Face to Face With Hezbollah
The Many Faces of the Lebanese Shiite Organization
As part of a fact-finding mission to the Middle East in late 2007, one year after Hezbollah concluded a war with Israel, we spent a few days with Hezbollah. I knew that Hezbollah carried heavy baggage, could be threatening, and operated as a state within a state, but it never seemed, as bludgeoning reports insisted, an international terrorist organization. All of the few horrific actions involving Hezbollah have been tit-for-tat revenge attacks for Israeli murder of its cadres, such as the February 16, 1992, Israeli Apache AH64 helicopter missile attack on an automobile that killed Sheikh Abbas Musawi, the then secretary-general of Hezbollah, his wife, and five-year-old son.
Face-to-face in November 2007 revealed an organized and thoughtful Hezbollah without traces of being fanatical.
They speak English, carry I-pods, and listen to Santana and Guns and Roses. They don't approach with anger and don't behave overbearing. They are well-educated, mostly from Beirut's American University, relaxed and alert to world happenings. They impress as being more secular than pious. They are spokespersons for Hezbollah - the Party of God.
Maybe they are a selected group of well-trained talkers for foreigners; a subtle means to convince the unwary that Hezbollah's followers are just everyday guys and gals. Maybe, but observations and events were inconsistent with the media's drastic descriptions of the militant Lebanese Shiite movement.
The Party of God has insufficient support for exercising political control of Lebanon and knows it doesn't have the numbers or the strength to turn the Levant into an Islamic Republic. Hezbollah's clerics don't indicate they intend to force Shari'a upon their constituencies. More an amalgam of differing viewpoints - religious, social, political, and militant - Hezbollah is solidified by a common struggle for the dispossessed and a battle against corruption. Meetings with Hezbollah and Lebanese officials together with a trip to southern Lebanon, as a member of a Council for National Interest peace delegation, revealed much about the nature of the Party of God.
The voyage started in Beirut, at a tenement building that is indistinguishable from the adjoining buildings in the Shiite district. Hezbollah followers crowd the sidewalk to greet and lead to a simple apartment on an upper floor. Sayyid Nawaf Al-Musawi, the head of Hezbollah's International Relations, is dressed in conventional clothes.
The only indication of religious fervor is the beads he rotates in his right hand. He sits relaxed but talks seriously and with conviction. The female translator's minor errors and dubious translations of colloquial expressions are politely excused. The head of Hezbollah's International Relations has a lot to say - about everything.
In Iraq there is a severe humane problem - same as in Palestine. The West Bank is now a prison. The US gives no importance to the Iraqi people. US policy is based on Israeli safety and Middle East oil. America is creating chaos and the region is under its hegemony. The regime is increasing the problems rather than resolving them. Now they are talking about a new war in Iran. Iraq was weak, but Iran is strong and it will be a much harder war. A barrel of oil and a barrel of gunfire will create a catastrophe that is beyond comprehension. A disaster is happening and Americans are giving a story that is false. They were lying about WMDs in Iraq and now they are lying about nuclear issues in Iran. They told the people that the Iraqis would welcome them as liberators. This is an example of a delusion to the citizens of the US. American citizens deserve to know the truth. Colin Powell gave false information to the UN but he thought it was the truth. When someone tries to find the truth he is called a terrorist. America operates on misleading evidence.
The one who rules must be accepted by all the others. Now the minority is ruling, but this is supported by the U.S. Why does the U.S. want this? For the benefit of the Israelis. We are a movement only against Israeli attack and Israeli occupation. We support unity. We encourage consensus. The Vatican, the Arabs want unity in Lebanon, but the American influences in Lebanon do not want this. We want a multi-ethnic nation and not as in Israel, which calls itself a Jewish country even though ¼ of its citizens are Christians and Muslims. We cannot have an election with 50% plus one because the text of the constitution is clear - there has to be a 2/3 majority. A person elected by 50% plus one is not the President and only an impostor.
Hezbollah will never recognize Israel. Israel (Palestine?) should be a democratic nation where all religions exist together and have equal freedom. In the 1919 Paris meeting, the Zionists presented a document which coveted South Lebanon and delineated four river basins they wanted to own.
Sayyid Nawaf Al-Musawi ended his conversation with prophetic expressions.
We don't judge you on the basis of your stand on Israel. Do not judge us on that issue. There are natural ties between Shia Lebanon and Iran. They have the same source. The fifteenth century Iranian studies came from Lebanon. The geography of Lebanon enabled the Shia to stay. It is tough to conquer Southern Lebanon because of its geography.
Leaving Beirut for the South of Lebanon is similar to leaving any metropolis - traffic jams, new expressways, and roadways that cut through residential areas. The Paris of the Middle East has lost much of its charm. It is heavy until the view of the blue-green Mediterranean waters calm the atmosphere. Banana groves, similar to those that camouflaged the Hezbollah rocket carriers during the 2006 summer war, are prominent. Also prominent are posters of Rafiq Hariri, the assassinated and previous Prime Minister. After the Sunni city of Sidon, the peaceful countryside of groves and orchards is marked with newly repaired bridges that cross ready-to-be-paved roads. The war-damaged roads lead to Tyre.
The Shiite city has freshly sanded beaches and a picturesque seaside promenade. The posters have changed - they now feature Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's political leader, Tyre is the home of Sheik Nabil Kaook, Hezbollah commander of South Lebanon, who narrowly escaped death when Israeli warplanes bombed his home in the 2006 war.
In his presence, women are not greeted with handshakes, but with hands respectfully placed over the heart. The women sit veiled and separate from the men. The cleric is well-groomed and well-tailored - his white turban shows his status and his brown cloak matches the brown chair on which he sits.
Harsh and accusatory, interspersed with feelings for the dispossessed, the Hezbollah Sheik has one succinct message: "The United States took the decision to go to war and to continue the war. It treats Lebanon as just another occupation."
Tyre is also identified with the Al-Sadr Foundation, which manages an orphanage under the control of Rabab al-Sadr, sister of disappeared Shiite cleric Sayyid Musa al-Sadr. Shi'a clerics who have the title of Sayyid claim descent from Muhammad. Sayyid Musa al-Sadr is more famous than his designation. His life, a story of dedication, success, and an eventual mystery reveal strong links between Shiites from Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon.
Born in Qom, Iran in 1928 to a Lebanese family of theologians, Musa al-Sadr studied theology in Najaf, Iraq. Being related to the father of Iraq's Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraq was another home for him. In 1960 Musa al-Sadr moved to Tyre, his father's birthplace. He soon became recognized as a strong advocate for the economically and politically disadvantaged Shi'ite population. His role in establishing schools and medical clinics throughout southern Lebanon led to the 1974 founding of the Movement of the Disinherited, whose armed wing became Amal, the other Shiite party in Lebanon.
While successfully improving economic and social conditions for a disenfranchised Shiite population, Sayyid Musa al-Sadr made enemies of landlords, corrupt officials, political establishment, and members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. His eventual disassociation with, what was then, a corrupt Amal, created other groups, some of whom later coalesced into Hezbollah. On February 16, 1985, an "Open Letter to the Downtrodden in Lebanon and the World," alerted the world to Hezbollah's formal existence. Musa al-Sadr was not present. In 1978, when attending a conference in Libya, Musa al-Sadr mysteriously vanished. No clue to his disappearance has surfaced.
Elegant chalets grace the barren hills of southern Lebanon. Many of them are homes of expatriate Lebanese, who have always been principal contributors to Lebanon's economy. Expatriates from Sierra Leone, the Gulf States, Dearborn, Michigan, and other U.S. cities send funds to their Lebanese relatives who purchase properties throughout Lebanon. Southern Lebanon has many retired Dearborns who have returned to their families and to a land they always cherished. But that's not all, informed persons claim Southern Lebanon has diamond and drug smuggling that help finance Hezbollah and local communities.
The elegant chalets emphasize the destruction of villages during the 2006 summer war. Bint Jbiel, "the daughter of the mountain," rested in the path of the invading Israeli army. Israel's military dropped leaflets that ordered the population to leave the village. The inhabitants obeyed the order and now the old city, not the new part, is 70% destroyed; a mound of rubble that includes the 600-year-old mosque.
Homes along a nearby dirt road are pocked with shell and bullet holes, evidence of tanks having discharged random fire at empty houses for no apparent reason except they were close to the path of the tank. A total of eighteen Israeli tanks broke down, crashed, or were destroyed by Hezbollah ambushes during the Israeli invasion.
From a hill close to the mined border with Israel, the deputy mayor of Marjayoun pointed to the verdant fields of Northern Israel. He claimed that in 1948 Israel seized one kilometer of Lebanese territory and that the houses in the distance are mainly empty.
Damage-weary Lebanon is not confined to the border area. Timur Goksel, former senior advisor to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), who has been in Lebanon for twenty years, noted he had never witnessed so much wanton destruction. He said that Iran funds an Iranian Hezbollah that has no connection with Lebanese Hezbollah. Five hundred million dollars of these funds are being used to repair war-damaged southern Lebanon. In contrast, the U.S. is contributing 34 million dollars to repair a large bridge.
Timor Goksel refutes the March 14 majority party charge that Hezbollah is obstructionist: "The Shiites (not all Hezbollah) are 30% of the country and cannot rule on their own. They want to have a role in the government and they want to be a mainstream party." Principal leaders in the Lebanese government support Goksel's evaluation. Former general Michel Aoun, Christian head of the Change and Reform parliamentary bloc, wants what Hezbollah wants; a new parliament where the new majority will be accepted. Aoun's bloc has a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Hezbollah. He insisted the MOU is not an alliance but a strategy for integrating Hezbollah into a mutual defense of Lebanon. Former General and then Maronite President of Lebanon, Emil Lahoud, agreed with Hezbollah's determination to follow constitutional law and only elect a president with a 2/3 quorum.
The Lebanese president describes Hezbollah as "one hundred percent Lebanese. Hezbollah takes material assistance from Iran and would take it from the devil if necessary to protect their country. They are not terrorists." Fawsi Salloukh, Lebanon's Minister of Foreign Affairs talked from a prepared
document that severely criticized Israel and the United States. He also wants a new election and not a litigious issue. He doesn't believe Iran wants to dominate Hezbollah and stressed it is natural for Shiites in Lebanon and Iran to establish good relations.
Forgotten amidst the rhetoric, but mentioned by Michel Aoun and Emil Lahoud are simple facts: Hezbollah has had electoral alliances with Saad Hariri's Future Movement, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, and Noah Berri's Amal. In 1999, Hezbollah members of Lebanon's engineering syndicate formed a coalition with the Phalange Party, a rightist Christian group, and the National Liberal Party, both allies of Israel during the civil war.
The Halifee restaurant in the Dahieh neighborhood is considered a popular dining place for Hezbollah followers; only two blocks from the Haret Hreil Hussineyeh mosque, whose senior cleric is Hezbollah religious leader Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah. Israeli bombers, during the July 2006 war, leveled the cleric's home, as well as part of the surrounding area. The restaurant crowds with people enjoying the food, enjoying the elegant surroundings, enjoying the evening. There is no indication of a particular type of person; no sign of a distinctive Hezbollah character.
La Terrase is a restaurant located on Hadi Nasrallah, a street, named after leader Hasan Nassrallah's deceased son. Huge craters from Israeli bombing remain in the adjacent neighborhood. Enter la Terrase and first have a choice of a coffee bar. Go deeper and there is a cafeteria. Further in is a small restaurant. Climb the stairs and enter a huge restaurant surrounded by couches on which linger multitudes of young couples; drinking coffee, engaged in conversations and quiet embraces - not the ordinary media images of Hezbollah life.
Innocent Americans were killed on September 11, 2001, by Al-Qaeda terrorists who considered the World Trade Center to be imperialist land - the center of the U.S. establishment. Innocent Lebanese were killed on July 15, 2006, one day of many bombardments that contributed to the vast destruction of the Dahieh district by Israeli military who considered Dahieh to be Hezbollah land - the center of the Hezbollah establishment.
The U.S. and Hezbollah establishments still exist. Many innocents died in both places. The U.S. remembers the day 9/11 as a bitter memory. Lebanon had a mid-summer nightmare of smaller 9/11's; angry memories the residents of Dahieh will forever retain. The Western world rightfully memorializes America's tragedy but neglects Lebanon's equal tragedies.
It is that neglect which created Hezbollah, sustained Hezbollah, and made Hezbollah popular throughout the Arab world. Years of punishing emergencies in Lebanon — refugees from the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah's attachment to the Syrian strife, the 4 August 2020 explosion of ammonium nitrate stored at the Port of Beirut that caused at least 218 deaths, 7,000 injuries, $15 billion in property damage, and left an estimated 300,000 people homeless, followed by economic collapse have polarized the Lebanese and may have affected contemporary Hezbollah’s operations and reduced its acceptance by the Lebanese population.