“The history of liberty is a history of resistance.”
— Woodrow T. Wilson
“We rely on Hezbollah and these other countries which are helping us now because it’s all we have,” Abu Khalil, an unemployed construction worker injured by bomb shrapnel during last summer’s war in Lebanon, told me. As we stood talking in the warm spring sun outside his largely destroyed village of Aita Ech Chaab, a few hundred yards from Lebanon’s southern border, he added, “And we rely on Hezbollah to protect us again from the next Israeli aggression, because our own government cannot and will not do that job.”
In its savage 34-day assault on Lebanon, the Israeli government had hoped to knock down precisely that sentiment. One of the stated aims of the war, in which more than a thousand Lebanese and more than 40 Israelis were killed, was to turn the Lebanese against Hezbollah for having triggered the conflict. An ironic assumption considering that the creation of Hezbollah was a direct response to an earlier Israeli attack.
Formed in 1982 to resist the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah became a political entity in 1985. As a sworn enemy of staunch U.S. ally Israel, it has been labeled a “terrorist organization” by Washington. The sustained propaganda and bellicose posturing of the U.S. government regarding the outfit have kept most Americans ignorant of its true nature and of the fact that a large number of Lebanese are currently aligning with Hezbollah in a bid to thwart the policy of global hegemony being pushed by the Bush administration in Lebanon.
Another irony is that nearly half the members of the massive opposition alliance joining Hezbollah against the U.S.-backed Lebanese government are Christians.
Michel Samaha, a Maronite Christian who was Lebanon’s information minister from 1992 to ’95 and in 2003-04, is among the growing number of Christians, Druse and Sunnis to have joined the Lebanese Shiites in moving Hezbollah toward a democratic government in Lebanon. His reasons, like those of many others, lie in the perception of U.S. policy as being injurious to his country.
Samaha says Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Ministers Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt are seeking to strengthen themselves by accommodating the priorities of the United States, Israeli hawks and U.S. neocons in administering Lebanon. Of the much touted Hezbollah-Iran link, Samaha said that the Shiites in Lebanon who support Hezbollah are “… not Iranians; they are Lebanese and they have their independent agenda. It is this resistance who fought in the south. These are the Lebanese Shiites who fought. What we have witnessed during the second Israeli war on Lebanon is the defeat of Israel in Israel itself. It is not Iranians. It is the Lebanese fighters, the Lebanese mujahedeen, who fought in this important war and emerged victorious.”
Today the credibility of Hezbollah has gone beyond that of a legitimate resistance movement. Extensive social programs in times of peace and ongoing rehabilitation efforts after the war have brought Hezbollah greater appreciation and acclaim among the Lebanese people.
The civilian population of south Lebanon comprises the poor of the country, who have survived on farming and had little if any support from the government. It is Hezbollah that has provided them education, healthcare and other social support services, particularly during the Israeli occupation that lasted until May 2000.
Ostensibly to teach an unforgettable lesson to Hezbollah leadership and to Tehran, the Israeli military, with the endorsement of the Bush administration, plastered southern Lebanon with 100,000 artillery shells and 1 million cluster bombs. Unexploded, the latter are a menace and continue to make farming impossible.
Israel’s air force, armed with U.S.-manufactured and -fueled F-16s, went on a rampage with more than 14 combat missions every single hour of the war, destroying, among other things, 73 bridges, 400 miles of roads, 25 gas stations, 900 commercial structures, two hospitals, 350 schools and 15,000 Lebanese homes.
Political fallout from the war has been disastrous in Israel, where Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s public approval rating reached an all-time low of 2 percent in March, according to the daily Yediot Ahronoth.
More recently, an Israeli investigative commission released a damning preliminary report on Olmert’s handling of the war that found he had “made up his mind hastily” to launch the air, sea and land attack last July. It accused him of “a serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence,” and described his stated goals of freeing two captured Israeli soldiers and crushing Hezbollah as “overly ambitious and impossible to achieve.”
Last summer, Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon announced on Israeli army radio that “all those in south Lebanon are terrorists who are related in some way to Hezbollah” and “villages should be flattened by the Israeli air force before ground troops move in.”
Such rhetoric and the ensuing actions have not had the effect desired by the U.S. and Israel. Instead of becoming unpopular, Hezbollah has garnered massive political alliances.
Said Samaha: “I’m a Christian, but I’m a Lebanese too. I can’t disassociate myself from the Shiites when faced with Israel. … It is unacceptable to me if the resistance is excluded from decision-making. It may be the Shiite mujahedeen, but it is a Lebanese resistance embedded in Lebanese society of which Christians, Shiites, Druse and Sunnis are the bedrock.”
The Bush administration policy on Lebanon and its unbridled support for Israel have galvanized a powerful opposition to the Lebanese government.
However, George W. Bush made a brazen assault on reality at a news conference the day the U.N.-brokered cease-fire took place between Hezbollah and Israel on Aug. 14, 2006. “Hezbollah suffered a defeat in this crisis,” he declared. “How can you claim victory when you were a state within a state in southern Lebanon, and now you’re going to be replaced by an international force?”
“There’s going to be a new power in the south of Lebanon,” he added, referring to the UNIFIL force [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon] that was to assist the Lebanese army in controlling the area.
Having just returned from southern Lebanon, I can tell you that UNIFIL has not replaced Hezbollah in any capacity. Loyalty to Hezbollah and to countries like Iran that are involved in postwar reconstruction projects is at an all-time high. Languid UNIFIL soldiers stand speckled across the border, smoking cigarettes and watching cars pass.
UNIFIL is also seen by many in Lebanon as an indirect sign of favoritism toward Israel.
Mohammed Kundoulay, a 17-year-old secondary school student, said: “… It’s a good thing for UNIFIL to help us get our land back.” When I asked him about UNIFIL mine-removal operations he said, “We need this help now after the Israelis conducted terrorism against us.” His friend, Jaffar Assaf, was more precise. “We hope the U.N. maintain their position and help to defend us from Israel. Although in fact, the U.N. should be in Israel and not here if they want to defend us from them, since they [the Israelis] were the ones who invaded Lebanon, not vice versa,” he said.
The indifference of the government in Beirut has left hundreds of thousands in south Lebanon almost entirely dependent upon and therefore loyal to Hezbollah.
Prime Minister Siniora and his cronies obtained pledges of more than $7 billion in aid and loans at a meeting in Paris in January, but have done precious little to help war victims rebuild their lives.
“We’ve applied to the government for help. They came and inspected the damage and said they would let us know. We’re still waiting,” said Mahmoud al-Khateib, 45, whose electronics repair shop in southern Beirut was damaged by an Israeli bomb.
Change his name and location and it’s the same story across the south.
In the town of Bint Jbail, which was hammered by Israeli airstrikes, I met with neighborhood Mayor Ali Beydoun in his partially destroyed house. He had returned to rebuild the house while his family stayed on in Beirut. Beydoun was equally angry with the current Lebanese government and the Israeli military. “We support the opposition to the government because we want our rights and we want justice and support. At least the head of the government should come see what has happened in his country.”
Siniora has yet to visit southern Lebanon to assess the war damage. “Instead he went on a holiday to Jordan.” Waving his arm toward central Bint Jbail, destroyed by Israeli airstrikes and artillery shells, Beydoun asked me, “Is it possible for a prime minister not to know or care about his own country?”
I heard similar sentiments from several others.
“Siniora was sitting with Condoleezza Rice when Israel was bombing us with U.S. bombs,” raged Abed Ridda, referring to the visit of the U.S. secretary of state to Beirut during the war. The move is perceived as having added insult to injury, and the Lebanese are in no hurry to forgive or forget.
Reconstruction in southern Beirut and across much of southern Lebanon was spearheaded by Hezbollah. Additionally, countries like Iran and Qatar have adopted towns or areas. Qatar has undertaken to rebuild the towns of Khiam, Ait Ech Chaab, Bint Jbail and Ainata, where Hezbollah enjoys substantial support. By the end of January, Qataris had handed out more than 5,000 compensation checks averaging about $6,000 in these towns.
In Dahiyeh, blocks upon blocks of 10-story apartment buildings were leveled by Israeli bombing, and empty craters are all that remain in some places. In this suburb, Hezbollah initiated reconstruction through its NGO arm, Jihad al-Binaa. This resourceful organization has a task force of some 1,500 engineers.
In the absence of an effective administration during the Lebanese civil war, Jihad al-Binaa took on the role of a local municipality for the Shiite community and it continues to do so. Once the bombings ended in August 2006, Hezbollah wasted no time and allocated $12,000 to each family that had lost a house. For those most in need, it undertook direct reconstruction.
A 22-year-old electrician, Hussein Shara’a, stood talking to me beside a gaping crater that was once his 10-floor apartment building. “The government is giving us nothing, while Hezbollah is doing a great job for us. Even with all that remains to be done, we can survive because the important thing is that we won the war,” he said.
The suburb is dotted with countless green and yellow Jihad al-Binaa banners proclaiming in Arabic: “Carrying On. Together We Resist. Together We Rebuild.”
Iranian money and expertise have facilitated the repair or reconstruction of 60 schools across Lebanon, with work planned on an additional 100. Iran has pledged more than $112 million to help the south rebuild, three times the amount initially offered by the U.S.
Hussam Khoshnevis, head of the Iranian mission to aid reconstruction of Lebanon, told reporters recently that four hospitals in a list of 22 and 30 places of worship, including 10 churches and some Sunni mosques, had been repaired. Electricity has been restored to 60 villages, and 10 major bridges have been rebuilt. Iranian engineers are also overseeing the repair of all of Lebanon’s damaged roads.
The anger toward the Beirut administration is palpable. Bilal Hussein Jama’a of Bint Jbail commented as he took a break from mixing concrete for his home: “They [the Israelis] can bomb us one day and we’ll rebuild the next. We are not afraid of them. But the rebuilding is on our own, with the help of Qatar and Hezbollah and Iran, but not our own impotent government.”
The fact that three of the biggest contributors at the Paris meeting were the United States, France and Saudi Arabia only adds fuel to the fire. All three are viewed by the opposition as supporters of Siniora and his allies Hariri and Jumblatt. People believe money meant for reconstruction is going elsewhere.
Fears about the redirection of aid money are not unfounded and are based on more than the typical government corruption and officials lining their pockets. During the war last summer, the Saudis, in close consultation with the U.S., began pumping money into Lebanese Druse, Christian and Sunni political groups in order to counter the influence of Hezbollah. Both Saudis and Americans cooperated in procuring aid for the Internal Security Force of Lebanon, which is essentially a militia that answers directly to Siniora.
There is also speculation that sectarian groups, such as followers of Jumblatt and supporters of Hariri, are rearming and training in remote camps within Lebanon in preparation for hostilities with Hezbollah.
It is difficult to comprehend such elaborate preparation for a worst-case scenario when a simple end to hostilities lies in allowing the underrepresented in Lebanon a greater voice in the government.
Samaha believes this won’t happen because the rulers wish to strengthen their local power by appeasing the powerful abroad, namely the United States, Israeli expansionists and the neocons in the Middle East.
Emil Lahoud, the president of Lebanon and another supporter of the opposition, holds the same opinion — that the power brokers in his government take orders from external powers rather than from the people they claim to represent.
During an interview inside the presidential palace, Lahoud told me: “Everyone has got someone from outside to help. So whenever it is time for a decision, they would do nothing if the instruction from outside thus dictated. Because of that, we don’t have a united government, and the other problem is that we don’t have a voice.”
On the question of whether or not Hezbollah should disarm, as the U.S. and Israel demand, Lahoud, a Maronite Christian himself, was unambiguous: “The resistance is mostly Shiite. If the Christians and Sunni wish to join, they are very welcome. It so happens that this is Shiite land in the south which they fought for. I am asked why I want them to remain strong. I say, ‘We are at war. If these people weren’t here, Israel would have arrived in Beirut like they did in 1982.’ As long as we are in a state of war with Israel, we need resistance, and whoever wants to can join it. It’s the only way we can stand up to Israel. We have seen all the Arab countries which promised to help do nothing.”
It is this prevailing reaction that has become the power and capital of Hezbollah.