers and Sunni militants.
Despite apparent misgivings about al-Sadr, a firebrand who is widely distrusted by middle-class Iraqi Shiites, Iran appears to be giving him a measure of covert support, perhaps to pressure al-Sistani to adopt a more aggressive position against the occupation. Al-Sadr, for his part, draws explicit inspiration from Hezbollah’s example. In his incendiary Friday sermon at the Kufa mosque, two days before the uprising began, he told his followers:
I declare from now on that I will support the real Islamic unity that has been created by Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of the victorious Hezbollah, with Hamas. I want them to accept me as their striking army, as necessity and opportunity dictate.
There are at least a hundred Hezbollah members in Iraq today, some of them reportedly working closely with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard; and some American officials believe that they are establishing a presence and military force in coordination with Iraqi Shiites.9 If the United States should decide to move against either Hezbollah or Iran, one justification will likely be the party’s presence in Iraq. Last fall, Daniel Byman hinted darkly in Foreign Affairs that Hezbollah could become involved in “action” against US forces. Following the Shiite uprising in early April, retired Air Force General Thomas McInerney, in an interview with Brit Hume of Fox News on April 5, said that there is “very good intelligence” that Hezbollah is giving financial support, through Iran, to al-Sadr. “The money is coming from Iran,” he said. “It’s coming from Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which is important, as well as Hezbollah.”
While not disputing that Hezbollah has established a “significant presence” in Iraq, however, CIA officials say there has not been any evidence of joint activity between Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiites, according to a New York Times report on April 8. Some informed observers I spoke to doubt that Hezbollah has been taking an active part in armed resistance in Iraq, except in an advisory capacity. The Iraqi Shiites, after all, have no lack of trained soldiers; al-Sadr’s Mahdi militia is one (and perhaps the least disciplined) of several Shiite militias, the largest of which—the SCIRI-affiliated, Iranian-trained Badr Brigades—is a 15,000-man army, three times larger than Hezbollah, and, as their history of violence has shown, no less experienced in clandestine warfare. What is more, as the Beirut-based journalist Nicholas Blanford points out, “neither Damascus nor Tehran wants Hezbollah to foment resistance in Iraq, since this would strengthen the argument in Washington for forceful measures against Syria and Iran.”
Until the beginning of April, the Iraqi Shiites had organized demonstrations demanding direct elections but, for the most part, had not violently opposed the American occupation, just as the Lebanese Shiites briefly tolerated the Israelis in 1982, when they expelled the Palestinian forces that then dominated southern Lebanon. The uprising that began on April 4, however, cast widespread doubt on continued Shiite support for the American presence. And although al-Sistani, who commands many more followers than al-Sadr, has until now favored dealing with the Americans in a peaceful manner, the tension between al-Sistani and the American government over elections has been growing. Al-Sistani has urged al-Sadr’s followers—and the Americans opposing them—to show restraint; but if the Shiites turn en masse to armed resistance with al-Sistani’s tacit approval, Hezbollah’s struggle in southern Lebanon—which it has meticulously recorded in manuals and in widely available videotapes filmed by al-Manar—could provide a model for the insurgents, just as it has in the Occupied Territories. Nothing would be more satisfying to Hezbollah’s rank and file, whether or not Hezbollah is directly involved. “It makes me angry that the Iraqi Shiites aren’t resisting the Americans,” one former Hezbollah fighter told me. “But they should wait,” he added. “Resistance requires organization, it doesn’t happen overnight. It must be studied. We learned from the Vietnamese and the Algerians, and I think the Iraqis have something to learn from us.”
Of course, this is not the only lesson that the Iraqi Shiites can draw from Hezbollah’s experience in Lebanon. For Hezbollah has not achieved its objectives by arms alone, and its peaceful political strategies, one can hope, may prove even more influential. For Iraqi Shiites, who are poised to gain control of Iraq’s affairs for the first time in their history, there is much that is impressive in Hezbollah’s efforts in Lebanon since the early 1990s. In Leb- anon, a country divided, like Iraq, along religious lines and still recovering from civil war, the party has given a long-oppressed, politically quiescent community—the same community that suffered grievously under Sunni domination in Iraq—its first taste of real power by participating successfully in electoral politics and building a network of schools and other civil institutions. The Iraqi Shiites are aware of this record.
—April 14, 2004; this is the second of two articles on Hezbollah.
May 13, 2004
Christoph Reuter, in My Life Is a Weapon, cites a 1999 count by the Israeli army, according to which out of 1,500 Hezbollah military operations in the 1990s, only one was a suicide attack, although Jane’s Foreign Report has recently suggested that Hezbollah may have collaborated with Hamas for the first time in a joint suicide attack last year on a seaside restaurant in Tel Aviv. See Jane’s Foreign Report, March 25, 2004. ↩
See the first part of this article in The New York Review, April 29, 2004. The Shebaa Farms are a thin, unpopulated strip near the Golan Heights of almost no strategic value, comprising less than 2 percent of Lebanon’s land mass—if, in fact, they even belong to Lebanon. The farms were under Syrian control when they were captured in 1967, and though an Israeli demographer, Asher Kaufman, has shown that residents paid their taxes in Lebanon during the French Mandate, few Lebanese remember it was ever theirs. Syria, for its part, insists that Shebaa is Lebanese, so that Hezbollah can continue fighting Israel on its behalf. ↩
According to a report in the Israeli paper Yediot Aharonot, June 6, 2002, Sharon told Colin Powell that Israel may have to “send Syria back to the Stone Age.” ↩
At a well-attended memorial service for Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Nasrallah—standing beside Hamas’s Damascus-based leader Khaled Meshaal—declared: “We are under your [Hamas’s] command. I say to our brothers in Palestine: We in Lebanon are with you. Be sure that your blood is our blood and your sheikh is our sheikh. We share the same destiny and this means that our fight is one.” ↩
Haaretz has covered the Qantar case extensively. See especially Ze’ev Schiff, “Bend It Like Hezbollah,” January 25, 2004, and Zvi Bar’el’s many articles on the subject. ↩
Israel has also alleged that Hezbollah organized the March 12, 2002, ambush by Palestinian guerrillas on a settlement in northern Israel that killed six Israelis, but the attack was claimed by the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. ↩
While Israel insisted that the bombing of Qana was a mistake, a comprehensive UN report concluded otherwise. ↩
A Lebanese friend of mine reporting in Baghdad recently told me in an e-mail that “most Shiites brighten as soon as I tell them I’m from south Lebanon—they start singing Nasrallah’s praises.” ↩
See the report “Syria Under Bashar (I): Foreign Policy Challenges,” by the International Crisis Group, February 11, 2004, p. 13. ↩