From the Inside Out
“... in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie.”
—Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
The following is an account and analysis of a two-week visit to Lebanon in the spring of 2004. This visit included South Beirut and the Beqaa Valley, regions of the country with strong support for Hezbollah. In this text I will attempt to shine light on many of the ambiguities that exist in the United States about this organization and the roots of the most recent Israeli-Lebanese conflict. Hezbollah, the government of Lebanon, the government of Israel, and the government of the United States have engaged in a complex game that affects the daily lives of the people who inhabit this region. Mutual understanding is the key to any hope for peace and prosperity.
Part 1: A Trip to the Airport
In late spring, Virginia is very hot. And what was supposed to be a routine cab ride to Dulles Airport turned into a political discussion as hot as the weather was that day.
The cab showed up late. The eager driver helped me shove my bags into the trunk as the bass from Rasta music bounced from his speakers. Once inside, the cabbie, a Ghanaian immigrant, asked where I was headed. I replied, “To Dulles.” From there it was downhill. He was like the typical D.C.-area cabbie: overworked, bored, tired, and has a gripe. The gripe came out when he asked where I was headed. I replied “To Lebanon and Yemen.”
At this point his “upbeat” mood changed. “Lebanese — bad people for Africa,” he said. Surprised, I asked why. “They control everything in my country,” he replied. I said “Oh, really?” He went on, saying, “Yes, brother, please let me explain.” His explanation was as intriguing as his initial comments. He spoke of a story of exploitation.
As the myth goes, sometime in the 19th century an immigrant ship from Lebanon was supposedly bound for North America. A case of mutual misfortune begins here. According to the myth, the captain tricked the passengers in order to save time, cash, etc., and dropped them off in West Africa, proclaiming that they were somewhere in the Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. After having spent all their money on the trip, and after quickly realizing that they were not in the Americas, the Lebanese decided to set up camp there and dig out a life for themselves.
In reality this life included international trading, shipping, and financial services. In sub-Saharan Africa, the Lebanese control a good chunk of this part of the economy, and this is the reason for my cabbie’s resentment. “They do not obey our laws. They live in compounds. They exploit our women.” And so on. I asked him what he thought about what the Israelis have done to Lebanon in their various wars and he replied, “That is unfortunate…”
We finally arrived at the airport and said our good-byes. I told the cabbie that I’d have to see things for myself in order to make a judgment. With that he said “Good luck, man.”
Since the events of September 11, 2001, the paranoia of security officials who work in international air travel has been ever-increasing. The day I was traveling was no exception. Outside it was at least 95 degrees. Inside it was about 85. Dulles is designed as a European airport, with the terminal and the departure zones housed in different buildings. The main terminal is a 1970s-style monstrosity of glass and concrete. Inside, a security line snaked around the entire building.
If you think the temperature outside gets hot, the heat you get from the ticket agents as to why you are traveling to the Middle East is even hotter. “Why are you traveling to Beirut? Business? Pleasure? Who do you work for? May we please have your address?” After spending five minutes justifying myself, I was issued a boarding pass and headed to another wrap-around-the-building line in order to take my shoes off, get padded down, etc.
After approximately an hour and a half of standing in line, I was finally at my gate, awaiting transport to the plane in an airport bus for a short hop across the “pond” to the post-modern Charles De Gaulle airport in France.
Charles De Gaulle
La France — the name says it all. After crossing the Atlantic you can see the Dutch marvel of modern windmill technology clearly below. It is a visible lesson of what the U.S. could achieve if it wanted to. A bit further on you can note how industrial France really is, and how similar it looked to flying over some parts of the Midwest.
We arrived in the old terminal. I marveled at the futuristic, plastic-covered escalators, the automated walkways that lead to a concrete future that never arrived. If there is one way the French are like Americans, it’s that a common Frenchman will not go out of his way to try to speak any other foreign language. I quickly realized this after noticing the monolingual departure boards. I tried English and got, “Je ne comprends pas.” I then switched to Spanish — I figured since they are neighbors, maybe that would work — but I got the same response. Okay, so my rusty French would have to do, and finally I got a, “Oui, je comprends.”
After breaking the language barrier, I was on my way to the new terminal building. This building, another French post-modern masterpiece, resembles a dream of a cathedral with many square holes in the ceiling. It was also hot as hell in there. The interesting thing about some parts of urban France is that they are so much like America. Where else outside of D.C., Chicago, or New York City can you find homeless people camped out in the men’s room?
Dining at a fast food sandwich shop outside the departure zone was also worth noting. Franco-phone Africans in business suits were having some sort of power lunch. They offered me a drink, but I only had a few minutes to swallow my meal and head to the gate. Whatever conversation they were having seemed intense, and perhaps if I had had more time I would have joined in.
The gate was five minutes from the sandwich shop. I was greeted by a young French woman in a sunshine-yellow outfit, a get-up that could only work in France. I had to go through the obligatory shoe removal, and had to dodge conversations in French with Germans who did not speak English. The security was pretty straightforward, and not as bad as in the U.S. After a few minutes I was through and on my way.
Middle Eastern Airlines
Middle Eastern Airlines is located at the end of the terminal. It is Lebanon’s national airline. You can note a distinct difference in this area from the other departure areas. There were many women in traditional Muslim clothing, although this is not the norm in some parts of urban Lebanon. I later learned from my seatmate that the women were on their way to Jordan. As usual we had to wait for a bus. Here things began to get interesting.
The bus was late. France was just as hot as Virginia, and waiting outside on white concrete only made it hotter. Finally the bus arrived, but after leaving again, within a few minutes it stopped. French airport cops showed up and removed a young woman and her boyfriend dressed in the punk style. There was a big commotion on the bus for a few minutes and then we continued on our way. We arrived at the plane, but were not allowed to board. The air was off, and we roasted together for about half an hour. A French cop car finally showed up with the young punk woman, but without the boyfriend. I guess he was the one they were looking for…
After that the boarding began. The women dressed in traditional clothing were allowed on first. After that it was the usual seating by class. Once on the plane, class was all that I noticed. On Middle Eastern Airlines, everyone is first class. All the seats were large leather chairs, each slightly separated from the one next to it, with pop-up side video screens. Champagne, orange juice, and fancy French cheeses were offered to everyone.
I was on my way to a place that the U.S. media and government have portrayed in a negative way. So often during the past 25 years we have heard stories of terrorists and anti-Americanism coming from Lebanon, and we have asked the persistent question: “Why do they hate us?” I was about to find out for myself.
Beirut International Airport
The Beirut International Airport is as modern as any U.S. airport. It can be compared in size and layout to the remodeled Midway Airport in Chicago. The eerie thing was that it was nearly empty. Maybe I arrived during a slow day, or maybe Beirut was still trying to get its reputation back as the Paris of the Middle East.
From this point on in my story, I’ll have to keep the names of certain individuals and specific place names ambiguous in order to protect my identity and those of the people who aided me. After disembarking, my bags were picked up by my security detail. They gave me a real shakedown in order to make sure I was who I said I was. I was shuffled into an armored Suburban, and the voyage began.
A Quick Drive Through Beirut and the Mission
Lebanon has suffered from incomprehensible disasters: the Lebanese Civil War from approximately the mid-1970s to approximately 1990, and continued Israeli occupations and attacks from 1982 until 2006. At the time when I arrived, Lebanon was perhaps at the height of its recovery from 31 years of near-continual violence. Bullet-hole-marked underpasses, fire-scorched roadways and tunnels, and abandoned swimming pools marked the way from the old to the new — and completely different — Lebanon: shining apartment complexes, all manner of commercial enterprises, McDonalds and other American-style fast food restaurants, convention centers, new churches and mosques, and the brilliant Beirut coast.
The Mission overlooks the former U.S. Embassy bombed by supposedly Hezbollah-backed militias in retaliation for U.S. offshore bombing of Hezbollah positions and the U.S. backing of pro-Israeli factions in the Lebanese Civil War. Given that, it was a weird place. It did not appear to be truly hunkered down with the exception of the fact that once you were in, you could not leave without a security detail and a plan. And if you work for the wrong agency, forget about ever leaving that place until your tour is up. I met a few people who had been there for more than two years without leaving, living some sort of Phillip K. Dick version of life within the compound, like rats in a cage. Dark visions of Logan’s Run come to mind there.
I was assigned a nice suite. I had an incredible view of the Mediterranean Sea. The air was warm and humid, very different from the stifling Virginia heat mixed with auto exhaust, farm pollution, concrete, and pollen which I had left behind. Downstairs there was an honor bar/hangout room. A wall-sized projection TV pumped in Armed Forces Network and FOX TV 24/7. The honor bar was decorated with Hezbollah flags, hats, and T-shirts. You had to order food through the drivers off of menus from various local take-out restaurants. Everyone gathered in this room around sunset to do a group order. I must say, you can get a wider variety of high-quality international food in Beirut than you can get in most major U.S. cities. Sometimes the drivers would rip you off between the exchange rate of U.S. dollars and Lebanese pounds. So if we came up a little short, we just considered it a tip…
Sunrise and sunset are magical here. The sea looks like a field of stars. This is due to the incredible amount of sea traffic that the various ports in Lebanon handle. This included fishing vessels, merchant vessels, grain trade, oil trade, and just people having fun in the sea; all put together, it looked like a thousand stars on what the ancients would have called Poseidon’s realm. Perhaps this shipping and seafaring tradition arises from Lebanon’s ancient past as the nation of Phoenicia, a maritime trading culture whose history stretches to before the Christian Bible, and whose roots are described in that same text. Qana, the site of two massacres orchestrated by the Israeli Defense Forces (in 1996 and 2006) is the same site where Jesus turned water into wine during a wedding ceremony. From the Bronze through the Iron Ages, the cities of Tyre, Tripoli, and the port Byblos have all been fought over by Jews, Romans, Greeks, Phoenicians, Syrians, crusaders, and jihadists.
I met my translator, a Lebanese woman of Ghanaian descent with the majority of her family still living in Ghana. She spoke English, French, and Arabic fluently without an accent. When I first met her she told me: “Lebanese respect opulence.” I guess she was preparing me for what I was about to see.
South Beirut is a supposed “Hezbollah stronghold.” According to the 2003 U.S. State Department publication Patterns of Global Terrorism, Hezbollah is classified as a terrorist organization. However, driving through the area, you would never know. Modern apartment complexes line the streets and shops, boutiques, and prosperous markets are common. It could be any other modern city in any other part of the world outside of the United States.
Hezbollah’s distinct yellow and green banners are also seen in the area. Posters of their secretary general, Sayyid Sheik Hassan Nassrallah, are common. Hezbollah officials can be seen raising collections in the street much like Shriners or the rotary club do in the U.S. I guess what really bothers the Bush administration is how public and open support for Hezbollah is here. The feelings aren’t limited to Hezbollah — they extend to any Middle Eastern leaders that the U.S. consider terrorists, or part of the “Axis of Evil.”
In shops, markets, and homes, everyone has some sort of cause and their favorite heroes to display and admire. You can see posters of Sheik Hassan Nassrallah, Syrian president Assad, former PLO leader Yassar Arafat, Mahdi Army leader Muqtada al-Sadar of Iraq, the Ayatollah Khomeni of Iran, the current Ayatollahs of Iran, the president of Iran, and the assassinated president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat. To the great distress of the U.S., you will not see any posters of George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, an American flag, or any other tribute to the United States. Bill Clinton is remembered with fondness and many believe him to be a good friend; however, given the current situation and U.S. ideology toward the Middle East, sentiments toward America are of course quite different today.
A Grain Mill
Lebanon has many trade contacts. These often go all the way back to ancient times. The particular mill that I visited had such ties. The majority of their grain came from the Black Sea trade. The mill’s capacity was over 500,000 metric tons. It was a primary producer of wheat flour, animal feed, and various other grain products. As I was welcomed by the various runners into the plant, it seemed quite similar to a mill one might see in the American Midwest. I was ushered into an office that seemed like an Italian or French designer’s dream from the late 1980s. Photographs and paintings of past patriarchs lined the wall. The difference between this mill and its U.S. counterparts is that it is a family owned business with over 300 years of history. The U.S. counterpart would be run by a corporation, or be part of a corporation even if it was family owned.
I met the current owner and his son, who planned on taking over the business after his father’s death. They explained the old way of storing grain — in underground silos — and how in the 19th century they began to move towards enclosed, above-ground silos. They told me a story of how silver and other goods were traded for grain between the Black Sea region and the Middle East. They also spoke of their interest in U.S. wheat. While not essential, they were willing to take a look at it, to give it a “test drive.” Make no mistake, the Black Sea grain market is a hardy rival for the U.S. Midwest grain market. The silos were locally made. There was grinding and selection equipment made in Hungary and Ukraine of quality that could rival any U.S. brand. The strength of the Black Sea market lies not only in quality and price but also in trust, confidence, and trading relationships that have been in place for centuries.
To compete with this, the U.S. can only go on goodwill — and the U.S. has a goodwill deficit in this area of the world. I was told of the American connection to this mill. One of their old motors was once a U.S. naval motor, acquired during one of the decades of conflict that this country has endured. They still keep it, and now use it as a backup generator. After a feast thrown in my honor, I left. I wished I could have stayed longer to learn more about the intricate past of this family, but other visits were pending.
As of August 2006 this mill no longer exists. It was destroyed by the Israeli Defense Forces.
For those former attendees of Catholic high schools, you may find it comforting to know that you can find De La Salle in Lebanon. I visited this fine institution, which forms young men for the world ahead of them. This school held up the mission created by Jean Baptist De La Salle, the 17th century founder of the various De La Salle institutes worldwide, who said, “Above all, let your charity and zeal show how you love the Church. Your work is for the Church, which is the body of Christ.”
There is no racial or religious discrimination at this school. De La Salle teaches Christians, Druze, and Muslims. All are equal, and all are at peace. The only requirements are a will to work for your fellow man and the ability to speak in a universal language of Lebanon, which, in this case, is French.
I met the master of the school, a thin monk. He did not speak English or Arabic. My translator did not speak French. Again, I used my once-rusty French — which by this time was becoming quite good again — to communicate. I told him that I once attended one of his schools in the U.S. and shared how it changed me. From this a rapport began. The monk explained their mission, discussed the Lebanese Civil War, and spoke of how important the youth of the country were.
I was taken to a bakery where the youth of De La Salle were preparing school lunches for the children of less fortunate institutions. I was taken to a woodworking shop where the students were building desks and chairs not only for less fortunate schools, but also for themselves. I sat in on history, chemistry, and social studies classes. On the day I arrived there was also a science fair. One young man had a project showing how to improve water filtration in a sanitary plant. Another had pet robots. Still another was experimenting with motion detectors to prevent burglary in a model bank.
I left De La Salle with a sense of nostalgia for my own time at such a school, and pride in the Lebanese youth. These young men — acting outside of politics and faith — were united, working together for a better future.
The Beqaa Valley
The Beqaa Valley lies in the east of Lebanon near the Syrian border. It is an important agricultural region whose rich, reddish soil hosts vineyards, pastures, and tobacco farms. It is also one of the heartlands of Hezbollah.
My entrance into the Beqaa Valley was probably as dramatic as my entrance into the country as a whole. The security team had been preparing for the event for a couple of days. Our day started at dawn. My detail had expanded, and they were bringing special equipment — the type used in a standoff situation. We left the Mission by car and headed toward the valley on the Beirut-Damascus Road. Along the way we picked up additional security and changed decoy vehicles. The additional security was made up of regular Lebanese Army personnel. As we approached, the switchovers became more frequent. The drivers had no regard for traffic, and drove like they would literally run anyone that got in their way off the road. As the city and suburbs slowly transitioned into a rural landscape, we again began to pick up different security crews, and I also began to notice security staked out on the small hills that line parts of the road. Given all this, I began to truly consider what was outside the city.
From the car I could see some of the Syrian migrant farm workers’ tents, followed by the various hamlets that dot the countryside. These provoked my translator to repeat, “We respect opulence.” There were well-kept, three- to four-story white stone covered buildings that housed entire extended families; many of these homes were under construction. The welcome gates in some of these hamlets displayed the distinctive yellow and green banners of Hezbollah, posters of their leader, and posters of martyrs. One of the security officials explained to me that many of these men died fighting against the Israeli occupation in 2000, and some were held in jail in Israel.
I decided to lose my tie and jacket — my translator was not helpful on what level of dress would be appropriate when meeting the residents of this area.
Our first stop was a vineyard. The translator explained to me how it was rebuilt with funds from a U.S. government development program and water from an irrigation system built with World Bank funding. It was a medium-sized operation. The house appeared prosperous, and after meeting the son, I realized that everyone in the family not only spoke English without an accent, but had grown up in Canada and held Canadian passports. They explained that they were refugees during Lebanon’s civil war, and after the 2000 Israeli occupation ended, they decided to come back home. Using what they earned in Canada mixed with relief loans and grants, they were able to construct this operation. They produced wine and grapes. The semi-arid and sunny days mixed with cool evenings produce some fine wine. I made notes for my reports as the security detail returned to its elaborate convoy.
My second stop was a hotel in the middle of nowhere. Not a single house or settlement could be seen for miles except for this structure. Upon entrance I discovered that this place was meant to be a four-star hotel, but we were there during the slow season. There were marble floors, gold trimming, leather furniture, and a swimming pool. Many people from the cities vacation in the countryside, visiting relatives to escape the heat and humidity of the coastal summer. It was here that I would meet a humanitarian organization that worked directly with people located in areas that strongly support Hezbollah.
We drove further down the road and eventually were stopped by well-built bearded men. There was an argument with the security detail. The men did not want our convoy to continue down the road. They wanted to meet me without the convoy. I was told that they were upset over an irrigation system gone wrong and that they would only speak with me about it. I said, “Why not?” My humanitarian organization guide was petrified. She said these men were Hezbollah, and she didn’t want to go to their farm without the convoy.
I pulled rank and asked the security detail if we could go on foot. After a few minutes they agreed. They quickly deployed into strategic positions. Two others flanked me. I walked down the dusty road and was met by a group of well-built bearded men in sandals. Their rough farmers’ hands and sunburned faces told of their trade. I asked the translator to tell them that I was happy to meet them and that I would walk with them to look at their farm. The men responded with a smile and, with much eagerness, gave a long formal introduction and stated that they were very happy to have me walk to see their farm. Once there, I understood their distress. The cement mix used in the irrigation system was flawed, and the aqueduct was failing. I promised them that it would be repaired. After a few crop inspections, it was time to go. The farmers begged me to stay for the evening, but of course my security detail whisked me out as soon as the meeting ended.
We returned to the city and I had my last good-byes with locals and the poor souls trapped in the Mission. There was a rowdy party that night for new arrivals. Given the situation of the staff there, when they let loose, they really let loose. I stayed up all night, and spent some time staring at the star-like effect of the fishing boats floating on the waves.
In the morning I was taken to the airport by my security detail. They waited with me until the plane arrived. I was on my way to Yemen. One of the security personnel said, “If you liked Lebanon, you’re going to love Yemen.” With that I boarded and was on my way, but that is another story.
The Party of God
“… I have no interest in diplomacy for the sake of returning Lebanon and Israel to the status quo. I think it would be a mistake. What we’re seeing here, in a sense, is the growing — the birth pangs of a new Middle East, and whatever we do, we have to be certain that we’re pushing forward to the new Middle East, not going back to the old one. “
—U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
July 21, 2006
The roots of Hezbollah (“The Party of God”) and the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese War are found in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. At the end of the war, Israel occupied the Palestinian areas of Sinai, Gaza, and the West Bank. This occupation directly affected Lebanon. Palestinian militants realized that conventional state-controlled Arab armies were not sufficient to confront Israel. Encouraged by Syria, Palestinian militants began to infiltrate Lebanon and wage a guerilla war against Israel in the hope of establishing a Palestinian state. During this time period they used Jordan as their main operational base. They were eventually expelled by King Hussein of Jordan in order to prevent the refugee and militant community from setting up a state within a state. This community then flocked to neighboring Lebanon. Here is where the current misfortunes of Lebanon began.
The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) continued its guerilla war against Israel from within Lebanon and in the end became a state within a state. This prompted Israel to strike directly at Lebanon. This led to retaliation from Syrian-backed Islamic Groups and the PLO. These groups eventually fought between each other as well as against Christian militias backed by Israel. The result of this was the Lebanese Civil War and the collapse of the Lebanese government in 1976. The collapse of the government also meant the fracturing of the Lebanese Army along ethnic lines, with various factions backed by Israel, Syria, and, indirectly, by the United States. In 1982 Syria and Israel directly intervened in an attempt to resolve the conflict according to their own interests. The invasions lead to the exile of the PLO leadership to Tunisia. The resulting Israeli occupation gave rise to Hezbollah.
Lebanon has a complex political system based on the ethnic makeup of the population. According to the 1943 Lebanese constitution, also known as the National Pact, Lebanon’s parliament consists of a ratio of 6:5 based on the ethnic makeup of the country at the time of the constitution’s writing. This means that the parliament should be made up of six Christian representatives for every five Muslim representatives. The Pact also dictated that the president of the nation would be a Maronite Christian, the Speaker of the Parliament would be a Shiite Muslim, and the Prime Minister would be a Sunni Muslim. This ratio was also put in place throughout the entire government body. 1
Eventually the demographics of Lebanon began to change. The urban Christians became more affluent. As this affluence grew, it also affected the agricultural regions of the Beqaa Valley and Southern Lebanon. This caused an increase in demand for agricultural goods, which in turn caused a shift in income and — most importantly — population. The Shiite population of these regions increased. Although there was an income shift in favor of both populations, the economic levels of the urban Christians were beyond those of the rural Shiites.
Given the political under-representation of the Shiites, their communities became more politically and socially active. Eventually they found leadership under an Iranian-trained cleric and lawyer named Musa al-Sadar. Musa al-Sadar used his abilities as a natural leader as well as his training as a lawyer and cleric to unite the Shiite community under traditional Shiite values and institutions. Eventually he became the chairman of the Shiite Higher Council and advocated economic and political empowerment of the Shiite community. During the 1978 Israeli attempt to establish a “buffer zone” between itself and Lebanon, Musa al-Sadar and several aides accepted an official visit to Libya. They were never seen or heard from again. 2
Musa al-Sadar’s legacy was the creation of an armed militia group. Called the Legions of the Lebanese Resistance, or AMAL (which means hope in Arabic), it was meant to be an auxiliary of the Lebanese Army. It eventually became another ethnic faction amongst the many already embroiled in Lebanon’s bitter civil war. Radical members of this group broke off and formed Hezbollah.
The Iranian and Syrian Connection and the Consolidation of Hezbollah
The leaders of the young Hezbollah did not agree with the policy of Shiite integration into the Lebanese political and economic system. They sought a military solution to Israel’s repeated invasions and occupations. The roots of Hezbollah’s military proficiency arise from the Syrian-authorized arrival of approximately 1,000 members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the Beqaa Valley. Along with the Revolutionary Guard arrived radical ideas, militia training, and funds, all of which Syria and Iran hoped would mold Hezbollah into a force for their own interests. 3
In reality Hezbollah was inspired by the leader of the Iraqi Shiite Dawa Party, Baqir al-Sadar, who was executed by Saddam Hussein for opposing his 1980 war against Iran. The Dawa party advocated the formation of a universal Islamic state to be brought about by “true Muslims” taking power from regimes controlled by or influenced by the West. Their second source of inspiration was the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, who spearheaded the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979. With these two spiritual leaders as inspiration, the base of Hezbollah’s philosophy became the establishment of an Islamic state in Lebanon.
During the period during which Hezbollah was under the tutelage of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the same Iranian funding also provided for social services. Schools, hospitals, community centers, and aid to the poor were given to the Shiite population. This became the basis of Hezbollah’s humanitarian missions. As time progressed, Hezbollah was able to recruit members from the poor areas of South Beirut. Many internally displaced Lebanese lived in these areas due to the civil war and Israeli military incursions. Their encouragement of and assistance to this population gave Hezbollah widespread support within their target communities.
Finally Hezbollah expanded to Southern Lebanon. It proved itself militarily with successful attacks against U.S. and French targets in Beirut in 1983 and guerilla and suicide attacks against the Israeli occupation in Southern Lebanon. Along with its officially christened militia wing, the Islamic Resistance, Hezbollah brought with it Iranian funding for its social services network. Again this earned them respect amongst the local communities. Hezbollah dug in, supported the local populations, and carried out a guerrilla campaign against the Israeli occupation. Eventually Hezbollah’s campaign was credited with the withdrawal of Israel from Lebanon in 2000.
Contrary to their popular portrayal by the U.S. media, Hezbollah is no longer controlled or financed by Iran. Given Hezbollah’s ideological aim to establish an Islamic state in Lebanon, it is not surprising that Iran provides spiritual support to the organization. But while the media and the president of the United States are convinced that Syria and Iran arm Hezbollah, the truth is unknown. Some believe their weapons come from Iran via Syria. Others believe they come from Russia via Syria. Still others believe that Hezbollah has its own arms industry spread throughout the country in factories and workshops with dual purposes. The simple fact is that this is one of their most tightly guarded secrets, and perhaps the truth will never be known.
Today Hezbollah is a complex social, political, and military organization that some have tried to chart through its various press releases. 4
The highest decision making branch of Hezbollah is the Supreme Council, or Shura. The Shura consists of 17 members who are leaders within the clergy, security, and paramilitary areas of the organization. Its role is to make strategic decisions concerning legislation; executive, judicial, and political policy; and military affairs. All decisions are made by a majority vote. It is true that there is a provision reserving a tie-breaking vote for the Supreme Ayatollah of Iran, but to my knowledge this vote has never been needed, and is seen as largely symbolic — a vestige of the organization’s founding.
The administration and implementation of the Shura’s decisions are carried out by representatives from the party’s administrative districts as well as the secretary general and his deputy. This position is currently held by the now internationally known Sayyid Sheik Nassrallah. The four administrative districts are Beirut, the Beqaa Valley, South Beirut, and Southern Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s military wing has two parts. The first is called the Islamic Resistance. It is similar to the U.S. military reserve. Highly trained militiamen lead normal civilian lives and are called upon only when the need arises. During the 2006 war, one of Israel’s justifications for its strikes against civilian populations and infrastructure was to eliminate these “ghost soldiers.” These soldiers may also be called upon to carry out suicide operations or “martyrdom attacks.” The second division is known as the Islamic Holy War. Not much is known about this group, but it is assumed that their secrecy is meant to conceal their capabilities. Both of these forces are controlled by the Shura.
As an organization with obvious checks and balances, Hezbollah also has a supervisory committee that oversees and coordinates the work of other committees. This committee also oversees security issues, social services, religious affairs, and administrative finances. They are credited with the success of Hezbollah’s massive social service network, which outstrips what the government of Lebanon and international relief organizations have been able to achieve.
While Hezbollah adheres to its ideological goal of establishing an Islamic state in Lebanon, its actual domestic policies are more pragmatic. It can be likened to a political party with a military wing, as sophisticated as any Western political party. In Lebanon it is widely admired for its social work, and has obtained several cabinet-level positions through democratic elections.
The View of Hezbollah from Israel and the United States
Hezbollah comes into conflict with Israel because of its past guerilla campaigns against the occupation and retaliatory attacks and kidnappings in response to Israeli incursions and kidnappings of Lebanese civilians. Hezbollah acknowledges the existence of Israel; however, it does not acknowledge its right to exist. Israel does not acknowledge Hezbollah as a political party. To them it is a terrorist organization; all those that receive support from or give support to Hezbollah are complicit, and therefore are also terrorists. This policy was obvious in the 2006 war.
Hezbollah struck a deadly blow to the United States in Lebanon with the bombing of the Marine barracks and the U.S. Mission in the 1980s. Hezbollah claims these attacks were in retaliation for a U.S. naval bombardment of its positions in Beirut. It is therefore considered a terrorist organization by the United States. Hezbollah follows the Middle Eastern view of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which claims that the U.S. and Israel are terrorist states waging a war against Islam and conducting genocide against the Palestinian people. While Hezbollah despises U.S. policy and ideology in the Middle East, it does respect America’s technological accomplishments and higher educational facilities. Many members of the movement are trained in the U.S., then returning to Lebanon to diffuse the knowledge they have obtained.
Hezbollah considers the United States the source of all evil in the Middle East due to its military and financial support of Israel and its double standard of demanding the enforcement of U.N. Security Council resolutions in favor of Israel while ignoring the enforcement of resolutions against Israel. Herein lays a major dispute that became a rallying cry during the recent conflict.
The Sheba Farms
The Sheba Farms area is a highly productive agricultural region on the Syrian-Lebanese border slightly west of the Golan Heights. It begins at a point on Mount Hermon and runs southwest to other agricultural areas on the shared borders of Israel, Syria, and Lebanon. Home to about 14 farms and with a population of about 1,200, Sheba Farms is a highly disputed area.
The dispute began with U.N. Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) 242 and 338, which ended the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The war ended with the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights in Syria and an attempt to enforce the resolutions. The resolutions called for an exchange of “land for peace.” Lebanon did not participate in this war; however, Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978 in an attempt to establish a buffer zone between itself and Lebanon. The invasion resulted in the Israeli occupation of the Sheba Farms. Five days after the invasion, UNSCR 425 was issued, calling for an unconditional and unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon by Israel. Israel withdrew but continued to occupy the Sheba Farms, claiming that the area was part of the Golan Heights. Since Israel has no formal peace treaty with Syria, it continues to occupy the Golan Heights and thus claims that a state of war still exists.
These claims mean that in regard to Syria, Israel does not need to comply with UNSCR 242 and 338. Israel ignores Lebanon’s claims on the Sheba Farms and maintains that they are a part of Syria. They refer to border lines and adjustments to the Palestinian, Lebanese, and Syrian borders between 1923 and 1949. Given the ambiguity of these borders, Israel claims that the farms are a part of Syria, ignoring the fact that the farms were under Lebanese jurisdiction before the 1978 war. Israel has used the chaos of the Lebanese Civil War to state that Lebanon did not control the southern part of its own country. Obviously Lebanon wants UNSCR 425 enforced, and claims that it is not party to UNSCR 242 and 338, since it did not participate in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. An added dimension to this issue is, of course, Syria, which would very much like to see this valuable piece of real estate on their side of the border.
How valuable are the Sheba Farms? Since the occupation, Israel has established four settlements there. It has confiscated vineyards and distributed them to wineries set up by the settlers, with the export market being Israel itself. Given the area’s geography, Israel has also established military listening and observation posts. They have also constructed a ski resort and tourist hotels. Water is diverted from the Sheba Farms area to Israel, and in the 1980s tons of topsoil were transported from Sheba Farms to Israel. It is estimated that the Sheba Farms area earns several billion dollars per year from tourism and agriculture. The value of the water is of course priceless.5 During the 2006 war Sheba Farms became a rallying cry for both the government of Lebanon and Hezbollah.
The 2006 Israeli-Lebanese War
Reporter: “Does it concern you that the Beirut Airport has been bombed and do you see a risk of this triggering a wider war?”
President Bush: “I thought you were going to ask me about the pig.”
—Comments of U.S. President George W. Bush at a press conference in Strasburg, Germany, July 13, 2006
On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah authorized its guerrillas to conduct a cross-border incursion into Israel. The operation was meant to capture two Israeli soldiers in order to realize a prisoner exchange. Such operations have been successful in the past. In 1985 Israel released 1,150 Palestinian and Arab prisoners in exchange for three Israeli soldiers. In 2004 Israel released 430 prisoners in exchange for the bodies of three Israeli soldiers killed during the 2000 Israeli occupation of Lebanon and one kidnapped Israeli businessman.6 During this recent operation Hezbollah hoped for the release of approximately 6,200 prisoners, including several sheepherders and fishermen recently abducted by Israel inside of Lebanon. The operation resulted in the death of eight Israeli soldiers and the kidnapping of two. What was unexpected was Israel’s response.
Empowered by its “no negotiations with terrorists” doctrine and the Bush administration’s global war on terror, Israel unleashed its arsenal. Contrary to the story as it was portrayed in the mainstream U.S. media, the Israeli offensive began almost immediately with armored incursions into southern Lebanon. Initially Hezbollah used its katusha rockets to strike at Israeli forces inside of Lebanon, but as the war intensified, with attacks on civilian centers inside the country, Hezbollah started to target the State of Israel. The katusha is a short- to medium-range rocket with a basic guidance system (i.e., it will fly in the direction you fire it) and has a high-explosive warhead. While the Israeli government has the infrastructure to protect its civilian population from bombardments — shelters, sirens, etc. — Lebanon does not. Given this and the extremely precise, high-explosive munitions used by Israel, the Lebanese civilian population suffered greatly.
Israel bombarded southern Lebanon daily with extremely precise artillery and air strikes. Air strikes — both manned and un-manned — and naval strikes bombarded the Lebanese capital of Beirut. One of the most striking incidents at the outset of the war was the Israeli bombardment of the Beirut International Airport, including its power station and its fuel bunker. The destruction of the fuel bunker caused an oil spill that now spreads from Lebanon to Cyprus that has coated the bottom of the Lebanese coast, thus crippling Lebanon’s fishing industry for years to come. Hezbollah struck back at the naval bombardment by firing an anti-ship missile at an Israeli destroyer, setting it afire, and forcing it to withdraw. On the same day, a Hezbollah anti-aircraft missile destroyed an Israeli F-16 jet.
The government of Lebanon was told by the government of Israel that if it attempted to intervene, it would face its own demise. This warning was given as Israel systematically dismantled the civilian infrastructure of Lebanon, including over 80% of Lebanese bridges, major roads, grain silos, hospitals, construction companies, food storage facilities, supermarkets, cement factories, water storage and treatment plants, television and radio stations, sea ports, fishing fleets, schools, museums and apartment complexes and private residences.
Some believe that Israel was adopting the same strategy that NATO applied during its bombing campaign in Serbia during the Kosovo Conflict — the Israeli prime minister claimed moral equivalence and referenced that conflict in public statement. The logic behind NATO’s strategy during the Kosovo conflict was to bring the Serbian government to its knees and cause a civilian uprising against it. In Lebanon the hoped-for effect was a popular uprising against Hezbollah. This never happened.
Even though under siege, and with their hands essentially tied by the threat of Israeli destruction of their state, the Lebanese prime minister and president openly supported Hezbollah and demanded a ceasefire and international intervention in order to end the conflict. Their calls fell upon deaf ears: the United States, the United Kingdom, and UN Ambassador John Bolton encouraged Israel to continue its offensive. The reason for this, in the context of the global war on terror, was a desire to show Iran and Syria that if they didn’t “play ball,” they could be next. The U.S. was especially keen to see Hezbollah destroyed, partly in revenge for its attacks in the 1980s and partly in order to teach Iran a lesson by destroying a party that was fostered by them.
When Israel began its open ground invasion of southern Lebanon, the mood of the Lebanese government changed. Besides openly supporting Hezbollah, they also began to state that Hezbollah would never cease its katusha attacks until Israel released Lebanese prisoners and withdrew from the Sheba Farms area. The Lebanese defense minister warned that if the Israeli army openly crossed the Litani River, the Lebanese army would enter into the conflict. The Lebanese military’s airfields, barracks, communication systems, and armored vehicles were already being targeted by Israeli bombing. It is one of the wonders of this war that the Lebanese army did not retaliate. Many speculate that they held back because their greatest fear is the collapse of the central government and a return to civil war. This was perhaps the reason why the Lebanese government and population placed its hopes in Hezbollah’s defense of the country.
Israel’s miscalculation in this war was the ground invasion of Lebanon. Any traditional army should know better than to use linear military tactics and armor against a guerrilla force in its own territory. The bombardment of Lebanon was also a miscalculation on Israel’s part. The bombardment created the type of combat conditions that Hezbollah was born, raised, and trained in: rubble. Israel walked into Hezbollah’s web and quickly realized that this was not the same force they had met during the 1980s.
Hezbollah’s primary weapon is an Iranian or Russian version of the U.S. Hellfire anti-tank missile. It is a wire-guided weapon that uses high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) munitions. Hezbollah had both jeep-mounted and human-portable units. These weapons destroyed and/or permanently disabled 17 Israeli Merkava tanks and disabled dozens of others. The destruction of these tanks is very significant. The Merkava is considered one of the world’s best battle tanks, and – as with the U.S. belief in the invincibility of its M-1 series of tanks — this invincibility was questioned. The majority of Israel’s more than 120 battle deaths were due to attacks on Israeli armor. Perhaps this statement made by a young Israeli soldier via the Israeli Broadcasting Authority during the opening days of the ground conflict sums up Israel’s surprise: “They are a real army … They have command, coordination, and logistics.”
In the early days of the ground battles on the Hezbollah stronghold of Bint Jbeil in southern Lebanon, the town passed repeatedly between Hezbollah and Israel, with Israel abandoning its operations there near the end of the war. This battle became a rallying cry throughout the Arab world and left the U.S. administration baffled by a pro-Hezbollah rally in Baghdad that drew thousands.
Convinced that Hezbollah was using civilian vehicles and evacuation convoys as a logistical tool, Israel turned its air power toward these targets. Nobody was spared. Israel struck ambulances, refugee vehicles, international relief vehicles, and, in a bizarre twist, dropped a bomb through a red cross painted on top of a Lebanese Red Cross ambulance. Was Hezbollah using these convoys to mask its movements? Maybe yes, maybe no. The truth is we will never know. The dead don’t speak.
As international public outrage rose, the U.S. media painted this conflict as a battle between “good and evil” and a “necessary step to build a new Middle East”. The Lebanese were portrayed as hostages held by the terrorist forces of Hezbollah. In a strange value-of-life equation, the American media seemed to suggest that the more than 40 Israeli civilians killed by katusha rockets were more significant than the more than 1,600 Lebanese civilian deaths (of which a third were children). It was as if Israel was given carte blanche to pursue its war with extreme prejudice. This included the bombing of a UN peacekeeping outpost and civilians in the village of Qana.
After 34 days, and with a ceasefire forced upon both sides, the battles ended. In the days before the ceasefire, both Israel and Hezbollah made a show of strength. Israel dropped more cluster bombs on southern Lebanon than on any other previous day. These weapons, provided and financed by the U.S., contaminated civilian and agricultural areas with hundreds of thousands of bomblets that will take years to clean up. Hezbollah fired more katusha rockets on the final day than on any previous day in an attempt to send the message that the Israeli bombing campaign did not destroy their capabilities.
In the end the toll was grim for both sides. While the destruction on the Israeli side was minor, with the exception of widespread forest fires, the Israeli civilian population suffered a psychological blow from the repeated air sirens and the uncertainty of not knowing where the rockets would land next. Lebanon, on the other hand, lost nearly its entire civilian and commercial infrastructure, damage with a rebuilding price tag of over $200 billion. One quarter of the Lebanese population was displaced and left homeless without income. Farms have been rendered hazardous due to unexploded munitions and cluster bomblets.
In the end the death toll on the Israeli side was more than 120 soldiers as well as over 40 civilians. For Lebanon the count stands at more than 1,600 civilians and over 300 Hezbollah militiamen. The Lebanese civilian death toll is expected to rise as clearing and reconstruction advances.
The political toll for Israel included international outrage at the level of force used and a possible collapse of the current Israeli government due to a failure to meet its stated goals of destroying Hezbollah and liberating its captured soldiers. The political toll for Lebanon is mixed. Lebanon became more united than ever, and this conflict rallied the country’s various ethnic groups under the cause of the Shiite militia group and political party Hezbollah. Syria received a black eye in the opinion of prominent Lebanese politicians, who want no Syrian influence in their country, and for their mixed support of U.S. and Israeli policies on Lebanon.
The United States suffered a political toll as high as Israel in the Middle East. From the Rabat to Kuala Lumpur, Muslim religious and political leaders and their respective populations proclaimed that Hezbollah had won a significant victory over the U.S. and Israel, and that they will never follow the Bush administration’s prescription for a “new Middle East.” With bruised pride, U.S. President Bush stated that Hezbollah lost the war, and that any claims of victory were pure propaganda. Perhaps, but it is good propaganda for Hezbollah. Of all the parties involved, only Hezbollah won the political side of this conflict. Stronger and more popular than ever, Hezbollah has pledged $15,000 grants and a year’s worth of rent to families who lost their homes. They have also pledged their own funds to rebuild the devastated residential areas. These promises, combined with a Lebanese government grant of $30,000 to the displaced, should help the civilian population start to rebuild their lives.
Elections will be coming soon to Lebanon. If Hezbollah holds onto its popularity, who knows what may happen. Perhaps the Israeli Army will take another summer vacation in Lebanon in the near future….
1. Sami G. Hajjar. “Hizballah: Terrorism, National Liberation, or Menace?” August 2002, U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute.
2. Sami G. Hajjar. “Hizballah: Terrorism, National Liberation, or Menace?” August 2002, U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute.
3. A. Nizr Hamzeh. “Islamism in Lebanon: A Guide.” Middle East Review of International Affairs, Issue 3, September 1997.
4. A. Nizr Hamzeh. “Lebanon’s Hizbullah: From Islamic Revolution to Parliamentary Accommodation.” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1993.
5. “Israel diverting Lebanese and Golan waters through the Dhahran oil pipeline.” Abu Dhabi Al-Ittihad (Internet Edition), January 1, 2000.
6. Avi Hein. “Israel-Hizbollah Prisoner Exchange.” Jewish Virtual Library, January 29, 2004.
1. As Safir (Arabic Internet Edition), March 7, 2001.
2. Yammut Bassem. “The Strategic and Economic Significance of Shaba’a Farms.” Beirut As Safir (Arabic Internet Edition), March 7, 2001.
3. U.S. State Department. “Patterns of Global Terrorism.” 2003