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Monday, August 07, 2006

Hezbullah's other war

For those who want to understand what is going on Lebanon behind the scenes, this article, which is to appear in next Sunday's New York Times Magazine, is a must read.
One evening earlier this summer, Lebanon’s most popular satire show, ‘‘Bas Mat Watan,’’ broadcast a sketch showing an ‘‘interview’’ with Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader and secretary general. ‘‘Nasrallah’’ was asked whether his party would surrender its weapons. He answered that it would, but first several conditions had to be met: there was that woman in Australia, whose land was being encroached upon by Jewish neighbors; then there was the baker in the United States, whose bakery the Jews wanted to take over. The joke was obvious: there were an infinite number of reasons why Hezbollah would never agree to lay down its weapons and become one political party among others.

But it was the rapid reaction to the satiric sketch that sent the more disquieting message. That very night, angry supporters of Hezbollah closed the airport road with burning tires — a warning that they could block at will the main access point in and out of the country — and marched on mainly Sunni, Druse and Christian quarters in Beirut. In a Christian neighborhood, they clashed with the son of a former president and his comrades, and several youths were taken to hospital.

The leaders of Hezbollah defended these actions, explaining that they were the spontaneous emotional response to the mocking of a cleric. It is just as likely that they were a coordinated effort to intimidate critics. In any case, to me the event seemed an essential one, since it symbolized the duality that has defined Lebanon ever since its civil war came to an end in 1990. The duality was once neatly encapsulated by Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Druse sect, when he asked, Would Lebanon choose to be Hanoi, circa 1970, or Hong Kong? That is, would it seek to become an international symbol of militancy and armed struggle, particularly against Israel, as represented by Hezbollah, or would it opt for the path laid out by Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s late prime minister and billionaire developer, who sought to transform his country into a business entrepôt for the region, a bastion of liberal capitalism and ecumenical permissiveness?

In seeking to silence critics of their leader, in momentarily shutting down the airport, Hezbollah struck a blow against Lebanon’s tolerant, if always paradoxical, openness. Once again, it seemed, the Lebanese were suffering the consequences of failing to agree on a common destiny. At the time, the consequences seemed bearable. With the outbreak of the current conflict with Israel, they don’t seem bearable at all.


From the moment of Hariri’s assassination on Feb. 14, 2005, it was clear that the Shiite political parties, particularly Hezbollah, did not share in the national distress surrounding the former prime minister’s death. Certainly, party officials paid their respects to the Hariri family and condemned the crime, but when tens of thousands of Lebanese descended on Martyrs Square in Beirut to bury Hariri, the most obvious question was, Where are the Shiites? Given that Shiites represent perhaps 35 to 40 percent of the Lebanese population, this was no idle question.

Of course, there were Shiites — as individuals. But over the years, Hezbollah had gradually won over a large majority of the community, particularly poorer Shiites, and the party had no wish to assist in Hariri’s elevation from politician to national martyr. It probably sensed as well what many others did at the time — namely that the assassination, blamed by the late prime minister’s allies on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, could be used to end Syria’s presence in Lebanon and curb the influence of Syria’s close ally, Hezbollah itself. While other Lebanese saw the prospect of true independence, Hezbollah saw a threat — and this split vision would have grave consequences. Ultimately, a combination of traditional sectarian tensions, audacious political opportunism and the sheer unmovable force of Hezbollah’s state within a state would contribute to defeating the hopes of the Independence Intifada.


Throughout much of the 1990’s, Rafik Hariri, the Sunni billionaire, built up a glittering new Beirut and attracted investors and plaudits from abroad. The Syrians grew wary of Hariri, however, worrying that he moved far too comfortably in the world’s capitals and would one day try to remove Lebanon from their orbit. Hezbollah, the Syrians understood, could serve as a valuable counterweight to Hariri’s ambitions. More cynically, the Syrians realized that Hezbollah’s pariah status in the world community could work to their advantage, for who but Syria could ever hope to bring the violent party under control? To remain relevant in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East, the Syrians helped create a problem that only they could resolve.

But there was more to the Syrian-Shiite alliance than that. Many Shiites were genuinely grateful to Syria for helping them overcome decades of marginalization. The community’s economic and political ascent, and its resistance against Israel, were all encouraged by Syria. You could argue, with some irony, that the Syrians had graciously allowed the Shiites to be their cannon fodder, but for Shiites these events were vital steps in their journey from the periphery of Lebanese political and social life to its very center.

Hezbollah’s crowning moment came in May 2000, when Israeli forces withdrew from Lebanon after a 22-year presence. Refusing to accept the U.N.’s judgment that the withdrawal was complete, Hezbollah vowed to continue its ‘‘resistance.’’ While Hezbollah never quite made clear whether its resistance was ‘‘Lebanese’’ or ‘‘Islamic’’ in spirit (both terms were used interchangeably), this ambiguity went to the heart of the matter. Hezbollah simultaneously represented radical religious militancy and a peculiar sort of Lebanese patriotism, based on an existential struggle against Israel and the convenient ignoring of Syrian domination.


In March 2005, Hezbollah and the rest of Lebanese society faced off in the climactic events of the Independence Intifada. On March 8, as Syrian troops began preparing to leave the country, Hezbollah organized a demonstration in downtown Beirut to ‘‘thank’’ Syria for all its help to Lebanon. Hassan Nasrallah spoke to the assembled masses, followed by an array of lesser pro-Syrian clients.

The Hezbollah-led demonstration was of particular symbolic importance. It was held in Beirut’s rebuilt downtown area, Hariri’s jewel and hitherto the setting for weekly anti-Syrian rallies. In his choice of locale, Nasrallah declared that the downtown area belonged to Shiites as much as to Sunni Muslims, Christians or Druse — the communities leading the opposition to Syria. His supporters pointedly marched under the national flag, reminding their countrymen that Shiites were as Lebanese as anybody else. It was an impressive gathering, with between 200,000 and 400,000 people in attendance.

But Nasrallah had miscalculated. Though there was a smattering of non-Shiites in the crowd, the rally was widely regarded as a sectarian Shiite challenge to the Lebanese independence movement — and this created widespread alarm. One week later, on March 14, the independence movement responded by holding a counterrally. There appeared to be at least three times as many people present on March 14 as on March 8 — Sunnis, Christians and Druse, but also some Shiites, all from the farthest reaches of Lebanon — probably some one million people, with tens of thousands more languishing on blocked access roads to Beirut. In a country of only four million, it was an extraordinarily large gathering. The ‘‘March 14 coalition,’’ as it would come to be known, embodied the idea of coexistence and promised a new beginning.

Or did it? While the March 14 rally was interpreted by many as the defining moment of a new, multisectarian Lebanon, while it was an unforgettable experience for those who attended — and I was there — it also emerged from the viscera of Lebanese sectarianism. Anger against Syria, sorrow over Hariri’s murder and the hope for a free Lebanon all contributed to March 14, but so, too, did revulsion at the image of hundreds of thousands of poor Shiites descending on Beirut’s pot of gold, its downtown area, that receptacle of mainly urban Sunni and Christian achievement. The hinterland had laid claim to the wealth of the capital, and it had done so in the name of a Syrian regime that was also a product of the hinterland. The reflex of Lebanon’s elites and middle class — those who prided themselves on their openness — was to close the door.

Hezbollah, for its part, had much the same reflex. The Lebanese majority, you might think, had spoken. But that night, Hezbollah’s television station, Al Manar, presented the demonstration in the narrowest of sectarian terms: as a resurrection of the right-wing Christian politics of the civil-war era. Viewers were shown images from the march suggesting that a onetime Christian militia, the Lebanese Forces, was staging a comeback. The implication was that collaborators with Israel were at the forefront of the movement. It was pure demagoguery, since the Lebanese Forces had much earlier broken with Israel. But the station’s intent was to sound a persistent Hezbollah trope: those who opposed Syria were really acting on behalf of the United States and Israel — and this was no time for subtlety.


It did not take very long before the rift between Hezbollah’s supporters and detractors was reflected in the cabinet. The most divisive episode came late last year, when the government majority sought to approve a mixed Lebanese-international court to try the suspects in the Hariri assassination. The Shiite ministers refused to go along, arguing that the move was premature. The majority saw this as a ploy to protect Syria at a time when Nasrallah was publicly reaffirming his alliance with the Assad regime. On Dec. 12, in the tense hours following the assassination of the prominent anti-Syrian journalist Gebran Tueni, the government broke the deadlock by voting to approve a mixed tribunal. This was constitutionally defensible, but the Shiite ministers claimed it broke the rule that all important decisions must be made by consensus. They walked out of the government but did not resign. Hezbollah was not about to lose the convenient cover of legitimacy provided by participation in the cabinet, but it had every intention of gumming up the system so that the cabinet majority would not act as a majority again.

For all its efforts, Siniora’s government became less and less able to govern. Early this year, Nabih Berri, the speaker of Parliament, proposed a ‘‘national dialogue’’ of leading politicians to address the most divisive issues — like the fate of Hezbollah’s weapons. But little came of this. In the dialogue, Nasrallah would make concessions and then invariably step back from implementing them. The final straw was the July 12 abduction of the Israelis. For most of the ministers in the government, the operation was nothing less than a coup, a brazen effort to show that the majority had no control over so basic a matter as a declaration of war.


And yet the current war is pushing the country in precisely the opposite direction. The great fear expressed by many Lebanese is that the country can absorb neither a Hezbollah victory against Israel nor a Hezbollah defeat. If Hezbollah merely survives as both a political and military organization, it can claim victory. The result may be the expansion of the party’s authority over the political system, thanks to its weaponry and its considerable sway over the Lebanese Army, which has a substantial Shiite base. This, in turn, might lead to a solidification of Iranian influence and the restoration of Syrian influence. A Hezbollah defeat, in turn, would be felt by Shiites as a defeat for their community in general, significantly destabilizing the system.

As the violence continues, retribution is in the air. Israel has focused its attacks on Shiites, leaving Sunni, Christian and Druse areas (though not their long-term welfare) relatively intact. Amid all the destruction, many a representative of the March 14 movement has denounced Hezbollah’s ‘‘adventurism,’’ provoking Shiite resentment. As one Hezbollah combatant recently told The Guardian: ‘‘The real battle is after the end of this war. We will have to settle score with the Lebanese politicians. We also have the best security and intelligence apparatus in this country, and we can reach any of those people who are speaking against us now. Let’s finish with the Israelis, and then we will settle scores later.’’

This essentially repeated what Hassan Nasrallah told Al Jazeera in an interview broadcast a week after the conflict began: ‘‘If we succeed in achieving the victory . . . we will never forget all those who supported us at this stage. . . . As for those who sinned against us . . . those who made mistakes, those who let us down and those who conspired against us . . . this will be left for a day to settle accounts. We might be tolerant with them, and we might not.’’

Meanwhile, the country has sunk into deep depression, and countless Lebanese with the means to emigrate are thinking of doing so. The offspring of March 8 and March 14 are in the same boat, and yet still remain very much apart. The fault lines from the days of the Independence Intifada have hardened under Israel’s bombs. Given the present balance of forces, it is difficult to conceive of a resolution to the present fighting that would both satisfy the majority’s desire to disarm Hezbollah and satisfy Hezbollah’s resolve to defend Shiite gains and remain in the vanguard of the struggle against Israel. Something must give, and until the parliamentary majority and Hezbollah can reach a common vision of what Lebanon must become, the rot will set in further.

In his Al Jazeera comments, Nasrallah made it clear that the imperatives of ‘‘resistance’’ still trumped those of conciliation. But he sounded a little more conciliatory in a subsequent speech on Al Manar, when he emphasized that Hezbollah was struggling on behalf of all Lebanese. With hundreds of thousands of his brethren displaced from their homes, with Lebanon already facing an estimated $2.5 billion in direct losses, with Hezbollah having alienated many of its countrymen, even as it has fired off its prize weapons in a war of little benefit, maybe Nasrallah saw something he hadn't earlier: that his party may not always be the only party to hold the weapons. Faced with his intransigence, unable to peacefully settle their differences with Hezbollah, Lebanon’s other communities will likely rearm. The result may be a return to civil war. And if that happens, nothing will put Lebanon — let alone liberal Lebanon — back together again.
Read the whole thing.


At 2:24 AM, Blogger vagelis said...


At 2:32 AM, Blogger vagelis said...

I think that this war is done because you hate eachother!!!!and you hate a lot..About 95% among Israels and Lebanon citizens are war supporters.So ..good luck all of you.Hope to kill all your enemies because god (who?)supports your country.... Ha Ha.Hope you feel great killing women and children with bombs or blowing yourshelf...Great living!!!

At 2:44 AM, Blogger vagelis said...

If you don't give a chance to peace you won't be able to live..You need your neighbours...and you are strong,and well educated compare to your Arabs neighbours.And what are you doing?You are killing them!!!!You are dreaming of a Palestine or Lebanon full of dead bodies..Great thoughts!!!!Do you know what make me unhappy?The fact that you forget that millions of Hebrews were killed by Hitler.Now you are trying to do the same to Arabs...Pitty...i am so sorry...but i cannot support you.


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