The New York Times
A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israelby Thanassis Cambanis
Veteran Middle East correspondent Thanassis Cambanis offers the first detailed look at the surprising cross section of people willing to die for Hezbollah and its uncompromising agenda to remake/i>
While Hamas and Al Qaeda are certainly dangerous to Israel and the West, Hezbollah and its millions of foot soldiers are the premier force in the Middle East.
Veteran Middle East correspondent Thanassis Cambanis offers the first detailed look at the surprising cross section of people willing to die for Hezbollah and its uncompromising agenda to remake the map of the region and destroy Israel.
Part standing army, part political party, and part theological movement, Hezbollah is made up not just of unemployed young men but also middle-class engineers, merchants, even nurses. Hezbollah’s widespread popularity rests on its ability to offer its followers economic reform, affordable health care, dependable electricity, efficient courts, and safe streets, as well as victory over Israel. Also unique to the party is its powerful doctrine of self-improvement, which challenges its members to fight ignorance, make money, and engage in safe sex. Millions of demoralized Middle Easterners have gravitated toward these principles, swelling the ranks of what is at heart a radical, militant group. They span economic class, include both fanatics and casual believers, and are sworn to the apocalyptic beliefs of the "Party of God." With its promise of perpetual war, Hezbollah has ushered in a militant renaissance and inspired fighters in Gaza, the West Bank, Egypt, Iraq, and beyond. Whatever their differences, their hatred of Israel and the United States binds them together.
To understand Hezbollah is to understand the fighters and engineers, the women who raise the martyrs, the scouts who plant trees, and the nine-year-old girls who take the veil over the objections of their less militant fathers. Cambanis follows a few Hezbollah families through the ups and downs of the 2006 war with Israel and the continuing preparations for another conflict, letting us listen in to Hezbollah members’ intimate discussions at the kitchen table and on the battlefield. Cambanis’s reporting puts a human face on the Party of God, so we might understand the ideological and religious roots of today’s conflict. His riveting narrative provides an urgent and important exploration of militancy in the Middle East.
A PRIVILEGE TO DIE
The New York Times
“An indispensable guide to understanding the region’s most formidable extra-state actor. Cambanis skillfully pinpoints the reasons for Hezbollah’s political success. . . . In prose that is often eloquent yet earthy, indicative of scholarly erudition as well as a storyteller’s flair for capturing the complexities of human psychology, Cambanis describes the seemingly contradictory impulses he discovers.”
—The Christian Science Monitor
If there's anything to unite the Arab world, it's opposition to Israel. If there's a group to do that unifying, writers former Boston Globe Middle East bureau chief Cambanis, it's the much-feared Hezbollah, the Party of God.
Hezbollah, writes the author, makes for a complex, frightening enemy that has "put back into popular currency a notion that had lain in tatters since 1967: that Arab forces could do more than terrorize or harass Israel—they could defeat and destroy it. That promise of quick resolution, paradoxically, follows a long and patient process of outwaiting its Israeli foe, slowly building a unified, militant front and sniping at the edges, though unafraid to take on the full might of the Israeli Defense Forces, as in the short-lived but brutal Lebanon war of 2006. Centered in Lebanon but with ties to Iran and Syria, Hezbollah owes much of its success to its secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who, writes the author, "commands more popularity in the Middle East than any other leader." Nasrallah has taken his organization from the fringe to the center of regional politics, both as an army and as a political force, offering followers a "heady mix of religion, self-improvement, and self-defense that translated into a sustained wave of toxic and powerful militancy." That militancy is expressed in suicide bombings and other acts of terror, but Cambanis does not sensationalize. Such things are mere tactics, but if Hezbollah is on the whole less anti-Semitic than rival Arab groups, that does not lessen its irrevocable commitment to destroy Israel even as it is "willing to negotiate most other issues" in the interest of practical politics, a stance that gives it a veneer of respectability in the tumult of regional power struggles.
Hezbollah is a formidable presence that cannot be ignored, and Cambanis's book, a well-balanced blend of journalism, history and geopolitical primer, is a significant aid to understanding it.
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THE PARTY OF GOD
Hezbollah has captivated the Arab world with a radical new belief, decisively changing an entire region’s dynamics and paving the way to a long path of wars. Put simply, Hezbollah has convinced legions of common men and women that Israel can be defeated and destroyed—and not just in the distant future, but soon. With more success than any other Islamist group, Hezbollah has harnessed modern politics and warfare to mobilize millions of dedicated supporters and soft sympathizers under its banner of resistance against Israel. Theirs is not a quixotic quest for dignity, a symbolic but doomed fight for the sake of empowerment; Hezbollah’s militancy has had concrete consequences for Israel and has propagated a new wave of aggressive Islamist action. Hezbollah has achieved military success in nearly three decades of guerilla war against Israel, first expelling the Israel Defense Forces from the “security zone” they occupied in South Lebanon for nearly two decades, and then frustrating Israel’s objectives in the war it fought against Hezbollah in 2006. Now Hezbollah has the Islamic world’s ear, and is spreading a gospel of perpetual war. Hezbollah is persuading a growing swath of Arab society to follow its example: militarize fully and confront Israel at every opportunity. In 2006, Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and provoked a war that left Lebanon physically in shambles. But Hezbollah emerged euphoric. Its militia had thwarted Israel’s land advance, and the Jewish state failed to reach any of its declared war aims—the release of its captured soldiers, stopping Hezbollah from firing rockets, and dismantling Hezbollah’s militia along the border. Hezbollah moved from the backbenches to the center of power within the Lebanese government. And Hezbollah’s rise thwarted the United States’ carefully laid plans for a friendly, secular, liberal Lebanon securely at peace with Israel. Today Hezbollah preaches humility to its followers while acting anything but humble to expand its power and influence across the Islamic world.
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general and charismatic supreme leader of Hezbollah, commands more popularity in the Middle East than any other leader.1 Unusual among the region’s militants, he has frequently shown restraint and political savvy, but Nasrallah has encountered his greatest political success through confrontation. Speaking in November 2009 on the annual holiday that commemorates the “martyrs” of the Islamic Resistance, Nasrallah sounded like he was spoiling for another war with Israel:
I say we are ready. Here I vow again before the souls of the martyrs, which are alive and present, saying: O Barak, Ashkenazi, Netanyahu and Obama!2 Let the whole world listen. Send as many squads as you want: five, seven or the whole Israeli army. We will destroy them in our hills, valleys and mountains.
Well into another millennium, Nasrallah and Hezbollah have woven a new reality for their followers, built on ideology, identity, faith, and practice. Hezbollah has delivered tangible social gains for its followers, like the $400 million reconstruction of the onetime refugee slums of southern Beirut to be completed in 2010, replete with gleaming glass residential towers that resemble luxury hotels. It has won tactical military victories against Israel, unlike the other Middle Eastern regimes that ineffectually rail against Israel. As a growing movement with transnational appeal, Hezbollah has broken the crusty traditions of Arab politics to craft a big-tent party platform that speaks to people’s mundane aspirations: economic reform, affordable health care, round-the-clock electricity, efficient courts, and community policing. Most important of all, however, Hezbollah has shifted the norms of Middle Eastern politics with its fast-spreading ideology of perpetual war. Hezbollah has inculcated millions—including many beyond Lebanon’s borders—into its ideology of Islamic Resistance. The credo is catchy and thoroughly thought out; and it is coupled to an unusually effective program of militancy and mobilization. That recipe has put Hezbollah in the pilot’s seat in the Middle East, steering the region into a thicket of wars to come. And it has made Hezbollah dangerous not only in the short term, as a military threat to Israel and to the pragmatic, compromise-seeking Arabs in its neighborhood, but over the long term as the progenitor of an infectious ideology of violent confrontation against Israel and the United States, which is vilified as the ultimate backer of the Jewish State.
During six years of reporting in the Middle East I encountered no popular movement that rivaled Hezbollah as a militia or an ideological force. In Lebanon I met men and women prepared to die, or sacrifice their children, for Hezbollah’s program, but they defied the mold of dreary desperation that characterized other extremists. Educated middle-class types populated Hezbollah’s legions, professionals with alternatives and aspirations, who lived multidimensional lives not much different from those of my friends in America. They were engineers, teachers, merchants, landlords, drivers, construction workers; they had jobs and children. They weren’t broken miserable people, turning in their hopelessness to Hezbollah; they were willing actors who had come to embrace Hezbollah’s view of the world, a heady mix of religion, self-improvement, and self-defense that translated into a sustained wave of toxic and powerful militancy. I met mothers who grieved their dead children but encouraged their surviving brood to join Hezbollah’s militia; they differed from Palestinians I’d met in the confidence they projected. These Hezbollah mothers sometimes sounded sad, but never unhinged or cornered. Hezbollah’s followers were as notable for their discipline and restraint as for their willingness to die. Israel occupied about one-tenth of Lebanon’s territory from 1982 to 2000, a strip of South Lebanon that Israel euphemestically termed “the security zone.” When Israel left the occupied area under fire from Hezbollah in May 2000, it left behind thousands of collaborators, including men who had beaten and tortured Hezbollah fighters on behalf of the Israelis. Nasrallah ordered his followers to keep their hands off all collaborators, leaving their judgment to Lebanese courts. I met Hezbollah fighters who recalled years later how instead of meting out vigilante justice they cordoned off the collaborator villages and protected their erstwhile tormentors from harm—an act less of mercy than of political calculation, which ultimately gained Hezbollah more power than it ever before had possessed. Nasrallah’s personal charisma has played a major role in Hezbollah’s rise. He has run the party since 1992, steadily consolidating the fidelity of its inner ranks while expanding Hezbollah’s reach among soft supporters. A pudgy man with a handsome mouth, a mellifluous voice, and the black turban that signals direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed, Nasrallah has come of age along with the Islamist Party that he took over almost two decades ago when he was only thirty-one years old. His speeches alternate between humor and invective, steady exposition of Arab politics and appeals to gut anger, systematic analyses of Israeli policy, and racist hatred of Jews.
Under Nasrallah’s leadership, Hezbollah steadily has expanded its number of followers and its share of political power, in no large part because the Party of God is just as happy to use the tools of coercion as of persuasion. Within its primary target constituency of Lebanese Shia, Hezbollah ruthlessly quashes any serious threat to its monopoly on force and power. Hezbollah has thwarted any attempt to organize alternative Shia parties, either religious or secular. It has crushed as potential traitors individuals who publicly doubt whether Hezbollah’s militant approach best serves its supporters’ interests. The party tolerates free speech and political dissent only from weak actors, to forge the impression of openness. But Hezbollah will allow no competing organization to provide social services. It brooks no political challenges, accepting only one other Shia politial party, the Amal Movement, which has long been subsumed into Hezbollah’s ambit as a junior partner. Those who dare question Hezbollah’s policies or bona fides face the withering power of the party to ostracize and economically marginalize them. Those who challenge the party more forcefully, or are suspected of disloyalty, might disappear or end up imprisoned. Hezbollah’s constituency and its skeptical neighbors know that the hand extended in invitation easily turns into a fist. But Hezbollah has convinced many audiences to overlook or forgive its brutal side as an unavoidable consequence of war, highlighting instead the party’s humanitarian wing and ideas-based agenda.
Hezbollah’s ideology might seem incoherent were it not so successful; but the Party of God has been able to market its ideas effectively because success sells. Perpetual war has perpetuated the movement; Islamic Resistance has brought power to its adherents; and Hezbollah’s web of embedded institutions, including courts, schools, militias, and hospitals, has dramatically raised its community’s standard of living. So long as it continues to deliver, Hezbollah’s number of followers continues to grow. Roughly put, Hezbollah teaches a sort of Islamist prosperity agenda, a doctrine of militant empowerment. People must live with dignity, and that means taking the offensive on every level: against Israel, the regional military bugbear; against poverty; against immorality; and against ignorance. The opposite of powerlessness is power, Hezbollah teaches, and only strong people can better their lot. It’s a compelling gospel of self-improvement, and it easily translates into specific prescriptions for demoralized Middle Easterners, especially members of the long-downtrodden Shia sect of Islam. Hezbollah preaches strength through discipline. It steeps its membership in Islamic teachings about everything from safe sex and hygiene to family responsibilities and financial planning. Hezbollah encourages its constituents to work hard and seek more prosperous lives for their families, and teaches them that an individual’s power stems from his relationship to the ummah, or community. The more powerful the community, the better off its members. Millions have joined Hezbollah’s community, freely volunteering their time or donating their money to the Party of God, adopting its militia and bureaucracy as an extension of their own families.
The holy struggle against Israel weaves together these manifold ideological strands. Above all hangs the war against the Jewish State and, implicitly, its guarantors in the United States. Anger toward Israel unifies Hezbollah’s followers in the face of the internal strains and ideological contradictions that might otherwise weaken the movement. An almost primal and simple teaching informs and at times dwarfs all others: Resistance. It is difficult to contain a militant movement that includes not only fully indoctrinated Shia Islamists but soft sympathizers lured by identity politics and held in place by Hezbollah’s impressive network of social services. When it proves too difficult to hold this coalition together with Islamist teachings, Hezbollah can always invoke its trump card—the War Against Israel. Israel’s very existence amounts to a casus belli for many Hezbollah followers.
Nasrallah regularly reminds his millions of listeners across the Arab world that his “Axis of Resistance” has wrung more concessions from Israel by force than the group of pro-Western leaders that might be called the “Axis of Accommodation” has through decades of negotiation. As Nasrallah said in his November 2009 Martyrs Day speech:
Eighteen years of [Palestinian] negotiations resulted in failure, frustration, forfeiture, humiliation and the persistence of occupation. On the other hand, eighteen years of resistance in Lebanon [from 1982 to 2000] led to the liberation of Beirut, the Southern Suburbs, Mount Lebanon, Beqaa and the South from the Zionist occupation and the restoration of our dignity and esteem without anyone in the world begrudging us that. . . . God willing with our resistance, unity, cooperation and firmness and the moral blessings of the blood of martyrs, we will turn any threat into an opportunity.
Hezbollah’s followers have embraced the notion that it’s better to fight and die with dignity than live comfortably without it. And so they scorn the Arab governments that argue that it’s far better to avoid open war and instead live in an uncomfortable peace with Israel, like the regimes of Egypt and Jordan do, or even in awkward but nonviolent coexistence, as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia effectively does.
In taking the leadership of the region’s militant wave, Hezbollah has capitalized on diffuse anger about Israel’s policies toward Gaza and in the West Bank, including the growth of settlements. The failure of the Palestinian Authority to reach a settlement with Israel nearly twenty years after signing the Oslo Accords has weakened advocates of compromise while strengthening Hezbollah’s “resistance camp.” But Hezbollah also draws on a deep well of hatred of Jews, knowingly and cleverly intertwining it with the bubbling vein of anger at Israeli policy. Sensitive to international opinion, Hezbollah leaders speak pointedly about Israeli, rather than “Jewish,” policies in their speeches. Ever since an infamous speech in May 1998, Nasrallah has avoided anti-Semitic invective. On that occasion, he mourned the “historic catastrophe and tragic event” of the founding of “the state of the Zionist Jews, the descendants of apes and pigs.” Since 2000, his public language has been more measured. Nasrallah in his subsequent rhetoric has carefully observed that Hezbollah’s complaint was against “Zionist policy,” and not Jews in general or the religion of Judaism. At moments of high passion, however, his words drip with unmistakable hatred. In the May 1998 speech he derided the idea of coexistence, “life with the Zionist Jews as nonsense,” extolling instead “a reality in which every man, young and old, loves to blow himself up to tear apart the bodies of the invading, occupying Jews.” Even today, Nasrallah frequently refers back to the Prophet Mohammed’s battles against Jewish tribes and on occasion conflates “Jews” with Israeli policy.
Throughout the Arab world, many people use the words “Israeli” and “Jew” interchangeably when discussing the Middle East conflict. Hezbollah has fused a tradition of Islamic Resistance with a much older tradition of anti-Semitism. Many Hezbollah supporters I met professed to harbor no malice toward Jews, only toward the specific Israelis who had wronged them. Much like their leader Nasrallah, however, they often lapsed into racist generalities, a disturbing ambiguity that tainted Hezbollah.
In the modern Middle East, racist attitudes thrive even among populations that coexist peacefully, including Arabs and Jews living within Israel’s pre-1967 borders and between the region’s sometimes violently opposed sects and ethnicities (Kurds, Turkomen, Armenians, and Arabs; Shia and Sunni; Christians and Muslims). Many of Hezbollah’s followers express anti-Semitic sentiments, often without having ever met a Jew in their lives. Whether sincerely or not, the party has excised hatred of Jews from its official doctrine. In November 2009, Nasrallah unveiled Hezbollah’s new official manifesto, its first update since the “Open Letter” released in 1985. “Our problem with them is not that they are Jews,” Nasrallah said, reading from a document that he said had been debated for months by the party’s leaders. “Our problem with them is that they are occupiers who have usurped our land and sacred places.” 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.”
Although Hezbollah’s undercurrent of anti-Semitism prompts much distrust in Israel and the West, the Party of God if anything is less virulent in its expressions of anti-Semitism than other Middle Eastern Islamist movements. Anti-Semitism doesn’t distinguish Hezbollah. Hassan Nasrallah’s party has attracted supporters and swelled into an unmistakable strategic threat because of its uncompromising and violent opposition to any peaceful negotiating process. Hezbollah is committed in deed, not just in word, to destroying the Jewish state of Israel—a position that is far more cause for alarm than the racist beliefs held by some party loyalists. Hezbollah’s updated manifesto declares Israel “an unnatural creation that is not viable and cannot continue to survive.” Hezbollah deems it every Muslim’s duty to fight to “liberate the entire usurped land however long it takes and however great the sacrifices.” Well into the twenty-first century, more than six decades after Israel joined the fold of nation-states, Hezbollah remains determined to deny “the legitimacy of [Israel’s] existence” and oppose any negotiated settlement. “This stand is firm, permanent, and final, and it does not tolerate any retreat or compromise even if the entire world recognizes Israel,” Nasrallah said. Hezbollah seems determined to disestablish Israel, and after nearly three decades of trying to do so believes its goal is in reach.
If its ideology has remained rigid, Hezbollah has taken a far more flexible approach to matters of commerce and lifestyle. Ayman, the young father I met at the cafÉ during the 2006 war, made good money as an international merchant, sometimes buying diamonds wholesale in Africa and selling them in Antwerp or New York, other times financing the mining ventures of other Lebanese. His life seemed profoundly modern and international: a bilingual dual national who had lived in the United States and enjoyed driving his new Mercedes sedan. He embraced Hezbollah fully. Like many Lebanese, Ayman was convinced there would be violence along the Israeli border whether Hezbollah fought or not, because of scarce water resources, renegade Palestinian factions sheltering in Lebanon, disputed border territory, and Israel’s strategic designs. He found meaning in Hezbollah’s frontal war, which gave the Arab world the initiative and, Ayman believed, had a significant chance of success. Israel had dominated and demoralized Arabs for decades without effective opposition. Hezbollah now was holding Israel to account for its worst excesses of expansionism and occupation. Hezbollah’s ideological teachings also shaped Ayman’s personal life, guiding him as a new father and enabling him to find equanimity when his own father died and the family faced financial strain.
During the 2006 war I set forth on a three-year quest to understand Hezbollah’s juggernaut, through the individual men and women who had joined the Party of God’s radical revolution of Islamic Resistance. They ran the gamut, from fully committed ideologues and activists to occasional volunteers, sympathizers, and, on the fringe, fellow travelers who made few sacrifices but wouldn’t stand in Hezbollah’s way. Taken together, they have made Hezbollah the most dynamic force in the Middle East, an ideological and militant movement that has upended an older, more stable and accommodationist order and taught a new generation that war, and in particular Islamic war, is the answer. Three things distinguish Hezbollah from other Islamist movements in the region: its clearly articulated ideology; the fervor of its followers; and its success at expanding membership and inflicting military harm against its enemies. We can best understand the phenomenon of Hezbollah through the psychology of individual supporters who have yoked themselves willingly to the Party of God and its war without end. I met supporters who liked that Hezbollah picks up the garbage, and activists who wanted to expel every last Jew from the Middle East. Whatever the reasons they back the Party of God, the men and women who stand with Hezbollah have adopted and are spreading a new Middle Eastern consciousness. Those inviduals who have fully committed to Hezbollah’s platform, by officially joining the party and actively supporting it, best articulate its ideological appeal. Numerically, however, they form only a small proportion of the movement’s supporters. To a degree unparalleled among other Islamist movements in the region, Hezbollah has leveraged its driven inner core to appeal to hundreds of thousands more, sympathizers who never rise to the level of official membership, but provide Hezbollah much of its political, cultural, social, and military capital. These soft supporters back Hezbollah most of the time on most matters, wooed by the ethos of the Party, the services it dispenses, and the fervor of the full-time members, who serve as one of Hezbollah’s most effective vectors of recruitment.
Islamism broadly encompasses all those movements that build a political platform and way of life around the tenets of the Islamic faith, and has been on the rise for a century. Islamist groups have competed to see which approach best spreads the faith, experimenting with everything from peaceful incrementalism to maximalist violence. If any group today can claim the mantle of revolutionary Islam in the Middle East, it is Hezbollah. Iran’s Islamic Revolution has calcified into a rigid and orthodox theocracy. Hamas wages a quixotic war against Israel from its isolated, crumbling enclave of Gaza. Al Qaeda recruits from the limited ranks of Salafi fanatics. Not so Hezbollah: In an unlikely journey, a movement that began as a clandestine network best known for driving suicide truck bombs into American targets has taken over the Lebanese state from within. The Party of God has eased itself into comfortably wielding power, governing its own constituents without losing its revolutionary pedigree. In the coming round of wars with Israel, Hezbollah will likely be perceived in the Islamic world as the victor no matter what the outcome on the ground. In the eyes of its supporters Hezbollah wins as long as it is not completely destroyed, and emerges strong enough to attack Israel again.
In the 1980s, Hezbollah literally exploded into the world’s consciousness with a series of shocking acts of violence: the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, kidnappings of prominent Americans in Lebanon, and a sustained frontal assault in southern Lebanon against the occupying Israeli army, waged first by suicide bombers and then by increasingly effective guerillas.3 At almost every turn then and since, the movement has defied expectations with its military as well as its political success. At its founding in 1982, the group was so secret its members claimed Hezbollah didn’t even exist. Gradually the Party of God emerged from the shadows, winning the loyalty of Lebanon’s Shia community and claiming the lead role in the anti-Israeli resistance in occupied Lebanon. In the two decades that followed Hezbollah’s founding, the Party of God methodically refined a messianic theology and political philosophy that appealed to frustrated people all across a roiled and confused Middle East. Diplomatically, Hezbollah forged deep and enduring relationships with the governments of Iran and Syria that were responsible for its creation. In turn, Hezbollah exported its own revolution, sharing knowledge and materiel with radical movements of every sectarian and political stripe, including secular Palestinians, Hamas, the Shia Mahdi Army in Iraq, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, and even, allegedly, with Latin American communist guerillas. Militarily, Hezbollah has evolved into a classic guerilla warfare organization, discarding the early tactics that branded it a terrorist organization in the eyes of America and Israel. Even though it cultivates a vibrant culture of martyrdom among its supporters, the party hasn’t launched a suicide bomber since December 30, 1999, when a Hezbollah fighter drove a car bomb into an Israeli military convoy. It disputes the West’s definition of terrorism and yet has tried to keep its military tactics within the West’s norms. At each stage of Hezbollah’s growth, rival politicians in Lebanon and intelligence experts in the United States and Israel have predicted its imminent demise. Instead the group has consolidated its strength with shrewd political maneuvering and military flair.
Now at the close of the century’s first decade, Hezbollah has emerged as the most powerful force in Lebanon and the most dynamic in the Islamic world. Hezbollah cabinet ministers hold veto power in the Lebanese government: the country can make no decision and no policy without Hezbollah’s acquiescence. While there’s an official Lebanese military and minister of defense, Hezbollah on its own started the 2006 war that engulfed the entire country. Without input from other Lebanese, Hezbollah determines the timing of the next conflagration. Some observers label Hezbollah a “state within a state,” but it would be more accurate to describe Hezbollah as a state surrounded by the ruins of another, the failed state of Lebanon. Hezbollah draws unrivaled reserves of power from the total devotion and trust it has won from its constituents, most of Lebanon’s estimated 1 to 2 million Shia. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese from other sects, including non-Muslims, have allied with Hezbollah, despite widespread hostility on the part of moderates and secularists toward the Party of God. Hezbollah has ridden a wave of revolutionary Islamic radicalism that’s swept the Arab and Islamic world. It has drawn energy and support from the major Islamic sects, Shia and Sunni, even while its proselytizing ethos ultimately deepens the sectarian divide. For now it has found a way to skirt those contradictions, appealing to all the weak and disenfranchised, basking in public adulation, winning volunteers, donations, and political support from a coalition of Arab and Persian Muslims who have little in common save their attraction to Hezbollah and their loathing of Israel and American policy.
The United States has considered Hezbollah among its most reviled enemies since the barracks bombing, which killed 241 Americans. Even though the Party of God hasn’t deployed a suicide bomber in a decade, Hezbollah further set its reputation in stone during the grim extended drama of the American and other Western hostages whom Hezbollah held chained to radiators in the Beqaa Valley in the 1980s. Israel, meanwhile, counts Hezbollah high on its list of existential threats. The group’s military prowess alone might suffice to raise it high on Western wanted lists, but it doesn’t account for the Party of God’s mammoth appeal. Hezbollah is a Shia Muslim group, steeped in a messianic end-times theology with a timeless appeal not only to the militant but to the spiritual. It has laid a compelling claim to be recognized as a unifying transnational and transcultural radical force. Its biggest non-Muslim political ally is the Maronite Christian former General Michel Aoun and his nationalistic Free Patriotic Movement—Lebanon’s largest Christian political movement. Beyond Lebanon’s borders, Hezbollah has accomplished what virtually no religious movement or political party has done in half a century: it has appealed across divides to Sunni and Shia, Arabs and Persians, Muslims and Christians, Arab Nationalists and Muslim Brothers, anti-Israeli zealots and those angered by the U.S. occupation in Iraq, and finally those disgusted by the excesses of their own corrupt governments.
In its military operations, Hezbollah has retained its historic shroud of secrecy. Fighters don’t even tell their families what they do. They operate with pseudonyms and are almost constantly engaged in deception operations to confuse Lebanese rivals and foreign enemies about their plans, tactics, and capabilities. At the same time, on the political, ideological, and social front Hezbollah has grown bold, open, and confident over the last decade. Nasrallah’s long, engaging speeches offer more than enough primary material to understand Hezbollah’s long-range plan. He makes no secret of the group’s ties to Iran and Syria, its angry view of Israel and the United States, or its ambitions in Lebanon and the wider world. Unapologetically, Hezbollah seeks to spread its mode of fearless, radical religious practice and guerilla warfare against Israel, its sponsors, and at times, Jews in general.
Radical and patient at the same time, Hezbollah has brick by brick laid the foundation of a limited Islamic state within its Lebanese constituency, perhaps the first experiment in Islamist governance that is both militant and pragmatic. The Party of God accommodates both fanatics and moderates, and it has historically refused to coerce followers or non-Shia who live under Hezbollah control into following religious rules (in contrast to the party’s authoritarian hold over its inner core of supporters). Hezbollah has positioned itself now as the most vigorous and dynamic Islamist entity in the Arab world—not quite a state, but much more than a political party; not quite an army, but much more than a terrorist network; not yet a full-fledged transnational movement, but much more than a Lebanese faction. Unlike the Salafi extremists who feed groups like Al Qaeda, Hezbollah’s leaders quite comfortably navigate modernity. They espouse a form of Islamic living in conjunction with contemporary mores; Hezbollah’s leaders tend to lead Spartan lifestyles but they’re happy to see the party’s supporters engage in commerce, grow rich, and live well. A thriving and prosperous constituency makes for a healthy Islamist militant party, Hezbollah’s leadership believes. Lebanese rivals, including Christian militias and the Shia Amal Party, have in the past built impressive but unsustainable networks to provide social services, jobs, and graft without approaching Hezbollah’s level of success.4 Hezbollah has had the luxury of unabated generous funding from Iran since its inception, by some estimates receiving $100 million a year from Tehran. But that funding alone cannot account for Hezbollah’s continuous growth over the decades; Hezbollah’s primal appeal and sustained popularity stem from the group’s deliberate, patient cultivation of ideological loyalty. The Party of God is a movement built first and foremost on its followers’ profound identification with Hezbollah’s holy identity. Party activists are God’s shock troops; they can choose to wage war not only by wiring bombs but also by designing buildings, teaching school, babysitting children, clearing roads, and taking their kids to mosque. Hezbollah commands only a few thousand full-time fighters and several thousand more official reserves. That surprisingly small number is all it needs to maintain a guerilla front against Israel. Countless more men and women, numbering in the tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands, volunteered to help Hezbollah during the 2006 war with Israel. The party only mobilized a small number of those volunteers and used them to support displaced people and battlefront communities. Most of the party’s members, activists, and supporters channel their militancy into an extensive web of activities, from intelligence collection and policy analysis to preaching and teaching. In fact, the majority of Hezbollah’s loyalists are engaged in social projects, to which they apply the same militant fervor as a guerilla fighter. What distinguishes them from other Islamist activists is their warrior mind-set. Hezbollah has made further war inevitable by dint of its ideology and in order to propagate its very existence. Hezbollah does much more than simply fight, but without fighting it loses its identity.
This is Hezbollah’s secret: its followers believe. Ideology matters to them. Hezbollah has steeped them in a consuming way of thinking about God, their neighborhoods, their habits, and the omnipresent enemy. The party’s followers have embraced Hezbollah’s credo, and redefined their personal goals and habits in line with the party’s ideology—a melding of the political idea of resistance with the religious idea of fully committing oneself to God. The most religiously devoted members of Hezbollah’s community are passionately devoted to a messianic Shia mission of bringing the Mahdi, the last Shia imam, or spiritual leader, out from hiding to rule the earth with perfect justice. A far greater number have embraced the ideology of Islamic Resistance, which resonates with notions of restoring pride, dignity, and self-determination to the dispossessed. And the greatest number of all of the party’s supporters, the million or more in the outer ring, have found in Hezbollah an avenue to a restored sense of communal strength or a stricter Islamic faith, without wholly subscribing to Hezbollah’s political project. Hezbollah’s leaders have worked hard to nurture true belief in their followers, and have transformed that undivided trust into an enduring militant wave. Faith and ideas lure people into Hezbollah’s fold; prosperity and services keep them there. The material benefits of Hezbollah’s community grease the engine, but they don’t make it run. The ideology at Hezbollah’s heart is complex. It includes constructive elements, like a view of Islamism as self-empowerment, requiring volunteerism and discipline from every member of Hezbollah’s community. Alarmingly, it also draws on destructive elements: authoritarianism, a conviction that strength comes only from military superiority, and finally, a brisk current of political anger and hatred.
In “Operation Truthful Promise,” Hezbollah’s July 2006 raid into Israeli territory, Hezbollah commandos infiltrated the Israeli border, captured two Israeli soldiers, and sparked a cataclysmic response. Hezbollah staked its future on the outcome of that thirty-three-day war, and perfected a strategy that has spread to other militants in the region: the notion of winning by simply surviving. Israel, with American backing, made its war aim nothing less ambitious than the destruction of Hezbollah. Nasrallah’s war aims were equally grandiose: he vowed to end the American dream of a “New Middle East,” to keep Israel out of Lebanon, and force the release of prisoners in Israeli jails, top among them Samir Quntar. A Lebanese Druze, Quntar was convicted of murdering an Israeli man and his four-year-old daughter in a bungled 1979 raid that left a two-year-old smothered to death as well. He was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in jail. In Israel, Quntar symbolized the worst brutality of the Jewish state’s enemies; in Lebanon, Quntar became a national hero. Israel vowed never to release him from prison, and Hezbollah made his freedom a central demand. In 2006, Israel defeated Hezbollah by conventional military measures; but in the estimation of the Arab world, and of many Israelis, Hezbollah prevailed by withstanding the most fearsome punishment the Israel Defense Forces could rain on its fighters, emerging strong enough to rearm and fight again.
Its influence is growing. Hamas has remodeled itself on Hezbollah’s example. In the 1990s, Hezbollah taught Hamas how to conduct suicide bombings; now Hezbollah openly advises the Palestinians on tactics and broad strategy. Hezbollah’s political and military teachings were evident in the January 2009 war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas. Somehow Hezbollah, an organization that is neither Sunni nor Palestinian, has assumed a position of leadership among Palestinian militants. Nasrallah’s party has tapped into a deep unslaked thirst among Arabs for revenge and redemption. And unlike other Islamist movements, Hezbollah has convinced the well-heeled as well as the downtrodden to make major, repeated sacrifices for the party’s militant messianic ideology.
In January 2009 I visited Aita Shaab, the heavily militarized border village from which Hezbollah had launched its raid in the summer of 2006, causing the most recent war with Israel. Aita Shaab had been reduced almost uniformly to rubble, and I wanted to find out how the villagers—still in the process of rebuilding—felt about future conflict. War was raging not far away in Gaza, between Hamas and Israel, and many Hezbollah activists were urging the Lebanese Party of God to attack in support of their Islamist allies in Gaza.
Faris Jamil, a fifty-two-year-old merchant who had shown me around the first time I visited Aita Shaab, was still living in the unfinished basement of his almost fully rebuilt family home. He was well off, and before the war lived in a pleasant two story house on a hill. He had rebuilt it as a mansion, three stories tall, with marble columns and hand-carved floral accents above the windows. This too he saw as a form of resistance. Israel wanted Hezbollah to leave the border villages, so it was the duty of patriots of the Islamic Resistance to stay, if possible in style. Aita Shaab’s full-time population had expanded since 2006; Faris Jamil implied that Hezbollah has subsidized the boom with payments to families willing to relocate from Beirut. “We want peace. We don’t want to suffer another war,” he said. “But we must have our plans in place. Last time there was a war, only a few hundred people stayed here. Next time, we want thousands to stay. We will send the children to Beirut, since they can do nothing. All the men must stay, along with some women to cook and support them.”
Faris had lived in Manhattan for years and for a time had worked for a Jewish man who dealt wholesale in fabric. He was unusual in that during his long complaints against Israel he didn’t slip into ranting about Jews. He wasn’t itching for war, but he was planning for it. As a businessman he had trained himself to anticipate the future, and in his opinion two things were guaranteed: Hezbollah would stay in charge of his world, and Hezbollah and Israel would keep fighting wars. Neither eventuality upset him. “Our life is hard, and that is mainly because Israel refuses to let us live like a normal country,” Faris said. “There are some people who want peace at any cost in their life, but we feel that in life you have to have respect. Without respect, it’s not a life.”
His main daily preoccupations were his house, and the businesses he had established for his sons, including a restaurant and an internet cafÉ. His daily struggles were bourgeois and material, and yet to Faris they did not contradict his complete submission to the higher aim of the Islamic Resistance. He was not a violent man, nor was he an impulsive hothead. But he willingly and calmly served a movement whose violent Islamist doctrine guaranteed that his world and livelihood would be blasted apart every few years. In Aita Shaab, Faris pursued daily dreams quite similar to the material yearnings that animated him when he worked at Thirty-seventh Street and Broadway in Manhattan. Yet he was happy to let his bourgeois commercial livelihood go up in smoke, literally, when Hezbollah deemed it time for another war with Israel. “Life is for more than to make money,” Faris said. “We will continue, and if we make peace, it will be through power.”
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s people are at war. Theirs is a revolution that never ends. Like the denizens of Orwell’s Oceania, they always have been at war. Unlike the fictional plebes of 1984, these Lebanese adherents of Hezbollah pay a high toll in dead relatives, destroyed houses, and thwarted livelihoods. They see themselves as the revolutionary vanguard. On Martyrs Day every November they sway in unison to the exhortations of their leader. They are told to dream of the liberation of Jerusalem, when an army of the chosen, led by Lebanon’s Shia fighters, will march through Israel and the West Bank to the holy places of Al Quds, the Arabic name for Jerusalem. They dream as they are told to dream, gathering before Hassan Nasrallah like children around a master storyteller. But they organize in the streets and fight in the hills with autonomy and imagination, confounding Israeli commandos on the battlefield and outwitting Harvard-educated secularists in the halls of Lebanon’s government.
Hezbollah’s people aren’t meek and demoralized; they’re contradictory individuals, poor but empowered, jubilant activists aglow with religious fervor. They love martyrdom, but they also appear to love life. Their parents lived on the margins, their sect was oppressed, and now, in what seems like a flash, they’ve inherited the future. Hezbollah’s success stems not from any single great figure, but from the legions of everyday men, women, and children who have flocked to the movement, giving their lives but also their weekend afternoons, their fervor and frenzy but also their workaday devotion. To understand Hezbollah, its threat and its potential, is to understand the fighters and engineers, the women who raise the martyrs and the scouts who plant trees, the clerics and politburo members and school headmasters, the nine-year-old girls who take the veil over the objections of their less-devout fathers, the holy struggle against Israel and the Holy Struggle for Building Reconstruction. It is individuals who have endowed Hezbollah with its power. Their devotion and humanity appear poised to give it a long lease on life, into the next generation and beyond. Their stories, in the battlefields of southern Lebanon and the ghettoes of south Beirut, answer the question of why Hezbollah has grown so quickly and exerted such influence over the Shia, Islamic, and Arab worlds. They help explain why Hezbollah has managed to persist as a threat to Israel and the United States, and why it has made Arab regimes so uncomfortable. They explain why Hezbollah appeals to militants worldwide who at first blush would be expected to eschew a group built on the idea of an Islamic state; Hezbollah has become every radical’s model. And these common men and women also help us understand the ideological and religious roots of today’s conflict in the Middle East.
It’s comforting for some to think that Hezbollah and similar groups cultivate loyalty only by providing services: a job and a stipend in exchange for hanging a banner and parroting party slogans. If that were the entire story, then another group, perhaps one less interested in armed struggle and religious indoctrination, could woo Hezbollah’s followers away with a package deal that promised even better services and more prosperity. But the uncomfortable truth that I learned from the individuals in Hezbollah’s orbit is that the people of the Middle East, like people everywhere, value their beliefs at least as much as their pocketbooks—if not more. Hezbollah’s members hew to its line not only because the party enhances their livelihoods but because they share its ideology. Its wider constituency, the millions who support Hezbollah without officially joining, are moved more by the party’s credo and its psychological appeal than by handouts that buy temporary sympathy. If we listen to the followers of Hezbollah, they reveal what motivates the groundswell of loyalty that has endowed this Party of God with such power.
© 2010 Thanassis Cambanis
Meet the Author
Thanassis Cambanis is a journalist who has been writing about the Middle East for more than a decade. His first book, A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel, was published in 2010. He writes “The Internationalist” column for The Boston Globe and is a correspondent for The Atlantic. Thanassis regularly contributes to The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and other publications. He is a fellow at The Century Foundation in New York City. Thanassis lives in Beirut, Lebanon, with his wife, Anne Barnard, a reporter for The New York Times, and their two children.
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