Hizballah in the Sights

by Lara Deeb
published in MER258

Thanassis Cambanis, A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel (Free Press, 2010).

With all eyes rightly fixed on the pro-democracy uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, Lebanon’s sectarian parliamentary democracy entered yet another phase of crisis. The crisis developed in anticipation of indictments, yet to be unsealed, from the US-supported Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating the 2005 assassination of ex-premier Rafiq al-Hariri. For months, leaks from the investigation suggested that high-ranking members of Lebanon’s well-known Shi‘i Islamist movement Hizballah would be accused of the crime. Hizballah, in turn, waged a media campaign of its own calling the legitimacy and validity of the tribunal into question. Finally, on January 12, 2011, with the indictments said to be imminent, two Hizballah ministers and nine others resigned from the cabinet, bringing down the government of Rafiq’s son, Saad al-Hariri.

The younger Hariri breathlessly denounced the collapse of his government as a “coup d’etat,” but in fact it was wholly constitutional. In the Lebanese system, when one third of the Lebanese cabinet resigns, the cabinet is dissolved and the president is charged with appointing a person to form a new one. After consulting with the major parties in Parliament, President Michel Suleiman picked Najib Miqati, a telecommunications tycoon who had served briefly as interim premier in the past, as prime minister-designate. Miqati has vowed to form a “national salvation” government, a term used in the Arab world to signify a broad coalition bringing together the most bitter political enemies. Thus far, he has been stymied. Hariri and some of his allies have refused to participate, seeking to portray Miqati as a puppet of Hizballah; meanwhile, Hizballah’s ally Michel Aoun is also holding up the show, demanding specific positions for his Free Patriotic Movement. Such wheeling and dealing is hardly unusual in Lebanon, but on this occasion the sectarian discourse surrounding it is disturbingly strident. By long-standing convention, the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim; though Miqati is Sunni, Hariri means to imply with his attacks on the premier-designate that the Shi‘a have effectively captured the post and, therefore, far too much of the state. Muhammad Kabbara, an MP from Hariri’s Future Movement, suggested that his party boss’ removal from the premiership was “aggression against the Sunni confession and the nation.”

In the United States, as well, reporting on these events has taken on a note of sensationalism as the media echoes Hariri’s increasingly desperate rhetoric. An early case in point was a January op-ed by Middle East correspondent Thanassis Cambanis in the New York Times, titled “Hezbollah’s Latest Suicide Mission.” [1] The oddly hysterical title was somewhat belied by the content: In relating the tale of the cabinet’s dissolution, the piece correctly noted that it occurred by way of ministerial resignations rather than a suicide bombing. But Cambanis clearly intended his article to sound the same alarm blasted by Hariri. In Lebanon’s political crisis, he wrote, “Hezbollah is likely to emerge the end winner because it is willing to sacrifice the Lebanese state to maintain its standing in the Middle East and its perpetual war against Israel.” Even as Western liberals thrilled to the sight of dictators falling to popular movements in Tunisia and Egypt, with Islamists clearly taking a back seat, it seemed that Lebanon was lost.

Evolution

The same disjuncture between tone and content is found in Cambanis’ book on Hizballah, published to a generally positive reception in the fall of 2010.The title, A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel, suggests yet another account casting the party as a collection of fanatics waiting in line to carry out acts of terrorism. This feverishness is rather surprising, not only because the best Western observers have transcended such crude attitudes toward Hizballah, but also because Cambanis is reputed to be one of the better journalists writing about the Middle East. In the mid-2000s, he reported from Lebanon and elsewhere for the Boston Globe and now pens a foreign affairs column for the paper’s Sunday ideas page. Like most of his peers, he relied heavily on translators in the field (his curriculum vitae states that he is “studying Arabic” and elsewhere he describes his Arabic as “halting”), but he has made more effort than most to ferret out and understand the perspectives of ordinary people. And indeed, A Privilege to Die is a strikingly uneven book, with passages of excellent reporting interspersed with melodrama spun from fundamentally inaccurate assumptions. Tacking between rich portraits of interviewees, historical recaps and analyses of contemporary Lebanese politics, A Privilege to Die is an engaging and lively read. Unfortunately, the book’s strengths mask a clear political agenda, which distorts the useful information readers might otherwise distill.

From its origins as a guerrilla organization resisting Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in the 1980s, Hizballah has become a full-fledged political party through an evolution culminating in its entreĢe into the cabinet in 2005. It is a distinctively Lebanese party, in that its electoral strength is built largely on social welfare organizations serving the Shi‘i population, a necessity in a country where there is no strong central state and each confessional community therefore serves itself. Cambanis understands these realities, allowing him to avoid analytical pitfalls that remain all too common in the corporate media. His discussion of Hizballah’s relationship to Iran is eminently reasonable, imparting that the party acts “in consultation with Iran, rather than under Iran’s orders” and that decisions are made in Lebanon, “not always in tandem with Iran.” The flow of resources from the Islamic Republic to Hizballah, he notes, parallels to some degree the relationships of other parties in Lebanon to external patrons, such as that of Hariri’s Future Movement to Saudi Arabia. And the party’s outside relationship, too, has evolved. In the 1980s, the party looked to Tehran for guidance and to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards for weapons and training, but it has subsequently outgrown the dependency. It follows that Hizballah’s raid across the Israeli border in 2006 was the party’s “attempt to gain leverage” that was probably “approved” by Tehran, but was not an Iranian proxy operation, as the Bush administration and Israel claimed.

In July 2006, Hizballah infiltrated several of its fighters through the boundary fence to capture Israeli soldiers for use as bargaining chips in indirect negotiations for the release of Lebanese detained in Israel. The raid, which succeeded in nabbing two soldiers, was one of a series of border skirmishes occurring since the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000 that have also included regular Israeli kidnappings of Lebanese citizens. In the existing pattern of conflict, the expected Israeli response would have been something like the bombing of a select power plant or bridge. No one anticipated what happened -- the unleashing for 34 days of Israel’s aerial, naval and ground-based forces on a scale unseen since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

As Cambanis accurately reports, “War came unexpectedly to Hizballah in 2006.” He quotes at length the televised post-war apology of the party’s secretary-general, Hasan Nasrallah: “You ask me now: If there was even a 1 percent chance that the...capturing operation would have led to war like the one that happened, would you have done it? I would say no, absolutely not, for humanitarian, moral, social, security, military and political reasons. I would not agree to it, and neither would Hizballah, the prisoners in Israeli prisons, nor the families of the prisoners. This is absolute.” It is apparent from Nasrallah’s chagrin that the party did not want to start an all-out war with Israel and was expecting a calibrated retaliation within what were called the rules of the game. In Cambanis’ section on Iran-Hizballah relations, he says so explicitly. So it is strange that the rest of the book consistently emphasizes that Hizballah “provoked” the war, at times in a way that suggests intent. Toward the beginning, he states point blank, “Hizballah on its own started the 2006 war.”

The contradiction is symptomatic of the tension between Cambanis’ reportage and the political perspective that informs his analysis. His clear position throughout the book is that Hizballah is the aggressor in an “endless war against Israel,” a position that perfectly echoes that of the US and Israel.

Resistance

Before its 2006 incursion, which Hizballah fought to a standstill, Israel had invaded Lebanon twice before, in 1978 and 1982. The second time around, Israeli forces continued to occupy the south of the country, where most of Lebanon’s Shi‘a have historically lived, until 2000. This history, as Cambanis writes, is the best explanation for “where Hizballah came from” and the biggest clue to its first “raison d’etre.” Hizballah was created as a consequence of Israeli aggression toward Lebanon, with inspiration from Iranian revolutionary ideology, yes, but in response to the lived experience of the arbitrary repression of a foreign occupier. With every passing year of the occupation, every Israeli attack on Lebanese civilian infrastructure, Hizballah grew stronger and more popular, even as the party softened its calls for an Islamic state and other ideological positions. As the course of the 2006 war demonstrated, even many Lebanese who dislike Hizballah regard Israel as the bellicose party in the conflict between the two countries. The movement’s militia is dubbed the Islamic Resistance in acknowledgement of its origins as a defender of Lebanese territory and national rights, again a view shared by many Lebanese who are otherwise skeptical of Hizballah and its program.

A Privilege to Die, however, is saturated with the opposite view that Hizballah is essentially belligerent, extending to the concomitant assumption that Israeli violence is always “provoked” by Arabs, whether Lebanese or Palestinians. “War with Israel” is, for Cambanis, an ideological aim for Hizballah, a sine qua non as well as an ongoing raison d’etre.

Given his own historical bent, on display in the book, Cambanis ought to know that his notion that Hizballah is “spreading a gospel of perpetual war” is absurd. Hizballah did not swoop in from nowhere and begin brainwashing Shi‘i Muslims in Lebanon to hate Israel. Israel produced that hostility all by itself, through decades of occupation punctuated by bombardment and destruction of lives and livelihoods. This possibility seems implausible to Cambanis. His occasional descriptions of Hizballah and its supporters as motivated by a “deep unslaked thirst among Arabs for revenge and redemption” and a “warrior mindset” suggest that violence is somehow an essential part of Arab culture, and are reminiscent of racist treatises like Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind. There are moments in the narrative when Israel is also described as wanting vengeance. Yet rather than alleviate the problem, these nods make it worse. Cambanis writes as though Arabs and Israelis are driven by emotion instead of a political calculus. One of the results is dangerous inaccuracy. He avers that Hizballah stands in “uncompromising and violent opposition to any peaceful negotiating process,” when Nasrallah has clearly stated on several occasions that the party will recognize any peace treaty concluded by the Palestinians.

There is some truth to the idea Cambanis puts forth that Hizballah is most popular when it is able to present itself primarily in the role of resistance to an external or internal enemy. The party was fighting erosion of its popular base prior to the 2005 fracture of the Lebanese political scene into two camps, the March 14 forces that rode the “Syria out!” demonstrations following Hariri’s assassination to government power and the March 8 forces that became their opposition. But the presence of an enemy is far more important rhetorically for the party than it is in practice; like politicians everywhere, Hizballah figures spend much more time talking about the perils posed by foes than actually confronting them. The 2006 war emerged as a “divine victory” for the party’s popularity only after a great deal of work to promote that message through the media and, crucially, lend succor to those who had lost family members and their homes. The party benefited politically from the time, effort and money thrown at the post-war reconstruction, coupled with the fragmentation of Lebanon along Sunni-Shi‘i lines for the first time in the country’s history. The balance could have swung the other way. And, in an interesting twist, international funds for the rebuilding of the south came not only from Iran, but also Qatar (thanked in an elaborate display of Hizballah-sponsored signs) and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

In other words, there is a risk that without something to resist Hizballah would lose supporters, but the threats are not in short supply. Israeli attacks have been regular and night- marishly real. US diplomatic cables revealed by Wikileaks quote Israeli officials preparing for a war in which civilian areas will not be spared, a Lebanese official providing Israel (through a US intermediary) with advice on how to destroy Hizballah two years after the 2006 war, and Fouad Siniora, the Lebanese prime minister during the 2006 war, expressing his hope that Israel would finish the job of disarming Hizbullah quickly. State security forces in Lebanon have arrested over 150 people for spying for Israel. The Obama administration has mostly refrained from its predecessor’s verbal attacks on Hizballah as the “A-team of terrorists,” but has not yet significantly relaxed the long-standing US posture of hostility to the party.

Within Lebanon, sectarian animosities have increased, fueled in part by Hizballah, but also significantly by Hariri’s Sunni party. And in the aftermath of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, Sunni extremist fighters from that war bear sectarian animosities with them as they move elsewhere in the region, including into Lebanon. [2] Rhetorical embellishment aside, Hizballah’s leadership did not dream up these dangers, external or internal. The reality of threats can even be heard in the February 2011 war of words between Hizballah and Israel, during which Nasrallah said that party fighters should stand ready to enter the Galilee if Israel were to attack Lebanon. This statement was a response to the consistently antagonistic signals from Israel, including an admonition from Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to his troops that they might be called upon “to re-enter Lebanon.” The party’s voice of militancy has grown louder alongside both those signals and the escalating sectarian tensions on all sides in Lebanon and across the Middle East.

Absent adequate attention to the real political and territo- rial issues at stake, Cambanis is left with his contention that Hizballah’s war footing is primarily “ideological,” by which he seems to mean dogmatic, and religiously so, judging by phrases like “gospel of perpetual war,” “holy war with Israel” and “eternal war.” While Hizballah is certainly a party built on ideals rooted in Islam and its core members do adhere, more or less, to a conservative, pious lifestyle, the party’s military stance is about politics. The roots of the conflict with Israel are not doctrinal; they are pragmatic and territorial. The two ideas -- Hizballah is a religious party engaged in a political conflict -- are not incommensurable.

Erasure

The refrain that Hizballah desires “eternal war” with Israel sometimes takes the form of the charge that Nasrallah preaches “racist hatred of Jews.” Once again, this charge contradicts Cambanis’ own reporting. He accurately states that “the party has excised hatred of Jews from its official doctrine.” He likewise reports that at the November 2009 unveiling of Hizballah’s manifesto, its first since its original “open letter” in 1985, Nasrallah said, “Our problem with them is not that they are Jews.... Our problem with them is that they are occupiers who have usurped our land and sacred places.” Cambanis continues, “The Hezbollah leader went out of his way to call the Jewish state by its name, Israel, in addition to making the usual references to ‘the Zionist entity.’” Nonetheless, Cambanis repeatedly suggests that Nasrallah is an anti-Semite underneath it all.

The accusation is based on two quotations from the 1990s, one of which is questionably sourced. First, Cambanis references the secretary-general’s eulogy for his son Hadi, who was killed in a 1997 gunfight with Israeli occupation troops in southern Lebanon. Cambanis quotes Nasrallah as saying, “If we search the entire globe for a more cowardly, lowly, weak and frail individual in his spirit, mind, ideology and religion, we will never find anyone like the Jew -- and I am not saying the Israeli. We have to know the enemy we are fighting.” This statement is not sourced in A Privilege to Die, and Cambanis seems to have taken it either from a book of collected English translations of Nasrallah’s speeches [3] or from another book about Hizballah, by the Lebanese scholar Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, who attributes it in a footnote to then Hizballah MP Muhammad Fanayish. [4] The second quote Cambanis cites is a widely circulated excerpt from Nasrallah’s 1998 ‘Ashoura speech in which he mourned the “historic catastrophe and tragic event” of the founding of “the state of the Zionist Jews, the descendants of apes and pigs.” While no specific source is provided in A Privilege to Die, these lines do appear in the text of the speech printed in Hizballah’s weekly al-‘Ahd, as well as in the same English-language collection of Nasrallah’s speeches. [5] In the collection, the lines follow a translated speech that emphasizes that Hizballah’s fight is with Israel and not with Jews.

While anti-Semitism exists in Lebanon and emerged in the 1998 speech -- though it could be argued that the reference is to the political group “Zionist Jews” rather than the Jewish people as a whole -- Cambanis himself notes that this instance of anti-Semitic rhetoric was the last in any official party statements, including Nasrallah’s subsequent speeches. Anti-Semitic prejudice is not limited to Hizballah supporters or to Shi‘i Muslims in Lebanon. The Israeli state’s own conflation of Zionism, Judaism and Israeli identity (as with Israel’s granting of citizenship on the basis of religion) has contributed to the conflation between Zionists, Israelis and Jews in Lebanon and the Arab world. And there is certainly anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia in Israel and in the US among both political leaders and the population, where it is backed by government policies and military actions. Racism exists on all sides, yet it is not an age-old, inevitable animus, but one produced and perpetuated by ongoing political and territorial conflicts. Hence, since the 1990s Nasrallah has been customarily clear in distinguishing between the state of Israel and its Zionist supporters, including Zionist Jews, on one side, and the Jewish people in general on the other. The purging of anti-Semitic rhetoric from Hizballah’s discourse indicates a change not only in public presentation, but also in the ways that language about the enemy is being communicated to Hizballah’s supporters. And, indeed, among Hizballah supporters in Lebanon the more common pattern is to mimic Nasrallah and talk about “the Zionist entity” or “Israel.”

Hizballah, indeed, has undergone significant transformations from the time of its 1985 “open letter” to the 2009 manifesto. As Cambanis mentions, the social base of the party is diverse, including many educated, middle-class professionals and people who may not share Hizballah’s religious and moral conservatism but still staunchly support the resistance against Israel. Since a failed attempt in the 1980s, Hizballah no longer tries to enforce moral regulations on anyone outside its core partisan membership. The distinction between partymembers and less committed supporters, in fact, goes some distance toward explaining the party’s popularity.

In painting his picture of Hizballah’s base, however, Cambanis highlights his interviews with the fighter Rani Bazzi and the ardent young partisan Aya Haidar, both of whom represent the extreme end of the ideological spectrum. They subscribe, for instance, to Mahdism, the Shi‘i version of millenarian messianism, with a fervor comparable to the belief of some evangelical Christians in the imminence of the rapture. Just as many Christians, when pressed, will acknowledge a belief in the eventual Second Coming of Christ, replete with an epic battle with the forces of the devil, so many Hizballah supporters will say that the world will end at some point with the Mahdi’s return. But, as Cambanis notes, “For the majority of Shia Muslims, that belief does not play a central role in their daily practice of their faith.” Most Hizballah supporters in Lebanon are not living in anticipation of Armageddon, vigilantly looking for end-times signs the way that Aya does, as she flips through her encyclopedia of Shi‘i apocrypha to regale Cambanis with various prophecies. It is unclear why Aya’s voice should gain priority in his narrative over, say, that of her older sister, the more typical Inaya. Cambanis explains Inaya’s support of Hizballah as follows: “The party gave her external security, by deterring the Israeli military, and personal security by setting an example of Islamic morality.” In such ways, Cambanis not only elides the mundane reasons for Hizballah’s prominence, he also erases the political causes.

The erasure of politics is clearest in the way he writes about martyrdom. All who die for a cause in Lebanon are called martyrs, no matter what their religious or political affiliation, and whether the cause is religious or national. Indeed, a main square in downtown Beirut was named Martyrs’ Square for the nationalists who were hanged during a revolt against the Ottoman Empire in 1916. Yet Cambanis repeats that Hizballah “cultivates a vibrant culture of martyrdom” and seems to find it especially troubling that Hizballah fighters, as Rani Bazzi told him, “are not afraid of death.” It is true that religious faith alleviates fear of death for most, if not all, fighters, something that is not only true of pious Muslims. And Bazzi does sound like an especially dedicated character who hopes to give his life for the resistance, as when he told Cambanis, referring to an injured fighter, “Why is this man wounded and I am not even dead? Maybe God does not want me.” Yet Bazzi is also an outlier in being willing to talk to a reporter who is relying on translators, the sort of character who often hijacks journalistic and ethnographic narratives because he will talk at length about his views, which are often atypical. For most fighters, there is a subtle difference between not fearing death and wanting to die. They express a willingness to die for a cause, which is not particularly unusual for voluntary enlistees in armed forces, who are normally held in great esteem for their ethic of self-sacrifice.

The disturbed tone underlying Cambanis’ discussions of martyrdom might lead one to think that he is talking about fighters who go intentionally to their deaths in suicide bombings or “martyrdom operations.” But, as he accurately reports, Hizballah has not used suicide bombers as a tactic in over a decade. Only 12 of the party’s martyrs have died in such operations and many of the “suicide attacks” against the occupying Israeli army in south Lebanon were undertaken by Communist and other leftist fighters. The history of multi-party resistance against Israel has been coopted by Hizballah since 2000, as the party glorifies its own military accomplishments, an elision that is ironically echoed in A Privilege to Die.

Disservice

Though Hizballah has dropped its agenda to create an Islamic state, and now engages in the mercenary horse trading that has long dominated the country’s political arena, its domestic political opponents are apt to characterize the party as somehow foreign to Lebanon. This tendency is partly an artifact of the long-standing disenfranchisement of the Shi‘i population, which has historically been the poorest and thus most easily demonized of Lebanon’s confessional communities, partly a reflection of overblown fears of the party’s Iranian connections and partly an expression of anger at Hizballah’s refusal to disband the Islamic Resistance or disarm its fighters, as a UN Security Council resolution demands. The relative novelty of Hizballah’s assertiveness in formal politics leads its opponents to depict its moves in dark terms, insinuating that Shi‘i Islamist takeover of Lebanon is imminent. In a press conference on January 24, Mustafa ‘Alloush, another Future MP, declared that an effort was afoot “to place the office of the prime minister under the control of wilayat al-faqih,” a direct reference to the “rule of the jurisprudent” established by the 1979 revolution in Iran. Cambanis seems to adopt this view in his New York Times column on the collapse of Saad al-Hariri’s cabinet: “Make no mistake: The Party of God has fully consolidated its control in Lebanon, and will stop at nothing -- including civil war -- to protect its position.”

A similar notion threads throughout A Privilege to Die: Hizballah is an external actor that forces its will on everyone, including its own constituents and supporters. Throughout the book one finds phrases such as “Hizballah has inculcated millions,” unsuspecting Shi‘a who are “indoctrinated,” “lured in” or “yoked” to the party. Cambanis extends this characterization to civilians who chose to stay in their villages during the 2006 war, implying that they did so because Hizballah needed “human shields.” In his words, “Granted, these civilians volunteered to garrison themselves as human shields, but it was Hizballah that encouraged them to stay.” Cambanis’ insistence on the phrase “human shields,” which he repeats over and over again, obscures the likelihood that many villagers chose to remain in their homes or were unable to leave because the roads were too dangerous. He seems oblivious to the fact that southerners who left their homes the last time Israel invaded their country lost access to them for years, not to mention the history of Israeli efforts to depopulate Arab villages. As all Lebanese sectarian parties can say to some degree, Hizballah is of its community, and does not merely speak for it. Hizballah fighters are from the villages they defend; they live and work and play in those villages, and when Israel attacks, they fight in those villages.

To his credit, Cambanis does little to disguise his own political inclinations, noting that Hizballah seems to him “at times fanatical.” On several occasions, he praises the “accommodationist” position of “friendly” Arab states like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which he contrasts critically with “the Southern State of Mind, erected over the years by Hizballah’s Islamic Resistance.” That “state of mind” is that “the only way to lose was not to fight” and is underscored by the desire to fight until land was liberated, which Cambanis calls “an almost pathological belief.” Reviewers, predictably, have skimmed over the nuance in A Privilege to Die to fixate on Cambanis’ bottom line that the party is incomprehensible in Western liberal frameworks and therefore alien. Even if Hizballah is understood as a response to Israeli or US intervention, it is irredeemably different. As the prominent columnist Joe Klein writes, “It also represents an alternative value system, popular and horrifying, to the freedom proselytized as ‘God’s gift to humanity’ by George W. Bush.” [6]

One would have hoped, at this juncture, to read a trade book on Hizballah that forced a Western audience to take stock of the political realities on the ground in Lebanon, especially in relation to the conflict with Israel. It is there that an accurate explanation for Hizballah’s rise to power and popularity is to be found. Key among these realities are Hizballah’s legitimate role as part of the political system in Lebanon and the credibility it has won over the years. By contrast, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the current means by which the party’s opponents hope to clip its wings, has little credibility in the country. [7] Both the tribunal and Saad al-Hariri were further discredited by the January 15 broadcast on New TV of audio recordings of a secret meeting between Hariri and a person who has since been established to be a false witness, tapes that revealed Hariri’s own enmeshment in the supposedly secret and unbiased inquiry. Another crucial piece of this political reality is the fact that the vast majority of Lebanese, across the political spectrum, view Israel as the biggest threat to national security, a view produced by a history of Israeli attacks on their country.

This assessment of the political landscape was reflected in a March column in the Washington Post, wherein David Ignatius reported that the Obama administration is considering engagement of some sort with Hizballah. Ignatius noted a soon-to-be released National Intelligence Estimate on the party that will include the view that Hizballah has evolved into a significant political player in Lebanon and therefore cannot be dismissed as a terrorist organization. He attributes this view to Obama’s chief counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan. Yet
the columnist concludes that it is too soon for policy change in Washington, because “the White House recognizes that it has enough to deal with already without opening a new question that would produce shock waves in Israel, Saudi Arabia and other countries.” [8]

In A Privilege to Die, Thanassis Cambanis had an opportunity to provide an accurate perspective on Hizballah and Lebanon that would have informed such policy conversations rather than echo their long-standing concerns. Instead he took the well-trodden path, which certainly will be better for his career in the short term, writing a book whose ultimate point is that Hizballah is a danger to Israel and the United States. In Cambanis’ words, “Hizballah’s rise thwarted the United States’ carefully laid plans for a friendly, secular, liberal Lebanon securely at peace with Israel.” Such was also the take-home message of the capsule review in Foreign Affairs, the Cliffs Notes of the US and global policymaking elite, wherein L. Carl Brown mirrors Cambanis in lamenting Hizballah’s “radical militancy” and “the way that less organized, less fervent and more corrupt moderates have lost out to radicals since the 1970s.” [9] This perspective is certainly mainstream, but to parrot it does Western audiences a great disservice, as vilification of Hizballah serves no purpose beyond fomenting Islamophobia among them and, more to the point, misleading them about the power of the question of Palestine to move Arabs of all ideological persuasions. A case in point was Nasrallah’s March 19, 2011 speech addressing the Arab revolutions, in which he said that US intentions in the region cannot be trusted as long as Washington’s support for Israel continues.

As the world watched people power achieve regime change in Tunisia and Egypt, many commentators were cheered by the absence of anti-Israel chants and slogans among the crowds. They should not be fooled by the fact that Egyptians, for instance, need to overthrow their thoroughly undemocratic regime before they can demand a democratic foreign policy from their government. The success of Hizballah in Lebanese politics, indeed, is proof positive that Arab parties grow closer to the heart of public opinion the more firmly they reject “accommodation” with Israel as it proceeds with its dispossession of the Palestinians and deepens its hold upon occupied Arab lands.

Endnotes

[1] Thanassis Cambanis, “Hezbollah’s Latest Suicide Mission,” New York Times, January 12, 2011.
[2] See, in particular, Nir Rosen, Aftermath (New York: Nation Books, 2010), pp. 123–220.
[3] Nicholas Noe, Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah (London: Verso, 2007), p. 171.
[4] Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion (London: Pluto Press, 2002), p. 170, fn 20.
[5] Al-‘Ahd, April 8, 1998; see also Noe, p. 188. In 2001, the party changed the name of its weekly magazine to al-Intiqad.
[6] Joe Klein, “The Hezbollah Project,” New York Times, September 30, 2010.
[7] See Heiko Wimmen, “The Long, Steep Fall of the Lebanon Tribunal,” Middle East Report Online, December 1, 2010.
[8] David Ignatius. “Obama Weighs Talking to the Taliban, Hezbollah,” Washington Post, March 17, 2011.
[9] Cambanis, A Privilege to Die, reviewed by L. Carl Brown, Foreign Affairs (January-February 2011).

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