Hizbullah’s New Face
In search of a Muslim democracy
April 1, 2005
Apr 1, 2005
53 Min read time
In search of a Muslim democracy.
In a war-torn country in the Middle East, there is a political party that for 15 years has led an increasingly effective drive to democratize national political life. This party has competed in three rounds of parliamentary elections since 1992, winning and retaining nearly ten percent of the seats. In the mid-1990s, it spearheaded a successful campaign to reintroduce democratic governance to the country’s municipalities, where no elections had been held since 1963. When municipal elections were held in 1998 this party won control of about 15 percent of contested municipalities. With a proven track record by the second round of elections, in spring 2004, the party won control of 21 percent of the municipalities.
Though formally democratic since the 1940s, this country has always faced deep sectarian schisms and the debilitating influence of local clan chiefs. In such an environment, political organizations whose officials not only talk the democratic talk but also walk the walk are very rare. Indeed, given the Bush administration’s goal of spreading democracy throughout the Middle East, you might think American officials would be trying to learn from the leaders of this party.
Think again. The country is Lebanon and the party is Hizbullah, a majority-Shiite organization banned by the U.S. government as a “foreign terrorist organization” and known to most Americans only for its hostilities against Israeli and American targets. But Hizbullah is also an explicitly Islamist political party that participates cannily and effectively in Lebanon’s democratic processes. As such, it is an intriguing case in its own right. In addition, while it is an authentically Lebanese political formation, Hizbullah has longstanding links to Shiite politics in both Iraq and Iran, and a more recent relationship with the majority-Sunni, Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas. In Iraq, Shiites makeup more than 60 percent of the population, and as a result of the January 30, 2005, election the Shiite-headed “United Iraqi Alliance” list has come to dominate the nation’s politics. In the Palestinian territories, Hamas has done very well in recent municipal elections and appears set to do well in legislative elections scheduled for summer 2005. Hizbullah’s track record in Lebanon can therefore provide strong clues to how these other emerging Islamist forces might behave.
In recent months, Hizbullah has come under new pressure from the United States and the international community—principally, to disband the robust militia it has maintained in south Lebanon. Hizbullah and its ally Syria seemed under particular pressure in late February when an anti-Syrian movement provoked by the recent killing of the former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri succeeded in forcing the new pro-Syrian premier, Omar Karami, to resign. (He returned to power just as this issue was going to press, in mid-March.)
But despite that apparent setback, Hizbullah has remained significant presence on the Lebanese political scene. (It was notable, too, that none of the people raising anti-Syrian slogans in the street demonstrations of late February and early March raised anti-Hizbullah slogans too. Indeed, several leaders of the anti-Syrian movement stressed the need to find a way to continue to work with Hizbullah.)
* * *
Last October and November I paid a number of visits to Hizbullah’s headquarters in what Beirutis call “the Dahiyeh.” This is Arabic for “suburb,” though Beirut’s Dahiyeh is a collection of three large municipalities that abut the city on its southern border. The Dahiyeh is a focal point for Lebanon’s Shiite Muslims. Some of the community’s most powerful institutions, including both Hizbullah and the network of social-welfare groups headed by the community’s highly recognized religious leader, the 69-year-old, Najaf-trained Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlullah, have their national headquarters there. It was there that in the mid- and late 1980s American and other western hostages were kept in degrading confinement by Shiite militants, some of them linked in one way or another to Hizbullah. The Dahiyeh street where many Hizbullah offices are located is now named for the party’s first leader, Sheikh Ragheb Harb, who was assassinated by Israel in 1984.
When I worked in Lebanon in the late 1970s, nearly the whole Dahiyeh was a vast shantytown, bursting under the pressure of hundreds of thousands of Shiite newcomers. Some came fleeing the poverty of the traditional Shiite areas around Baalbek, in east Lebanon. Others had escaped from the intense Israeli–Palestinian fighting in Jebel Amel, a traditionally Shiite area of south Lebanon. Still others were twice or more displaced—first from east or south Lebanon, and then again, from one of the large suburbs of east Beirut that were forcibly “cleansed” of Muslims by Christian Falangist militias in 1975 and 1976.
Today the Dahiyeh’s congested streets are lined with tightly packed seven- and eight-story apartment buildings. Few of the women on the sidewalks wear full hijab, though many wear tucked-in, Islamic-style headscarves. Others wear no head coverings at all. At noontime, even during Ramadan, the streets bustle with people doing their shopping and children spilling out of school buses. A few spindly trees have been planted along the crowded sidewalks.
In the 1970s, I spent a lot of time hanging around the workplaces of officials of various Lebanese parties and Palestinian factions. “Hanging around” was how most press interviews got done back then. The functionary in question would sit behind a desk; the rest of the room would be lined with chairs. People would wander in and out. You might (or might not) gradually get close enough to ask the functionary your questions. When I quit working in Lebanon in 1981, Hizbullah did not even exist.
Times have changed. On my first visit to Hizbullah last fall, I was welcomed byMohamad Afif, the head of the party’s media-relations department and a member of its 11-man politburo, who set up a series of interviews for me. The functionaries I met were all men, though women work in other party offices. The ones I met—none of them clerics—all wore a simplified version of western-style dress but with, crucially (as in Iran), no necktie. They did not shake hands with me; they were helpful but wary. This was understandable, since tens of Hizbullah leaders and officials have been assassinated by Israel over the past 20 years and these men had never met me before.
“Z.H.,” who asked to be described simply as “a source close to Hizbullah,” talked to me about the party’s strategy for working within Lebanon’s problematically democratic political system. At the parliamentary level, the Hizbullah-led bloc now has 12 deputies out of 128, including, as Z.H. eagerly noted, “two Sunnis and one Christian.” Although Hizbullah has held a parliamentary bloc of around this size since 1992, it has thus far refused to seek any ministerial slots. Z.H. explained why:We feel that a party that’s in the government should influence its whole program . . . But in Lebanon, you can’t pursue your own party’s program in government because governments are always formed through coalitions. Elsewhere, you can have one party in government, with one program. And then, it’s easier to hold the party accountable.Then, there are the expectations of the people. We represent a great proportion of the people. But if you are in such an impotent government, then you sully your reputation with the people. In Lebanon, corruption is everywhere. The institutions need to be completely renewed. This is very difficult, and will take time.Also, the political structure here is still sectarian. In this system people are led not by reason but by emotions and tribalism. We feel that most of the other politicians are leading people as tribe-members, by appealing to their sectional interests, rather than as citizens.So altogether, it seems hard for us to go into government at the present time and just reap all the disadvantages from the way things are done there.
Z.H. is quite right about the obstacles to accountable governance in Lebanon. A rigid system of sectarian quotas has continued to operate even after the 1989 Taef Accord, which (more or less) ended 14 years of civil war. Taef did call for an eventual dismantling of the country’s “confessional” system but meanwhile decreed its continuation by requiring that the president be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, and the speaker of parliament a Shiite. (The last position is held by Nabih Berri, a very close ally of Syria and the head of Lebanon’s other main Shiite party, Amal.) Ministerial posts and seats in Parliament are allocated according to an even more fine-tuned distribution among the country’s 15 religious and ethnic subgroups.
The 1998 municipal elections, held on a one-person-one-vote basis, created much greater opportunities for democratic governance at the local level. Z.H. told me that in localities where Hizbullah won municipal elections,we have tried to reform the municipal institutions, and in some places we have succeeded. We have tried to learn how to lead in coalitions with other parties, in order to provide good services to the people . . . It is important that the municipalities should work for the benefit of everyone, regardless of religion or region. You know in our tradition we have a saying that “the best person is one who serves others.” People depend on our members and friends to provide good services because they are not doing so in a corrupt way. We are very attentive to that.
The Muslim hadith that Z.H. invoked there was the only religious source that I heard cited by him or any other Hizbullah-related person in over three hours of intensive discussion of politics. Indeed, these men’s discourse seemed overwhelmingly to be in the realm of good governance, civic equality, and the rule of law, rather than theology.
Ghaleb Abu Zeinab is the politburo member who is in charge of Hizbullah’s relations with Lebanon’s non-Shiite communities. Given that the Shiites make up probably just under half of the total Lebanese population, this job has always been very important. Abu Zeinab and his boss, Hizbullah’s 44-year-old secretary-general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, have carried it out with considerable skill. Like Z.H., Abu Zeinab stressed the importance of building a sense of common citizenship, as well as bridges of understanding across the country’s faith communities. “We have always been living together here in Lebanon,” he said. He attributed responsibility for many of the intercommunal crises that had wracked the country over the decades mainly to “outside circumstances,” though he also criticized the Maronites:The end of the Cold War allowed us to start to get back to normal. This didn’t solve all our problems, though . . . The Maronites saw the Taef Accord as a big defeat. But it wasn’t, because it represented the true balance, more or less. But then, between their disappointment with that and the economic downturn we had in the 1990s there was a big emigration of Maronites and other Christians out of the country. In addition, they boycotted the parliamentary elections of 1992 and 1996.
That emigration has had complex implications for Hizbullah’s political project. “If you look at who is registered as a Lebanese citizen,” Abu Zeinab said, “it would be a few more Muslims there than Christians. However, 30 percent of the registered Christians are outside the country . . . Yes, the Christians are afraid of having a one-person-one-vote system here. That’s why we don’t have one yet, even though Taef called explicitly for an ending of the ‘confessional’ system of government.”
He said, however, that Hizbullah did not intend to force a one-person-one-vote system onto the country’s Christians:If we want to get to full democracy here we need to have everyone persuaded of its benefits, and not afraid that they would be overthrown. Besides, we look at the coexistence we have between the different confessions here as an example, and we don’t want to overthrow it. If it was a “majority-minority” system here it would be explosive. So we’ll hang onto this confessional balance we have for now. But I don’t know what will happen in 20 years.As a religious principle for us, we should serve the people. So we tried to present a positive example in all the municipalities that we won. We made the areas safe. We built basic infrastructure. Here in the Dahiyeh, we lead all the three municipalities . . . And we have other big ones, too: Nabatieh, Baalbek, Hermel. We presented a new example, and this increased our popularity . . . We say that our mayors should serve the whole of the people in their towns, rather than serving just the party.
In June 1982, Israel’s then–minister of defense Ariel Sharon decided to invade Lebanon up to and including Beirut, and to keep Israel’s troops there long enough to wrest big political concessions out of the country’s chronically weak central government. The Israel Defense Forces’ immediate goal that year was to secure the expulsion from Lebanon of the Palestine Liberation Organization fighters who had maintained a strong guerrilla presence there since 1969. In mid-August 1982, Yasser Arafat was forced to lead his fighters in an ignominious exit from Beirut by sea.
Beyond dispersing the PLO’s fighters, Sharon also sought to install a client government in Beirut that would make peace with Israel on his terms. The Falangist (extreme Maronite) militias were Israel’s main allies in Lebanon. But they were weak reeds on which to build a national government; and anyway, Falangist militia boss Bashir Gemayyel, whom Sharon had groomed to become president, was assassinated before he could takeoffice. Israel’s troops rapidly found themselves bogged down as occupying forces in a complex and increasingly hostile political and military quagmire.
When they first invaded in June 1982, the IDF troops found a ready welcome from many of the Shiites of Jebel Amel, who had come to regret the warm welcome they gave the PLO guerrillas a decade or more before. The Israeli invasion spilt the central command of Amal (“Hope”), which was the major political force in the Shiite community at the time. Most Amal units in the south did not resist the Israeli advance, and some of them actively aided it. But as the IDF came close to the south-Beirut Dahiyeh, it started to encounter serious Shiite resistance. . . But then, after the Israelis had “won” the military battle and forced the PLO fighters out of Lebanon, Amal’s leader Nabih Berri entered the ruling coalition led by Amin Gemayyel, brother of the late Bashir, who was the Israelis’ (and Washington’s) fallback choice for pliant president.
A small number of southern and southern-origin Shiites did, however, resist the Israelis’ advance from the very beginning. Defying the Amal leadership, they mounted hit-and-run raids against the Israeli troops deployed in their villages in the south. In November 1982, local assailants blew up the IDF’s command post in Tyre, killing 75 members of the IDF and their local proxy militia, the “South Lebanon Army.” Other tight Shiite networks started attacking targets in Beirut associated with the United States, seen as Israel’s crucial ally. Small networks in Beirut mounted stunningly destructive attacks against American and French military bases, and the American embassy (twice). They kidnapped numerous American citizens and other westerners, assassinated the American president of the American University of Beirut, and hijacked a number of passenger aircraft.
Those networks all received crucial support from the Shiite community based in Baalbek, a key region that the Israelis never entered and that remained effectively under the control of neighboring Syria. (Baalbek was also the headquarters of the 1,500 “revolutionary guards” that Khomeinist Iran had sent after the Israeli invasion to help build Lebanon’s anti-Israeli resistance.)
Sheikh Ragheb Harb, a fiercely anti-Israeli imam of the large southern village of Jibsheet, became the leader of the southern Shiite resistance. In February 1984, while the resistance movement was still operating deep underground, the Israelis killed him. One year later, in February 1985, his supporters came together and issued an “open letter” announcing the formation of Hizbullah, the “Party of God.” Sheikh Subhi Tufaili was its first leader.
One of the key participants in Hizbullah’s founding was Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Then 24, and from a family of modest social standing, Nasrallah already had proven leadership abilities. At 15 he had been named Amal’s chief organizer in his home village, al-Bazouriyah, near Biblical Tyr. The following year he was tapped by a local Shiite mullah who sent him to Najaf, Iraq, to study at the prestigious “Hawza” seminary. The Hawza was then headed by Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr, a renowned Shiite jurisprudent who in the late 1950s had helped found the Islamic Da’awa Party, which had networks of supporters throughout the Shiite world. In 1978, when anti-Shiite tensions mounted inside Iraq, Nasrallah returned to Lebanon.
(Two years later, Saddam Hussein’s secret services assassinated Sadr and his sister, in Baghdad. Many waves of terrible, anti-Da’awa persecution followed in Iraq. But Da’awa survived and, being part of the victorious United Iraqi Alliance electoral list, is today more influential in Iraq than ever before. Nasrallah and the many other Hizbullah figures who have studied in Iraq or Iran retain good links with their ex-teachers and fellow students in those countries.)
After Nasrallah returned to Lebanon he resumed his studies at a Baalbek seminary headed by Sayyed Abbas al-Musawi. He also resumed working as an organizer for Amaland by 1979 had become (at 19) its chief political officer for the whole Beqaa’ region and a member of its politburo. Small wonder, then, that when he helped found Hizbullah five years later he immediately became a key member of its leadership.
In 1985, the IDF withdrew from a large region stretching southward from Beirut and consolidated its positions within the so-called security zone, a broad strip of land inside Lebanon, running the length of its L-shaped border with Israel. Much of South Lebanon then became a free-fire zone for Israeli artillery, aerial bombardments, and periodic ground operations, all of which inflicted considerable casualties in the southern Shiite villages. But with the IDF’s permanent positions now removed far from Beirut, Hizbullah was able to establish a national headquarters in the Dahiyeh, and from there a group of talented political organizers set about building Hizbullah into a single, very effective nationwide party with its roots reaching deeply into the Shiite communities of the south, the Beqaa, and Greater Beirut.
All kinds of people, from hardscrabble farmers to well-educated members of the liberal professions, were brought into the constellation of mass organizations that the party established in every region, every profession, and every sector of the economy. Timur Goksel, who last year retired after 24 years as the chief political advisor to the UN’s (highly constrained) peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, told me how surprised he was to discover that the members of the first Hizbullah delegations sent to deal with him, in the mid-1980s, were not wild-eyed Islamist radicals but calm, serious men who were doctors, engineers, or businessmen: men of real substance in their local comunities. Over the years, the party built a robust organizational structure headed by a seven-member Shura Council. (Professor Ahmad Nizar Hamzeh, of the American University of Beirut, has written that from 1989 through 2001, three members of the Shura Council were laymen, and four were clerics. But before 1989, and again after 2001, the Council had six clerics on it.) The party also has a formal politburo, which is supposed merely to “advise” the secretary-general and the Shura Council, though its advice may well, on occasion, be taken very seriously indeed. The politburo has between 11 and 14 members, many of them laymen.
When Hizbullah set about establishing its nationwide organizing structure in 1985, Nasrallah moved to Beirut to help lead that effort. In 1989 he again left Lebanon briefly to pursue his studies (and consultations) abroad. This time he went to Qom, Iran, longtime home of another key Najaf-trained cleric: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
In July 1991, as part of Hizbullah’s shift toward a strongly “political” strategy, Nasrallah’s mentor Abbas Musawi took over from Tufaili as the party’s secretary-general. Within months, Musawi was assassinated by Israel; and the 31-year-old Nasrallah succeeded him. One of Nasrallah’s first accomplishments was leading the party through the parliamentary elections of spring 1992, when they won 12 seats. He also continued to pursue Hizbullah’s longtime goal of forcing Israel completely out of Southern Lebanon.
In December 1992, Israel’s newly elected prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, gave Nasrallah a particular boost, and an opportunity for new political influence in the (mainly Sunni) Palestinian political arena, when he tried to expel more than 400 alleged militants from the occupied territories to Lebanon in a single bold move. Israel had successfully expelled small groups of Palestinians to Lebanon for many years, despite this move being a clear breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention. But Rabin’s attempt to expel such a large group ran into immediate logistic and diplomatic problems. Lebanon refused to give the expellees formal admittance to the country; they ended up stranded on a hillside just north of the security zone while diplomats around the world struggled to resolve the issue. For several months, the expellees’ main contacts were with Hizbullah, which immediately organized study groups in what became known as “Hizbullah University.” Israel was finally forced to return all the expellees to the occupied territories.
* * *
Nasrullah’s leadership strategy—combining efforts at mass organizing and inter-group negotiating with a “militant” image and targeted violence—has many parallels with that pursued by the African National Congress leaders in South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s. And just as the ANC realized its longtime goal of establishing a one-person-one-vote system in South Africa, so too did Hizbullah succeed in May 2000 in winning an unconditional Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.
The contribution of mass organizing to Hizbullah’s early growth and to its success in winning Israel’s withdrawal has seldom been recognized in the west. It is true that Hizbullah built a smart, bold, and well-disciplined military wing that inflicted nontrivial harm on the IDF and its proxy forces from the so-called South Lebanon Army. That violence never came anywhere close to overwhelming the IDF militarily, but it did continue relentlessly, and the IDF was never able to suppress it. Meanwhile, over time, the IDF’s continuing losses in Lebanon spurred the emergence of a broad pro-withdrawal movement inside Israel that by 1999 had propelled the withdrawal issue to the top of the national agenda. The promise of withdrawal helped the Labor Party’s Ehud Barak win the 1999 election, and in late May 2000 he followed through.
That withdrawal was very popular inside Israel. But since 2000, a number of Israelis have expressed concern that Hizbullah’s success had “significantly dented Israel’s deterrent capability throughout the region.” Proponents of this view are largely right in judging that Hizbullah’s 2000 victory served as an inspiration to, among others, militant nationalists and Islamists inside the Palestinian territories. But they are wrong to attribute the victory solely to Hizbullah’s military capabilities. For what actually brought Barak to his very sensible decision to withdraw was his realization that winning the military battle in Lebanon (which Israel did many times between 1982 and 2000) could never be translated into winning lasting political gains there; Hizbullah always survived to fight another day. And the roots of Hizbullah’s remarkable resilience lay in the success of its mass organizing.
In 1996 the IDF had launched yet another of the many extremely punishing offensives it had mounted inside Lebanon since 1982. “Operation Grapes of Wrath,” as it was named, turned out to be decisive. Israeli armor, artillery, and bombers hammered the whole of south Lebanon north of the security zone. Labor Prime Minister (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Shimon Peres mounted an intense campaign to persuade the Lebanese that this punishment had come down upon them “because of Hizbullah’s continued presence and anti-IDF activities”—and that they had only to repudiate and dismantle Hizbullah for it to stop. But because of Hizbullah’s political activities over the preceding years, virtually the entire Lebanese body politic closed ranks around it. Reports from the time told of middle-class women in the staunchly Christian parts of East Beirut stripping off their jewelry and throwing it into the “emergency donation” bins that Hizbullah opened throughout the whole country.
The Israelis continued their assault for two straight weeks. But as it became clear that they had no chance of attaining their goal, and as international diplomatic pressures mounted on Israel, Peres was finally forced to agree to a ceasefire on what were (for Israel) extremely humiliating terms. Not only was there no mention of “dismantling” Hizbullah, but the agreement—signed by Lebanon, Israel, the United States, France, and Syria—specifically allowed Hizbullah to continue its military activities against IDF forces inside Lebanon.
Hizbullah won its decisive victory over Israel that year, though it took Israel’s political elite a further four years to adjust the deployment of Israeli forces in line with that reality. The 1996 victory was a significant fruit of Hizbullah’s political strategy.
* * *
In May 2000, as the IDF started to withdraw, its proxy force, the SLA, disintegrated rapidly; within hours the whole of the formerly IDF-held strip became a rolling victory carnival for Hizbullah. The SLA men who had guarded and run the notorious prison and torture center at Khiam slipped away from their posts, and the people of Khiam, a predominantly Shiite town, rushed in to free their loved ones. Hizbullah’s yellow flags flew exuberantly right up to Israel’s northern border. Villagers who had over the years been forced out of the security zone or the much-damaged areas to its north crowded home in cavalcades of cars and tractors. Some SLA members fled to Israel. But the bloodbath feared by many Israelis (and some Lebanese) never occurred. The Hizbullah leaders issued strict instructions prohibiting acts of vengeance in the liberated areas and any violations of the international border with Israel. Both orders were obeyed.
But while the Israelis were undertaking what they understood to be a complete withdrawal from Lebanon, Hizbullah and the Lebanese government suddenly claimed that a tiny wedge of land called the Shebaa Farms—where the “security zone” abutted the Syrian-owned but Israeli-occupied Golan—was also part of Lebanon; thus, it should also be evacuated. Israel considered the Shebaa Farms to be part of the Golan, and had no intention of leaving. Hizbullah, Lebanon, and Syria all claimed that Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon was not complete—and therefore, Hizbullah had the right to continue anti-Israeli operations within the tiny area of the Farms.
Syria, Hizbullah, and—arguably—Lebanon all had their own reasons for wanting to keep Hizbullah’s military confrontation with Israel simmering at a low level in the tightly confined space of the Shebaa Farms. For Hizbullah, the claimed “perpetuation” of the Israeli occupation of part of Lebanon buttressed its argument that it needed to keep its guerrilla formations in place in south Lebanon. In addition, maintaining a low level of confrontation against the IDF in that small, nearly unpopulated area has proven a relatively low-cost way for the party’s leaders to give their military planners a chance to test new tactics against Israel, while providing a tightly controlled focus of activity for militants in the party who might otherwise be bored by the dreary work of reconstruction and political organizing that has been the focus of the party’s work everywhere else in the south.
Keeping the Shebaa Farms front alive was not a risk-free strategy for Hizbullah, but its leaders generally calculated and managed those risks remarkably successfully. Indeed, since 2000, as from 1996 to 2000, the military situation along the border has been one of highly asymmetrical but mutual deterrence between the IDF and Hizbullah—but with these two crucial differences from the earlier period: since 2000, the communities on either side of the front line have enjoyed far fewer military alerts and disruptions, and many fewer people—Lebanese or Israeli—have been dying there. The stakes that citizens of both nations have had in the stability of the post-2000 situation have thus been high, and the political leaders of both Israel and Hizbullah have (thus far) been at pains not to jeopardize this stability.
Daniel Sobelman, a strategic-affairs analyst at the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz, has been one of the most careful observers of this situation. In August 2002 he wrote,Why in fact have the fears of Aman [Israel’s Military Intelligence] of a total collapse in the north following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal not been realized? The answer lies in the indication that although Hizbollah has not ceased guerilla activity over the last two years, it has revealed itself, inter alia, to be a relatively disciplined and responsible organization, aware of its operational limitations and sensitive to the environment that sustains and shelters it. Recently, Nasrallah himself attested as much, and declared in a speech . . . “Once, in a discussion of resistance operations, I told certain officials that ‘we are concerned about the nation, the state, and the future more than you think.’ Why is this so? Because when, Heaven forbid, the country is menaced by security, military, and political dangers or economic collapse, then those people who have capital, bankrolls, companies, children, luxury homes, and houses abroad, flee. They have a second citizenship. It is very simple. They collect the rest of their family and leave the country. [However] our houses, graves, life, death, honor, and mortification—they are all here. Where else can we go?”
Late March and early April 2002 saw the most serious of the small-scale engagements in the Shebaa Farms area to date. Sobelman wrote, “Hizbollah fighters launched a massive mortar and Katyusha barrage in the Shab’a Farms area . . . No casualties were inflicted on the Israelis, but for the first time a number of Hizbollah rockets fell on the Golan Heights.” He linked that action to the sharp intensification of tensions then taking place in the occupied Palestinian territories. He noted that since March 8, Nasrallah had been, “calling on neighboring countries to allow the passage of military supplies to the Palestinians in their struggle against Israel. On a number of occasions Nasrallah stressed that the hour had come ‘for action and not just words.’” But on April 12, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi visited Beirut, where he “met with the Lebanese leadership and Hizbollah Secretary-General Nasrallah, and called on them to display prudence and self-restraint in order to prevent Israel from finding a pretext for attacking its neighbor.” The very next day, Sobelman wrote, Hizbullah “sheathed its arsenal.”
In March 2002, Hizbullah’s people were apparently not alone in wanting to heat things up along the Lebanese-Israeli border: Palestinian militants living in the refugee camps that still dotted Lebanon were also, apparently, eager to do so. But once Hizbullah and its backers in the Lebanese, Syrian, and Iranian governments had agreed to return to a more restrained policy in the south, the Palestinians did not stand a chance. Sobelman wrote,Published reports from Lebanon reveal that Hizbollah fighters deployed in the south assisted Lebanon in blocking a number of independent acts by Palestinian groups. This is an event of no small consequence: it implies that when necessary, alongside its maximalist rhetoric, Hizbollah knows how and is willing to put its radical ideology on the back burner for the sake of Lebanon’s national interest and for the sake of guaranteeing its own limited operations.
Nasrallah himself explained Hizbullah’s restraint in April 2002 a little differently. In a meeting with party activists on April 8, he reminded people sympathetic to the Palestinians, As you remember I gave a promise more than a year ago . . . I said if “Sharon” [sic] was thinking about committing genocide against the Palestinians in order to expel them in groups, then the Palestinians must consider that they are not alone, and that Hizbullah will be on their side . . . Therefore some people may ask, is there anything worse than [what is] happening now in Palestine? We say yes there is something worse. This would be the following stage which lies inside “Sharon’s” mind and for which we must preserve weapons and put accounts into consideration. It means that each time a stage begins; we should not use all of what we have . . . Moreover if we used all of our weapons, after that “Sharon” would be encouraged to expel the Palestinians.
Nasrallah, therefore, was urging his followers to view the party’s military capabilities in south Lebanon as a kind of “strategic deterrent” against Israel,whose employment should be contemplated only in the event of a much more dire emergency than the Palestinians were then facing. He had another (possibly contradictory) argument, too. Later in that speech he said, “Moreover, we must know that the military actions at the Lebanese borders with Palestine cannot stop any ‘Israeli’ invasion to the West Bank. We can keep the enemy busy, yet the ‘Israeli’ enemy can fight on two frontiers.”
* * *
Since April 2002, the Hizbullah-IDF front has remained basically stable, but with lots of political maneuvering. Each side continued to undertake undercover intelligence-gathering operations against the other: Israel accused Hizbullah of sending arms to Hamas, and Hizbullah accused Israel of orchestrating the July 2004 assassination of the Hizbullah officer Ghazi Awali in Beirut. At the diplomatic level, in January 2004 the two sides concluded a three-year-long, German-mediated negotiation that resulted in an extensive exchange of prisoners, hostages, and the mortal remains of dead combatants. Meanwhile, Hizbullah had some partial success in deterring Israel’s periodic incursions into Lebanon’s airspace, using anti-aircraft missiles that were militarily useless but noisy and slightly threatening to civilian communities in northern Israel, and therefore somewhat politically effective.
Last November, Hizbullah introduced a new response to Israel’s continued, though now less frequent, overflights over Lebanon. It launched a small “drone” aircraft equipped with cameras that flew over Israel as far as the coastal town of Nahariya before it successfully left Israeli airspace. (The drone was reportedly able to transmit images as it flew.) Many Israeli commentators responded with horror, speculating on the terrible effects the drone could have had if it were loaded with explosives instead of cameras.
At a huge rally held in Baalbek a few days later to mark “International Jerusalem Day,” Nasrullah told his followers, “I confirm what the Israeli chief of staff has said: Mirsad I [the name Hizbullah gave the drone] can carry explosives of about 40 and 50 kilograms. It does not have the capacity of only reaching Nahariya, but deeper and deeper, against electricity and water installations and military bases.” He reported that the drone had flown over Israel for a total of 14 minutes and added, At first, we did not use Mirsad I for a military action, but to confront the violations. But if our country faces aggression, we will use any means and capability that we possess . . . We do not only have the capacity of confronting violations of [Lebanese] airspace, but we also have the capacity to respond to any aerial aggression or any kind of action from the air . . . We do not just have one plane, we have enough of them, and we have the capability of building as many planes as we need.
The French wire service that reported these comments added that the U.N. military-observer team in south Lebanon, “which repeatedly denounces Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace, said the incursion by the Hizbullah drone had been followed by violations of Lebanese airspace by five Israeli warplanes and condemned both.”
* * *
I watched portions of Nasrallah’s speech at that rally on Hizbullah’s controversial television channel, al-Manar. As at all his public appearances, Nasrallah’s distinctive, bushy-bearded form appeared behind a thick layer of security glass; a couple of tough-looking security men stood behind him scanning the crowd. Nasrallah is an articulate and effective public speaker. He was relaxed, turning easily to address people from all parts of the audience, and lacing his speech with asides in Lebanese vernacular that poked fun at Israel or the United States. He spoke almost without notes, looking down only once every five or six minutes at a small piece of paper in his hand.
Nasrullah is a hero to many Muslims (and some non-Muslims) in Lebanon and further afield. Many Lebanese speak with something near reverence about how, when his 18-year-old son Hadi was killed fighting the IDF in south Lebanon in 1997, the father turned aside any suggestion that he be treated any differently from any other bereaved parent. Two other Hizbullah fighters were also killed in that battle, along with six Lebanese Army soldiers, three of whom were Christians. It reportedly took some time for Hizbullah even to reveal that one of the three “martyrs” it lost that day was the son of the secretary-general.
Some Israelis speculated that they might be able to extract a high “price” for the return of Hadi Nasrallah’s body. But over the weeks that followed, Nasrullah pointedly praised the sacrifice that all the Lebanese, “including our Christian brothers,” were making for the defense of the homeland. When Hadi’s body was returned nine months later it was as part of a broader swap that involved the bodies of all the other Lebanese killed that day. Nearly all of Lebanon was impressed by the humility and grace Nasrallah showed over that affair.
The former U.N. official Timur Goksel has described Nasrullah as “a smart leader who can find a useful symbolic role for the other mullahs in the party to play, even while he allows the party technocrats to make most of the decisions.” In Goksel’s extensive experience, Nasrallah was also a man of his word. “I’ve told the Israelis and Americans they would be crazy to try to kill him,” Goksel said in an interview. “If anything happens to Nasrullah, what comes after would surely be disastrous for them.”
* * *
The military parade that preceded Nasrullah’s Jerusalem Day speech was reportedly as impressive, and meticulously organized, as the party’s parades always are. A couple of days before, I watched some al-Manar footage of an earlier Hizbullah spectacle in which ultra-fit party activists performed breathtaking stunts on high wires strung between some of the buildings in the Dahiyeh.
The Hizbullah leadership, as it works to motivate and organize its base, seems just about as good at bread as it is at circuses. The AUB professor Judith Palmer Harik has studied the party for many years now. She notes that in the chaotic, civil-war-ridden circumstances in which Hizbullah was born, its provision of basic social services won it considerable loyalty and respect. After Hizbullah took over effective control of the conflict-pounded Dahiyeh in 1988, it almost immediately started providing a reliable trash-removal service there, five years before the central government sent any garbage trucks into the area at all. Regarding safe drinking water, Harik wrote,During General Aoun’s administration [1988–1990], water and electricity services in the dahiyeh were almost completely cut off due to fighting . . . Several wells dug by UNICEF in the area reportedly failed. With help from the Iranian government RC [the Hizbullah-affiliated “reconstruction campaign,” or jihad al-binaa] resolved this emergency by building 4,000-litre water reservoirs in each district . . . and filling each of them five times a day from continuously circulating tanker trucks. Generators mounted on trucks also made regular rounds from building to building to provide electricity to pump water from private cisterns . . . [In August 2001] Hezbollah still provides the major source of drinking water for dahiyeh residents.
Across the gamut of human services—schools, hospitals, public-health services, rural-development aids, low-income housing, revolving loan funds for small businesses, and income-support projects for the poor—Harik’s story was the same: at a time when the Lebanese government was unable or unwilling to provide these services, Hizbullah and its affiliated organizations stepped in to do so; and even when the government did finally return to the scene, the relevant ministries still relied on Hizbullah’s affiliates to pick up the slack.
One of the most significant areas in which Hizbullah has sought to “serve the people” has been in the provision of judicial and quasi-judicial services. Amhad Nizar Hamzeh has described how, during the chaotic and casualty-laden civil conflict of the 1980s, Hizbullah started establishing its own Islamic courts in areas that it controlled—and that these courts continued to operate even after the (partial) reestablishment of the Lebanese state courts in the 1990s. He quoted deputy Secretary-General Na’im Qasim as saying that the party’s “municipal court is actually less than a court. It is more of a committee headed by a judge or a delegated party official who is usually a shaykh, and who is aided by party members.” According to Hamzeh, Hizbullah courts have imposed and supervised hundreds of sentences of imprisonment and a number of death sentences. (The most recent death sentence he mentions was in 1995.) Though Hamzeh writes that some cases were handed over to the jurisdiction of state courts it is not clear to what extent this has become a trend. In addition, Hizbullah has offered intensive mediation services to end blood-feuding between Shiite tribes in the Bekaa.
Harik, Hamzeh, and other close observers of Hizbullah all agree that Hizbullah’s social-service affiliates, law courts, and schools provide their services on a low-cost basis to those Lebanese who need them, whether Muslim or Christian, and that subsidies are available for very-low-income users. Many Christian parents send their children to Hizbullah-run schools, especially in south Lebanon, where they are often judged to provide the best education available. The budgets for the schools and Hizbullah’s other social-service organizations come from a combination of sources: user fees, government subsidies (where available), donations from Iran, donations from international development bodies, and allocations from the khums, the one-fifth share of one’s income that a Shiite believer is obligated to pay to Islamic charitable organizations. One researcher told me that Hizbullah-related organizations now control the significant income stream constituted by khums donations sent from the numerous Lebanese Shiite emigrés in West Africa.
Harik notes rightly that Hizbullah’s commitment to, and success in, providing these services on a continuing basis is unique among the political parties in Lebanon. The roots of this commitment are complex. Several of Hizbullah’s founders had previously been secular leftists. When I was in Lebanon in the late 1970s, several Lebanese leftists I knew—including a number of Christians—underwent a noticeable conversion to Islamism after the success of the Iranian revolution. Hizbullah’s social-service activities have as much in common with some (secular) leftist rhetoric as with the Khomeinist concept of concern for the Mustaz’afeen (the deprived). But Lebanon’s secular leftist movements never succeeded in organizing anything that even approximates Hizbullah’s efforts in this sphere. The chronically weak Lebanese government has never provided even minimally adequately basic services, either. As Harik notes, Hizbullah’s effectiveness in this sphere certainly helped build and buttress its political support in many parts of the country.
* * *
In spite of its many good works inside Lebanon, Hizbullah undoubtedly does have an Israel problem—or more precisely, a “hating-Israel” problem. In addition, it clearly harbors great animus toward the United States, though the attempt by some Americans to link Hizbullah to al-Qaeda’s (militantly Sunni) network were patently misguided.
Hizbullah’s hatred of Israel, the United States, and (on occasion) France is a problem because inter-group hatred is always a problem. Because of Hizbullah’s near-mythic reputation in much of the broader Muslim world, it is also a non-trivial factor in any attempt to build either a long-term peace between Israel and its neighbors or a democratic order throughout the Middle East. And it is a problem for Hizbullah itself, since the undoubted influence of the United States and Israel in world affairs has pushed many governments to take hard-hitting steps to quarantine Hizbullah and prevent its integration into the normal political affairs and political discourse of the region.
How serious is Hizbullah’s hatred of the United States and Israel? At one level, very serious indeed. An oft-cited source is the 1985 “open letter” in which Hizbullah’s founders publicly announced the existence of the party: “Let us put it truthfully,” one version of this letter goes. “The sons of Hizbullah know who are their major enemies in the Middle East—the Phalangists, Israel, France and the US.” It called for expelling French and American influence from Lebanon and for “obliterating” the state of Israel.
The standing of that latter part of the “open letter” in Hizbullah’s thinking, both then and now, is in some question. However, since 1985, party leaders have frequently expressed themselves clearly on the questions of the United States and Israel. For example, in March 2004, Hassan Nasrallah discussed both countries at length during the eulogy he gave for Hamas’s paraplegic spiritual leader, Shaikh Ahmad Yassin, assassinated by Israel some days earlier. Regarding the United States, Nasrallah referred to the “Satanism of this administration” and said that Yassin’s killingrepresents a new evidence that we can place before the eyes of those who still possess different convictions and we say to them: America is proving everyday, not only in Iraq, but again in Palestine and through its veto that it is covering up for the killing, terrorism and crime; rather it is a complete partner in the killing, terrorism and crime. Therefore, how can you seek shelter at or gamble on her? How can you believe that the American administration is the final resort or help that can protect your honor, dignity and thrones?
Regarding Israel, he said, “The murder of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin informs all Arabs, Moslems and nations of this world that ‘Israel’ and its entity administered by this hostile government is a monstrous, terrorist and cancerous entity. This entity possesses an aggressive nature, which represents one of the indications to crime.” He notably criticized those in the Hamas leadership who “still . . . talk about peaceful options.” Regarding the possibility of reconciliation with Israel, he said,the horizon of those losers and defeated people who seek reconciliation at the doors of Bush and Sharon is blocked. On the other hand, the horizon of the resistance is open. “Israel” was defeated in Lebanon and we all know why it departed Lebanon . . .Today, it wants to depart Gaza . . . Sharon knows that the vast majority supports this [unilateral] withdrawal from Gaza Strip.This is a new victory for the resistance and the horizon is open. Neither “Camp David” nor “Oslo” or all the Arabs were capable of expelling the Zionists out of Gaza. However, the blood of the children and the martyrs as well as the blood of the cleric of the martyrs, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin will drive them out from Gaza Strip; and this horizon is open. In the future, the scene will repeat in the West Bank, Shibaa Farms, Golan Heights and the rest of the occupied Palestine.
I understand the phrase “the horizon is open” to mean that Nasrallah wants to see all the land currently under Israeli control evacuated by Israel. For Nasrallah, “occupied Palestine” refers to the Palestinian areas occupied by Israel in 1967, and to Israel itself. Nasrallah seems clearly to prefer the idea of a unilateral, un-negotiated Israeli withdrawal—like the one that Hizbullah itself “imposed” on Israeli in 2000—to one that the Israelis might win through negotiation, since any such negotiation would obligate the Palestinian or other Arab negotiator to accept territorial (and probably also functional) limits on its subsequent exercise of power.
How can we square this anti-Israeli maximalism with the policy of Hizbullah self-discipline and “abiding by the rules of the game” that Sobelman and others have identified on the ground in south Lebanon? Part of the story is that, along Lebanon’s southern border with Israel, Hizbullah and Israel have both been effectively deterred from pushing any further forward. But Israeli deterrence does not suffice on its own to account for Hizbullah’s post-2000 restraint at the border, since Israel’s withdrawal of that year did precipitate a significant shift in Hizbullah’s behavior. Therefore, despite the official rhetoric, that international border must mean something significant to the Hizbullah leaders.
Nasrallah may urge the Hamas forces in Gaza to “keep the horizon [of territorial aspirations] open,” but he has not done so along his own country’s border with Israel. Indeed, his fighters actually intervened on a number of occasions to prevent Palestinians based in Lebanon from violating the Lebanese-Israeli border, and in 2002 he resisted calls from many Arab voices to have the Hizbullah forces open up the conflict along the border as a way of relieving the pressures the IDF was imposing on the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
Nasrallah can be seen, then, as an extremelypragmatic political operator, both in his policies toward Israel and (as noted earlier) in the policies he has adopted within Lebanon. Several researchers have noted the tactical agility with which Hizbullah leaders have been able to develop and pursue a pragmatic political “program” (al-burnamij al-siyasi) containing realizable short- and medium-term goals while at the same time keeping in mind the political “ideology” (al-fikr al-siyasi) that defines their long-term goals. But these men’s political choices can also helpfully be seen (as Judith Harik has suggested) as the result of their shifting use of the four intersecting ideological “frames” within which they operate: Islamism, Lebanese nationalism, Arab nationalism, and global anti-imperialism.
What has happened, for example, when the party’s leaders were forced to make choices between acting in the Lebanese nationalist interest and acting in other frames? Thus far, inside Lebanon, they seem to have softened, or deferred until later, their desire for a completely Islamic government. Indeed, party leaders have always stressed that they do not seek to force either Islam or Islamic government on anyone; they simply “invite” Christians in Lebanon and elsewhere to be open to hearing the Islamic “call.” But as they have pursued their goals for Lebanon, they seem equally to have deferred until later the pursuit of their Arab nationalist, and perhaps also their global anti-imperialist goals. Certainly, if the main manifestation of the “Arab nationalist” part of their ideology is its pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli component, these goals appear to have been much lower on their agenda than the goal of strengthening the party within Lebanon.
* * *
Inside Lebanon, Hizbullah has recently been confronted with new and distinct challenges. Between 1996 and early 2004, the party enjoyed a generally high level of popularity in many different parts of the Lebanese national community. But last summer one of its key allies there, Syria’s Baathist regime, made a provocative, overreaching move that ended up posing a possible new threat to Hizbullah’s situation in the country. The Syrians had had 14,000 troops (and sometimes many more) deployed in central and northern Lebanon since 1976, and it exercised broad power over Lebanon’s chronically weak government. Then, late last August, they “persuaded” the Lebanese cabinet to propose a constitutional amendment extending the soon-to-end term of the pro-Damascus president, Emile Lahoud, for an additional three years.
Successive American administrations had maneuvered for years to limit Syria’s influence in Lebanon. After Syria’s August move, the Bush administration rushed to the Security Council, where it won passage of resolution 1559, which called for “all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon”—and also for “the disbanding and disarmament ofall . . . militias” in the country. The council signaled the seriousness with which it viewed this issue by requesting the Secretary-General to report back regularly on the implementation of this resolution and by declaring it would “remain actively seized of this matter.”
Lebanon’s representative at the council stated that its internal constitutional issues and the nature of any relationship it might have with “friendly Syria” were its own concern and should not be subject to intervention by other parties. On the question of the militias he restated Lebanon’s (and Syria’s) longstanding position, telling council members that “there were no militias in Lebanon. There was only the national Lebanese resistance, which appeared after the Israeli occupation and which would remain so long as Israel remained. The resistance force existed alongside the Lebanese national forces.”
The day after the Council adopted resolution 1559, the Lebanese parliament voted for the Syrian-sponsored amendment by 96 votes to 29, allowing Lahoud his extra years in power. But meanwhile, the Security Council’s adoption of a strongly anti-Syrian, anti-Lahoud resolution had emboldened the many forces inside Lebanon that had long chafed under the Syrian-Lahoudist order. These forces included both Maronites long opposed to Syria’s presence in the country and some of Syria’s former tactical allies in the country like the leftist Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. On nationalist grounds Jumblatt resented Syria’s very unsubtle move to keep Lahoud in office. (He also made a point of recalling that it had been the Syrians who killed his much-loved father in 1977.)
When I asked Hizbullah’s Muhammad Afif in early November about the threat he felt that 1559 posed to Hizbullah’s position in Lebanon, he shrugged stoically and said, “We are not afraid. . . . The Iraqi people don’t give up. The Palestinian people don’t give up. And we don’t give up, either.”
In mid-February the stakes were raised again. On February 14, unknown assailants (thought by many to be Syrian agents) detonated a huge bomb in downtown Beirut that killed the former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri. Blaming Syria, many Lebanese flocked to the streets waving the country’s red, white, and green flags. Parliamentarians—led by Jumblatt—called for an “independence intifada” against Syria. First one minister resigned, and then on February 28 the whole government of the new pro-Syrian premier, Omar Karami, stepped down. On March 5, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad announced that Syria would pull back—though he gave no fixed timeline for it.
The Bush administration kept up its pressure on Syria for a full withdrawal from Lebanon—and on Hizbullah to disarm its militia. Israel stepped into the ring, too, with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom publicly urging the attainment of both those goals.
In Lebanon, however, amid the calls for Syria to withdraw there were none calling for Hizbullah to be disarmed; and some of Lebanon’s leading anti-Syrian politicians made a point of reaching out to Hizbullah’s leadership.
The western media gave positive coverage to anti-Syrian demonstrations in Beirut involving between 25,000 and 50,000 people. But they paid little heed to, for example, a February 19 gathering in the Dahiyeh where hundreds of thousands of Hizbullah supporters in mourning clothes held banners bearing the face of Hariri alongside those of favored ayatollahs. When Nasrullah addressed the crowd, his message was clear: “We are gathered here this year to support the resistance and to support the homeland. The homeland is supported by the resistance.”
After the Israeli government publicly joined the anti-Syria, anti-Hizbullah campaign, Nasrullah shifted to a much more activist anti-1559 and anti-Israel stance. In a big news conference March 6 he warned his compatriots that Israel was planning a repeat of the abortive “May 17th agreement”—an arranged “peace” that Prime Minister Begin tried but failed to foist onto the Lebanese in 1983. Nasrullah called for huge peaceful demonstrations March 7 to express “appreciation” to the Syrians, support for the continued existence of Hizbullah’s militia, and opposition to any peace with Israel.
* * *
In April 1983, a Lebanese Shiite suicide bomber rammed his truck into the entrance of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people including virtually the entire leadership of the CIA’s Middle East bureau, which was meeting there at the time. After the bodies were removed the entire structure was demolished, and embassy operations were moved elsewhere.
During my recent stay at the AUB, my regular running route took me past the gaping hole where once I would interview ambassadors and other American dignitaries. Just one block further west along the seaside corniche stands a lovely stone mosque, a center of community life for the Sunnis of this neighborhood. This time, every Friday, traffic on the four-lane corniche would slow to a crawl by the mosque as a group of young men in distinctive, Hizbullah-yellow vests, standing under a grove of Hizbullah-yellow flags, held out large bins for passing motorists to toss their donations into. They seemed to be doing well: by midday the bins looked two-thirds full. Giving to Hizbullah in this way seemed to have become a habit for many of those drivers, and back in November I never saw anything but friendliness between the Sunnis coming out of the mosque and the youths with the Hizbullah bins.
One Saturday, my spouse and I drove to south Lebanon. I wanted to visit the complex in Khiam that the Israelis and the SLA used as a detention and torture center in their fight against Hizbullah. After the liberation in 2002, Hizbullah and the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism worked together to turn the prison into a place of remembrance. I have a broad interest in the memorialization of oppression and atrocities, and just last year visited Nelson Mandela’s famous former prison cell on Robben Island. I wondered how the Khiam prison experience would be presented. I also wanted to see some of Hizbullah’s “liberated area.”
Outdoor advertising is a big deal in Lebanon. Most of the new highways that snake through the country are liberally, even dangerously, festooned with billboards—along the roadsides and medians, and even hanging from the lampposts. Whenever there is space enough beside the road, additional large billboards are set up to seduce the passing traffic. In the Maronite parts of the country, a high proportion of these ads feature luxury goods: drearily repetitive ads for an Armani perfume were a big feature in November.
Our route to the south took us down the coast road to Sidon, then inland through the large Shiite city of Nabatiyeh. As soon as we left Sidon the “political” billboards and banners started: green for Amal, whose leader Nabih Berri is a Nabatiyeh native, and yellow for Hizbullah. No Armani here. These posters were nearly all martyrs’ remembrances: the face of an achingly young man would be front and center, surrounded by his name, images of red roses, a fuzzy representation of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, and perhaps the small bearded visage of a favorite ayatollah. Soon enough the yellow took over, and the pictures of the ayatollahs became larger and larger. (Hizbullah won Nabatiyeh from the more secular Amal in last May’s elections.) Every so often among the Hizbullah billboards would be an anomalous, somber blue-and-white offering reminding drivers that U.S. Agency for International Development had contributed to reconstruction projects in this region.
Nabatiyeh was throbbing with life, its tangle of streets showing lots of new construction. Three miles out of town there’s a Lebanese army checkpoint and then the road plunges down toward the ravine of the Litani River. Here, Hizbullah has a huge set of notices welcoming people to the “liberated zone.”
We went first to Marjayoun, a Christian town that used to be a hub for the occupation forces. Now it seemed sad and—especially after the bustle of Nabatiyeh—eerily deserted. Then on to Khiam, further east, where the prison had been housed in a former French army barracks at the south end of town. The prison sits on an outcropping of rock less than a mile from Israel’s northernmost tip. Its approach is marked by a row of yellow flags, interspersed with the red, white, and green of the national emblem. A big sign welcomes visitors in the names of both the Ministry of Tourism and Hizbullah.
No one asked for tickets or collected any entry fees. We watched a short orientation movie, then took a self-guided tour through the warren of little cellblocks. Between 1985 and 2000 more than 2,000 prisoners were held here for some period of time. As in the large detention centers run by the American forces in Iraq, or by Israel in the Palestinian areas, the main goals were to punish and control the local population and to try, where possible, to pressure detainees to act as informants or collaborators for the occupation forces in return for their release. The kinds of “pressure” reported by survivors here were disquietingly familiar again now from Iraq: stress positions, sleep deprivation, hooding, enclosure in very small spaces, burning with lit cigarettes, humiliation and psychological torture, some electrocution, painful suspension of the body from the arms.
A small number of Khiam’s detainees did not survive. The IDF and SLA did not allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to make any inspections here at all until 1995. Former detainees reported that once the ICRC inspection visits started, conditions got a little better.
What we saw showed the conditions after the ICRC inspections started. They still looked significantly worse than what I saw on Robben Island, where the lodging areas—both the large collective cells housing 60 or 70 inmates, and the small individual cells like Mandela’s—had windows large enough to admit a fair amount of natural light, rudimentary lockers for storing personal possessions, and proper flush toilets (though without privacy). The cells I saw in Khiam had almost no natural light, no place for personal storage, no proper toilets, and terrible ventilation. The collective cells were crammed full of iron bunk beds. They had no windows at all, one low-wattage light bulb each, and a bare bucket in a corner for excretion. The individual cells were tiny, bare closets with no amenities, and were designed to be too short to lie down in. Some of these had a ventilation hole high in the wall that let in a little natural light; others didn’t. Survivors have reported that detainees could be held in the isolation cells for ten days or more.
In a small interior courtyard we saw a girder-type utility pole to which particularly recalcitrant detainees were tied, and then doused with water and beaten. Two people died on that pole, according to a neighboring sign. Elsewhere were small interrogation rooms, some with an adjoining chamber from which the interrogations could be monitored through one-way glass.
As we wandered around the cells the numbers of our fellow visitors slowly increased: all Lebanese, all somber as they peeked into the cells, and many of them apparently coming here as part of a longer “family day out.” Once back in the main courtyard, we passed a sales kiosk where we resisted the temptation to buy bright yellow Hizbullah baseball caps, music videos from the al-Manar top ten, and CD collections of the sermons of Nasrallah or other favorite mullahs.
Prisons are never happy places, and places of prolonged, extrajudicial detention and torture seem to retain their edge for a very long time. But at least at Robben Island, the eloquently presented Narrative of Suffering is complemented with a Narrative of Post-conflict Reconciliation, in which we see, for example, pictures of Mandela shaking the hand of his gruff (white) former warder. Indeed, today’s Robben Island is presented to visitors as one happy community where former prisoners and former warders live side by side, all sucking happily on the teat of tourist revenues. (Only a small proportion of the visitors there seemed to be South African.) Khiam does not—yet—have any uplifting narrative of post-conflict reconciliation, or the influx of foreign tourist dollars that might come with that.
It may seem inappropriately early to start thinking of ways that a future reconciliation could be organized between Hizbullah and the Israelis who ran the Khiam prison, or between Hizbullah and the United States. Doing so won’t be easy: Hizbullah, the Americans, and the Israelis have all suffered a lot from the conflicts of the past—though it is worth noting that the number of civilian casualties among Hizbullah supporters is orders of magnitude higher than for either Israelis or Americans.
But still, I judge that one day or another a reconciliation between these parties—as between white and black South Africans—will come to be seen as not only possible but necessary. To put it simply, Hizbullah is not going to go away (and neither is Israel or America). Israelis and Americans will have to find a way to start dealing with Hizbullah. Starting to acknowledge the very real contributions that the party has made to the reconstitution of Lebanon’s war-torn society and the reenergization of its democracy could be one place to start.
While we have you...
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
April 01, 2005
53 Min read time