In the wake of Israel’s 33-day war with Hizballah, the 24-year-old Islamic movement has become the most popular political party in the Middle East. Here’s why that shouldn’t worry us.
Over 1 million Lebanese gathered in a vast square in a southern Beirut suburb on Sept. 22 to celebrate their country’s largely successful campaign against Israel. Seyid Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Hizballah, risked his life by appearing in public after Israeli leaders had sworn to kill him, and spoke to his adoring supporters in Lebanon and around the world.
Many children were given the day off from school, and buses ferried supporters from all over Lebanon for the victory celebration. Lebanon had endured 33 days of war, and not only was the Shia Hizballah movement undefeated, it had achieved a near parity of casualties with the Israeli military—a first in the history of Arab-Israeli wars. In an Arab world whose leaders were dictatorial, mendacious and corrupt, who made false promises and were beholden to the United States, Nasrallah was renowned for his integrity and for maintaining his movement’s defense of Lebanon at all costs. It had made him the most popular leader in the Arab world.
Women, children and men waved the flags of Lebanon and Hizballah from outside the windows and sang in jubilation as they waited in traffic. Also on display were the flags of Palestine and Palestinian movements, Lebanese Christian movements, the Communist Party, Sunni and Druze movements, as well as secular nationalists. Although many of the celebrants were men with beards or women whose hair was covered, many were not. There were youths in trendy attire, girls in tight jeans with hair exposed and who had turned their Hizballah T-shirts into stylish form-fitting fashion statements.
Stuck in the crowds with my seven-months-pregnant American wife, we opted for a better view from the balcony of an apartment building above the crowds. When the singing of Hizballah songs and the Lebanese and Hizballah anthems had ended and Nasrallah began his speech, the women on the balcony with us shrieked as though at a rock concert and ran into the living room to confirm on the television screen that it was indeed him. They waved their arms and started to cry, and a frisson of emotion ran through the men in the room.
Nasrallah not only spoke to his natural constituents, the Lebanese Shia, but he also singled out the inhabitants of Palestine, Syria, Iran, Kuwait and Bahrain. He told his audience that they were sending a political and moral message to the world that Lebanon’s resistance was stronger than ever. Their victory was a victory for every oppressed, aggrieved and free person in the world, he said, and an inspiration for all who rejected subjugation or degradation by the United States. He mocked Arab leaders for not using their oil resources as a strategic weapon, for prohibiting demonstrations, for not supporting the Palestinians and for kowtowing to Condoleezza Rice. He extended his people’s hearts, grief and empathy for the Palestinians who were being bombed and killed daily, and whose homes were being destroyed while the world, and in particular the Arab world, was silent.
Surveying this massive crowd of boisterous people—the men and women, the teenagers and the small children, celebrating their identity and their steadfastness together with music—I knew this was not the stuff of religious fundamentalism or terrorism. I was struck by how the reality of Hizballah differed from its distorted image in the West. For although Hizb Allah, the Party of God, is undoubtedly of Shia origin, it is in fact a secular movement, addressing real temporal issues, its leaders speaking in a nationalist discourse, avoiding sectarianism and religious metaphors. They participate in politics, compromising and negotiating, and do not seek to impose Islamic law on others. Proof of this is readily available in Hizballah strongholds, where many of their followers are secular, supporting Hizballah because it represents their political interests and defends them.
Throughout the country, women in chadors walk beside scantily clad beauties. Along Lebanon’s highways, or what is left of them, billboards celebrating Hizballah’s “divine victory” over Israel share advertising space with posters depicting half-naked women wearing jeans or lingerie. Hizballah may have preferences, but unlike the authoritarian leaders of the Taliban or Saudi Arabia, it does not impose them.
Nor has the movement shown a long-standing inability to reconcile with its enemies. Most strikingly, in 2000, after Israel’s withdrawal from the Lebanese territory it was occupying, the thousands of Shia and Christian collaborators suddenly found themselves vulnerable to retribution and street justice from understandably aggrieved Lebanese. On strict orders from Hizballah, however, the vast majority were not touched. Rather they were handed over to the Lebanese army, dealt with by the Lebanese government and imprisoned and amnestied prematurely, in a move that offended many Lebanese. Nevertheless, today they can be spotted in towns in the south; everyone knows who they are, and they remain unharmed. Hardly the actions of a violent fundamentalist terrorist organization.
And what was so unreasonable about Hizballah’s demands? The movement insisted it wanted Lebanese prisoners to be freed by Israel, all of Lebanon’s territory to be evacuated by Israel, and for the Lebanese army, which had never defended Lebanon, let alone its south, to come up with a national defense plan. Thirty years of proven Israeli brutality and 60 years of Lebanese government neglect of the south gave Hizballah a raison d’etre its leadership insisted it did not want.
And unlike many of his counterparts in Iraq, Nasrallah is ingenuously urging a course of national unity in Lebanon. During his Sept. 22 speech, he went out of his way to use the rhetoric of Lebanese nationalism while condemning sectarianism. In previous speeches Nasrallah had declared that he was fighting for the umma, the world Muslim community, which is vastly Sunni. He charmed the Lebanese in a recent television interview when he looked his female interviewer in the eyes, allowed her to interrupt him and smiled with her, practically flirting. His posters can be found in Iraq, Palestine, Egypt; his name is spoken with pride in Saudi Arabia. In Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, I recently saw shops named in his honor, and heard a local cleric compare the conflict the cleric’s Islamic court militias were facing with Ethiopia and U.S.-backed warlords to Hizballah’s conflict with the American-supported Israelis.
The details of that conflict are instructive, because in it I again saw the tragic error inherent in the Bush administration’s policy of viewing the entire Muslim world through the “war on terror” prism, rather than judging each conflict on its own. In Somalia, it is widely believed that the CIA is funding a slew of unpopular and criminal warlords against a popular Islamic militia movement (which the CIA neither confirms nor denies, of course). This suspected U.S. support comes despite the fact that most analysts believe the militias are not harboring any significant terrorists nor are they likely to set up a Taliban-style regime in the country. As a result, the perception in Somalia is that the U.S. has allied itself with warlords who are terrorizing the populace in an attempt to stamp out a popular Islamic uprising.
It is this same distorting war-on-terror prism that has led the Bush administration to view resistance fighters in Iraq as mere terrorists—as opposed to elements of a popular movement made up of Sunnis and Shias with real grievances against an oppressive and increasingly onerous occupation. As a result, the inhabitants of entire towns and provinces have been branded as terrorists and “anti-Iraqi forces”—and treated as such. When I was visiting Falluja in the spring of 2004 it was clear that the vast majority of the defenders of that city were locals who believed they were fighting in self-defense against a foe that sought to destroy their city and oppress them. They were nationalists, fighting against foreign occupation. Their city of 300,000 was virtually destroyed—turned into the proverbial parking lot. Falluja became legendary in the Muslim world for its resistance to occupation and for its martyrs—much like the people of south Lebanese villages such as Aita al Shaab, who boast of their willingness to die for their ideals and of their sumud, or steadfastness.
During his Sept. 22 speech Nasrallah paid tribute to their sumud, but he also spoke of national unity, insisting that the resistance had prevented civil war from recurring in Lebanon. He called for the Lebanese state to become strong, just, capable and free of corruption. When the state became able to protect Lebanon, the resistance would give up its weapons, he promised. Hizballah was not a totalitarian movement, he insisted, and he was not a ruler—nor would his sons be.
Support for Hizballah transcends economic class divides and the divide between religious and secular Shias. Hizballah is one of the few movements in Lebanon addressing substantive issues that transcend sectarian identity—issues like corruption, social justice, rejection of America’s new Middle East project, resistance to Israeli occupation, and support for the oppressed Palestinians.
Hizballah now has strong allies and supporters among most of Lebanon’s Christians (who make up some 40% of the population); it also enjoys the support of most of the 400,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanese camps. Indeed, the war has only increased Hizballah’s supporters. I spoke to Sheikh Maher Hamoud, a powerful Sunni leader in Sidon, who told me that although he had objected to many of Hizballah’s positions before the war, he had supported them during the war and had no disagreements with them now. Hizballah’s victory was a victory for Lebanon, Arabs and all Muslims, he said, adding that “our pride was restored.” I spoke to Joseph Moukarzel, owner of the newspaper Addabour, and a leading organizer of the March 14 movement that was Hizballah’s main opponent in Lebanon. “I was for taking Hizballah’s weapons before the war, and I still am,” he told me, “but in the war I had two choices, to be with Hizballah or to be with Israel. I chose Hizballah. Hizballah was David and Israel was Goliath.”
Followers of other Lebanese sects—Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Sunni, Druze—merely follow their leaders because of their positions, not because of their ideas. Hizballah is a people’s movement, having emerged in 1982 as an inchoate umbrella group representing the marginalized and oppressed and cultivating a culture of resistance to oppression and injustice.
It was this culture of resistance that led to Hizballah’s surprise victory in what is now being called in Lebanon “the Sixth War” with Israel. (A note on my usage of “surprise victory”: If war is politics by other means, then Israel failed to achieve its stated political goals of disarming Hizballah and pushing it north of the Litani River; so too did it fail to achieve its unstated goals of cleansing the south of all Shias and intimidating Lebanese and Palestinian resistance— two failures that even Israel’s own generals are beginning to admit. Hizballah, on the other hand, not only survived the war intact, and with relatively few casualties, but it inflicted relatively heavy casualties on the Israeli military and achieved greater popularity than it ever had—winning the hearts of Muslims around the world, and many non-Muslims in Lebanon.)
On Sept. 17 I attended a memorial service for some of Hizballah’s dead soldiers in the small town of Aita al Shaab, a mere few hundred meters from the Israeli border. Aita al Shaab has suffered numerous attacks from Israel since 1970, but in this last war 85% of the town was destroyed. Only 100 Hizballah soldiers fought in Aita al Shaab, and 60 of them were local. The vast majority were not professional soldiers. The nine local martyrs who died in the 33 days of war were typical of Hizballah’s soldiers. They were a high school history teacher, a high school principal, a sweets shop owner, two high school graduates about to start university for engineering, a university student home on summer break. They were restaurant waiters, farmers, car mechanics, bakers. They had completed Hizballah’s boot camp and training and returned to their normal lives, occasionally going for refresher courses, much like our Army reserves or National Guard.
The people of Aita al Shaab blamed America as much as they did Israel for the war that had been waged against them. In the memorial service Hizballah representative Nawaf al Musawi spoke of “the American, British and Israeli war against Lebanon.” Even little children were aware of Condoleezza Rice’s comments about the birth pangs of the new Middle East, and 7-year-old Sajah Bajouk mocked Rice and John Bolton, playing on words and changing “the new Middle East,” or al sharq al awsat al jadid, to “the new Dirty East,” or al sharq al awsakh al jadid.
Most of Hizballah’s soldiers in the most recent war were between 18 and 25 years old and had never fought before. Somehow these 100 fighters in Aita al Shaab held the town, never surrendering it to the Israeli military. Many of the town’s old people stayed behind to cook and care for Hizballah’s soldiers. Other people left their homes and shops open for them. The town was Hizballah. And the entire town gathered on Sunday, Sept. 17, to mourn its dead and celebrate its victory. Hundreds of black-clad women made their way up a dirt road from the newly constructed martyr’s cemetery where the nine Hizballah soldiers and the nine civilian war dead had been buried. Many tearfully carried large framed pictures of their lost men.
After the ceremony, thousands of prepackaged meals of rice and meat were provided for the townspeople. Aita al Shaab’s people reaffirmed their support for Hizballah and resumed rebuilding their lives. As one hears so many times in Lebanon, the entire south is Hizballah; and Israel knew this, hence its war was against the people of the south. But they can’t all be terrorists, can they? Israel claims it gave a 48-hour warning to civilians, ordering them to leave the south or face death. Under international law, however, civilians never lose their immunity, and, besides, it is well known that in some instances Israel gave no warnings of its impending attacks on civilian areas (in the Bekaa Valley, for example).
When climbing amid the ruined schools, fuel stations, shops, homes, roads and bridges of southern Lebanon or driving through village after village flattened and pulverized by the terror that rained down, it is clear that the civilian population was deliberately targeted. Over 1 million cluster bombs were dropped, and 40% of them did not explode. They remain in the south, waiting for children to play with them, for farmers to step on them, a gift that keeps on giving. The agricultural fields on which the south depends for its economy are destroyed. Then as now, Israel knows what it and America continue to deny: Hizballah is the people, and hence the only way to push Hizballah north of the Litani River as Israel stated it wanted to do was to cleanse the south of Shias and make sure it was too dangerous, and economically impossible, for them to return. But the Shias of Lebanon pride themselves on their steadfastness, and their culture of resistance to oppression. They cannot be so easily dislodged. At fighting’s end, they returned and ensconced themselves in the ruins, trusting Hizballah to provide and reward them for their loyalty.
The media has fast forgotten Lebanon: Americans are distracted by what former Rep. Mark Foley wrote to congressional pages; many Muslims worldwide are more concerned with whether or not the pope insulted Islam than with who is actually killing Muslims. As the 1 million Lebanese refugees who fled Israeli terror return to sift through the rubble of their lives, they will be sidestepping cluster bombs and trusting that Hizballah will house and shelter them from the fast-approaching winter. As we Americans mourn our losses in the Sept. 11 attacks and in the subsequent war on terror (which has now cost more American lives than were lost in the attacks that provoked it), it is worth wondering: What exactly is terrorism? And if it is the infliction of violence on civilians for political reasons, then who are the terrorists?
Nir Rosen is a fellow at the New America Foundation and author of “In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq.” He is working on a book about the battle of Aita al Shaab.
Courtesy Nir Rosen
Two young Lebanese women sport T-shirts emblazoned with the image of Hizballah leader Seyid Hassan Nasrallah, who became perhaps the most popular leader in the Middle East in the wake of Israel’s 33-day war with Hizballah this summer. They are pictured here at a Sept. 22 Hizballah victory rally in a southern Beirut suburb.