December 26, 2007

A Fresh Look at Hezbollah

I haven’t written much about Lebanon lately, partly because I’ve been working in Iraq, but also because Lebanon has been in a holding pattern for the past year. There isn’t much new to say about the same-old same-old.

But Andrew Exum published a perceptive piece about Hezbollah and makes a point made very rarely, if ever, in the West:
There are several reasons making the fantasy that Hezbollah will ever give up its arms unlikely. The first—and the most understandable—is that the Shia who make up Hezbollah’s constituency think giving up their arms means giving up the hard-won seat at Beirut’s political table earned over the past three decades. The Shia of Lebanon are the country’s historical underclass, and the Shia fear a return to the days when their concerns were largely forgotten by the central government. Without the arms of Hezbollah, they argue, no one in Beirut will care about the concerns of the Shia living in the south, the Bekaa Valley, and the suburbs of Beirut.

The second reason why Hezbollah cannot give up its arms, though, is because so many of the young men who join the organization join to fight. These young men are lured by the promise of fighting Israel, and Hezbollah must worry that if they were to abandon their military campaign against Israel, these young men would simply split from the organization in the same way that so many of the Amal militia’s gunmen left for Hezbollah in the early 1980s. Thus, in order to keep these young men of arms under the same big tent as the rest of the organization, it is necessary to continue some form of armed conflict against Israel. In this way, Hezbollah’s cross-border raids and rocket attacks against Israel after the 2000 withdrawal—while necessary from an internal perspective—ultimately worked against Hezbollah’s overall strategy of deterrence.

Normally keen observers of Israeli politics, Hezbollah misread the dynamics in Jerusalem following the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit in 2006 and attempted their own kidnappings just over the border near Ayta ash-Shab on July 12th. The kidnappings—unlike an attempt a few months earlier in the disputed city of Ghajjar—were successful, but the Israeli response was brutal and unexpected. (The ways in which Israel’s decision-makers similarly misread the dynamics at work within Lebanon in 2006 will have to be the subject of a different post.) The very thing Hezbollah was trying to deter—a massive Israeli assault on Hezbollah and their Shia constituents—was provoked by an act of foolishness along the border. [Emphasis added.]
Westerners, including Israelis, rarely think of Hezbollah as a deterrent force. They think of Hezbollah as an aggressor. Hezbollah's supporters think of it as both. Some support Hezbollah because they want to fight. Others support Hezbollah because they don’t want to fight.

That last point is counter-intuitive, I know, and possibly hard to believe. But I’ve met dozens of Lebanese Shias who think exactly like a man who left the following comment on an old blog post of mine a few days ago:

Michael,

I enjoyed this piece. I've been reading your blogs as of late, and have quite enjoyed them. However, I think you need to get a sense of who or what Hezbollah is from a Lebanese Shi'a, such as myself. Maybe you've talked to many Shi'is about Hezbollah and you know everything there is to know, but I nonetheless would like to make a few comments.

I think it's very clear that if you and I were sitting in a room drafting the constitution of a country, we would both agree that military power should be in the hands of the state exclusively. However, we know that what “should” be the case is not always that simple in Lebanon. The problem is, Hezbollah is still deemed necessary to many people (the military arm of Hezbollah, that is). My mother comes from Bint Jbeil in the South and she gives me numerous accounts of the Resistance and how necessary it was for the people of South Lebanon.

I think the end goal of all Lebanese is to see Hezbollah disarmed. We all need that. But what we need even more is the opportunity for that to happen. What happens if Israel trots through the South again? Are you going to tell me they wouldn't do it? Of course they would. Israeli troops were in Lebanon in the late 70s, years before Lebanon was “officially” occupied. Usually when you hear about Lebanese occupation, you hear about 1982 when the Israelis took Beirut. No one gives a damn about the South. And before we bring up 1559, we should also know that selective morality of this kind has no place in Middle Eastern politics, when Israel itself has defied over 60 U.N. resolutions. Bring up 1559 would be ridiculous under such terms.

That's what Hezbollah is, essentially. They are people from the South who armed themselves against Israel. That's why they exist. Hezbollah is a product of Israeli occupation, and we all need to recognize that. Insinuating that Hezbollah should simply disarm is one thing, but it is only one thing. The Lebanese army cannot defend Lebanon against Israel. As has been seen with strategic wars of South Lebanon, weaponry is important, but so is knowing the territory and knowing how to fight. That's the only explanation for a handful of Hezbollahis effectively resisting Israel last summer.

But who knows, Michael? What happens if America and Iran settle their disputes? Of course, by “settle” I mean Iran bowing down to American pressure. You know as well as I do that America has been the enemy of Iran ever since it had a hand in overthrowing the parliamentary government in 1953 in favour of a dictator… then following that up with military and financial support for Saddam Hussein in his quest to make war with Persia. Since then the United States has been crippling Iran with sanctions.

You can call me crazy, but I'm more likely to believe that there won't be another major war in Lebanon. I don't think Hezbollah can risk it. I don't think we as Lebanese can handle any more. Muslim/Christian really isn't a problem in the streets. When we fled Lebanon for Canada our next door neighbours were Christians - the same Christians that our Muslims were fighting back home. We were best friends for years. In the street, we really have no problems. But for some reason, the schism becomes manifest at the political level. And we all know that the religions themselves have nothing to do with the disagreements; it's more or less people aligning themselves along sectarian lines because that is how they identify themselves.

Anyway, I have rambled. I only ask of you to please consider the Hezbollah question from a different angle, and see that they are part of Lebanon (hopefully their part will be more political and less military in the future). As a Lebanese Shi'a returning to Lebanon in the next year or so, I cannot say I hate Hezbollah. Do I want them disarmed? Yes, in principle. Am I frightened at the concept of Hezbollah being disarmed? Yes. I am frightened because I know what they have done for the South, and fear that losing them will give us nothing to defend ourselves with in the future. Am I pro-Syrian? No. Am I anti-Syrian? No. I think that anyone who makes one of these their political pillars is unhealthy. Those men you spoke to are very smart. We need neutral relations with Syria. We don't need anti-Syrian parties, or pro-Syrian parties.
I’m not publishing this comment because I agree with it. Among other things, he is wrong about the Israelis. Hezbollah is a magnet for the Israeli military because it’s violent and provacative. Perhaps he understands that at some level— he did say Hezbollah cannot risk another war. Israel is no more likely to invade a theoretically peaceful and quiet Lebanon than peaceful and quiet Jordan. But it would be a stretch, to say the least, to lump this man in ideologically with the hardliners.

Hezbollah will be defeated, marginalized, or integrated into the mainstream when reasonable people like him split from the jihad wing of the party.

POSTSCRIPT: Here is some old-fashioned American Jew-hatred uglier than anything I heard in Lebanon from a supporter of Hezbollah. (Yes, really.) Hatred, like decency, knows no nationality. (Via Callimachus.)

UPDATE: A Daily Kos diarist is appalled at what I just linked to, and is highly recommended reading.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at December 26, 2007 1:05 PM
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