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Hezbollah: A Short History

Hezbollah: A Short History

by Augustus Richard Norton


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Hezbollah: A Short History

With Hezbollah's entry into the Lebanese government in 2009 and recent forceful intervention in the Syrian civil war, the potent Shi'i political and military organization continues to play an enormous role in the Middle East. Policymakers in the United States and Israel usually denounce it as a dangerous terrorist group and refuse to engage with it, yet even its adversaries need to contend with its durability and resilient popular support. Although Hezbollah's popularity has declined in many quarters of the Arab world, the Shi'i group—a hybrid of militia, political party, and social services and public works provider—remains the most powerful player in Lebanon. Augustus Richard Norton's Hezbollah stands as the most lucid, informed, and balanced analysis of the group yet written. This edition, with a new prologue and expanded afterword, analyzes recent momentous events—including Hezbollah's political performance in Lebanon, inconsistent responses to the Arab Spring, and recent military support of the al-Asad regime in Syria. Hezbollah is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the Middle East.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691160818
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 05/04/2014
Series: Princeton Studies in Muslim Politics Series
Edition description: Updated edition with a New Prologue and Expanded Afterword
Pages: 248
Sales rank: 633,593
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Augustus Richard Norton is professor of international relations and anthropology at Boston University and a fellow of the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies. A former U.S. Army officer and West Point professor, he has conducted research in Lebanon for more than three decades.

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A Short History
By Augustus Richard Norton


Copyright © 2007 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13124-5

Chapter One

Origins and Prehistory of Hezbollah

The modern state of Lebanon won its independence from France in 1943. The defining compromise of Lebanese politics was the mithaq al-watani or national pact, an unwritten understanding between the dominant political communities of the day-the Sunni Muslims and the Maronite Christians-that would provide the terms of reference for Lebanon's independence. In the 1920s the French, exploiting their League of Nations mandates in Lebanon and Syria, carved out generous chunks of Syria to create a viable "Greater Lebanon," thereby thwarting the Arab nationalist dream of an independent state in Damascus. For the Sunnis, the acceptance of an independent state ended the hope of reuniting Lebanon with Syria. Although the Sunnis, many of them merchants, dominated the new republic's coastal cities, their history was in the Syrian capital of Damascus. The Maronites, long the favored ally of French power and influence in the region, now had to concede that Lebanon was not an appendage of Europe but instead an Arab state. Neither Sunnis nor Christians spoke with a single voice, however, and dissent flourished.

The political system that emerged from the national pact was formalized into a system of sectarian communities, or confessions.Each of the country's seventeen recognized sects was accorded political privilege, including senior appointments in the bureaucracy, membership in parliament, and positions in high political office, roughly proportionate to the community's size. This process was always rather inexact, except for the highest political positions which were awarded to the Maronites, Sunnis, and Shi'a. Thus, the Maronites, considered the plurality, were accorded the presidency, which carried preeminent prerogatives and powers, and the second largest community, the Sunnis, won the premiership, decidedly second fiddle to the presidency. The Shi'i community, third largest, was awarded the speakership of the parliament, a position with far weaker constitutional powers than either the presidency or the premiership. The provenance of this allocation of power was a 1932 census of dubious reliability and, in fact, the last official census ever conducted in Lebanon. The data were sound estimates at best. The imbalance of power between the "three presidents" was rectified significantly by political reforms in 1989 in the agreement that provided the framework for ending the civil war of 1975-1990, which claimed about 150,000 lives.

The Shi'i community, in any case, could yield little influence over the political system at the time, as it was impoverished and underdeveloped (Norton 1987, 16-23). A small community of Shi'a lived in and around Beirut, but the overwhelming mass lived in southern Lebanon and in the northern Beqaa valley. Of course, the historical context for the impoverishment of all the Arab Shi'i communities (found, notably, in Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia) derives from the fact that the dominant Arab Sunnis often despised the Shi'a for "deviating" from the path of Sunni Islam. Over the course of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Lebanon and Syria more or less effectively for more than four hundred years, the Shi'a were suspected of being a stalking horse for Persia, notwithstanding the venerable origins of Arab Shi'ism, which, in fact, long predates the introduction of Shi'ism in Persia in the sixteenth century. Indeed, the central contention between Shi'i and Sunni Muslims to this day goes back to the validity of the claim made by the partisans of 'Ali, the husband of the Prophet Muhammad's daughter, Fatimah, that he should succeed Muhammad upon the prophet's death.

A conjuncture of social facts, regional conflicts, and domestic policies shaped the politicization of the Lebanese Shi'a in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The rate of this community's natural increase outpaced all others in Lebanon, as the average Shi'i family generally had nine members in the early 1970s, whereas the average Christian household had only six. Although fertility among Sunni women was also higher than among the Christians, Shi'i women bore an average of one more child than their fellow Muslims (Chamie 1981, 44). Families of a dozen or more children are not uncommon among the Shi'a, and as mobility improved in the first decades of Lebanese independence, tens of thousands migrated from the hinterlands to Beirut and abroad.

The hardscrabble Shi'i farmers cultivated the hills and valleys of the South and the Beqaa plateau but most could not subsist on what they earned selling tobacco to the state monopoly or growing vegetables and fruits. Even those who owned land rather than working as a sharecropper often struggled to eke out a living from farming. The state was of little help, providing piddling sums for rural development, a pattern that still persists. In the northern Beqaa and the Hirmil region, where the influence of the state was especially weak, poppies and hashish became valuable cash crops. In many Shi'i villages several generations of young men left Lebanon to find their fortunes in Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Senegal, and throughout Africa, as well as in Latin America and the Arab oil-producing states of the Gulf. Later, these migrant workers would return to Lebanon, sometimes with impressive sums of money, and usually with little affection for the traditionally powerful families that dominated Shi'i society from Ottoman times.

In the South, the Shi'i heartland, the influx of one hundred thousand Palestinians beginning with the 1948-49 Palestine war introduced a pool of cheap labor, willing to work for less than were Shi'i farm laborers, adding further impetus to migration. Later, of course, following the civil war in Jordan in 1970-71, thousands of armed Palestinian guerrillas would move to Lebanon, where the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) would challenge the authority of the Beirut government and establish a virtual state-within-a-state encompassing west Beirut and much of southern Lebanon.

Against this background, the Lebanese Shi'i Muslims mobilized their political efforts. For nearly half a century the transformation of this community from quiescence to activism has brought into question the durability of Lebanon's founding compromise, and substantially contributed to the violent turmoil that has enveloped the country in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Rise of Shi'i Politics from the Mid-twentieth Century to the Lebanese Civil War

Political bosses (zu'ama) from a handful of powerful families dominated Shi'i politics into the 1960s and maintained their control through extensive patronage networks. The authority of the zu'ama depended on their clients' support, but by the 1960s many young Shi'i men and women became alienated from old-style politics and were attracted by new political forces. The promise of radical change could only have been irresistible to a community whose ethos emphasized its exploitation and dispossession by the ruling elites. In Lebanon, as in Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, Shi'a in large numbers were attracted in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s to secular opposition parties. In Lebanon the opposition took the form of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), the Lebanese Communist Party (LCP), the Organization for Communist Labor Action, and pro-Syrian and pro-Iraqi factions of the Arab Socialist Ba'th (or "Resurrection") Party. Particularly in the case of the Communist organizations and the SSNP, there was an inherent ideological attraction to parties that condemned the tribal, religious, or ethnic bases of discrimination. Indeed, it is notable that the leadership of these secular parties was predominantly Christian. Although support for secular parties has dwindled, significant numbers of politicized Shi'a continue to express a preference for them, usually in particular families, villages, or regions. For instance, the Communists remain strong in the large village of Bra'sheet in the South, in an area now otherwise dominated by Hezbollah, literally, the Party of God, and the Amal movement, an acroynym for Lebanese Resistance Detachments, often rendered as "Hope." Amal, and especially Hezbollah, were relative latecomers on the political scene and appealed to the Shi'a in clearly sectarian terms, despite their avowals of welcoming all comers.

Four major (and sometimes intertwined) political trends distinguished the political mobilization of the Shi'a after the 1960s: secularism, liberation-especially the view that the fate of the deprived Shi'a was linked to the dispossessed Palestinians, Islamism, and reformism, often couched in demands for more access to political privilege and for stamping out corruption. Although Arab nationalism certainly enjoyed Shi'i adherents, given that Sunni Muslims numerically dominate the Arab world, many of the Shi'a would not see a unified Arab nation as a very ideal solution. In 1997 a fifth, incipient trend appeared from within Hezbollah, when Shaykh Subhi Tufayli, the organization's former secretary-general, launched a populist dissident movement in the Beqaa valley among alienated farmers and tribesmen. Although the fortunes of secular movements and parties have declined, the loyalties and sympathies of the Shi'a remain widely distributed, and no single organization-including Hezbollah-may claim an overwhelming majority following from among the Shi'a. By the 1990s, however, Hezbollah was certainly the best-organized political phenomenon and enjoyed the largest base of popular support.

Of the three distinctive trends preceding the emergence of Hezbollah in 1982, several secular parties, as well as the reformist Amal movement, retain a significant following. As the Lebanese civil war approached in the early 1970s and the armed Palestinian presence grew stronger, many young Shi'a found their place in one or another of the fida'i, or guerrilla fighter organizations. Support for the Palestinian cause has now withered but not disappeared. Political loyalties within families are often shared between two or more organizations or are not "lent" to any political group at all. Hussein Nasrallah, a brother of Hasan Nasrallah, a founding member of Hezbollah and its famous secretary-general, is a life member of Amal. When the two groups were at each other's throats in the late 1980s, Hussein was on the front lines confronting his brother. Notwithstanding the long-term commitments of the Nasrallah brothers, one commonly meets individuals whose biography includes membership in three or four different political organizations, usually in sequence. In Lebanon political support is conditional and political loyalty sometimes has a short shelf life. Even so, ideological currents have shifted dramatically in the last two decades in favor of Hezbollah, which offers an ideological vision that many Shi'a now find persuasive.

The Palestine resistance movement did more than directly challenge the power of Lebanon's entrenched elites; the resistance fighters were also paid comparatively well. It is widely known that many young men, and a few women, took up arms not only out of an ideological commitment but also simply to feed their families in a society offering few other economic opportunities. Once full-fledged civil war erupted in 1975, the Shi'a became the cannon fodder for the fedayeen. Indeed, more Shi'a died in the fighting than members of any other sect.

Even before the Israeli invasion of 1982, the fortunes of the armed Palestinian presence had soured, especially in southern Lebanon where the Amal movement gained many adherents at the expense of the parties of the Left. Amal had been founded, in the early 1970s, by al-Sayyid Musa al-Sadr, the Iran-born cleric of Lebanese ancestry, as a militia adjunct to the Harakat al-Mahrumin, the Movement of the Deprived, the predominantly Shi'i populist reform movement. Amal was initially trained by Fatah, the largest organization in the PLO, and played a minor role in the fighting of 1975 and 1976. Although Amal was aligned with the Lebanese National Movement (LNM)-an array of radical and reformist groups opposed to the political dominance of the Maronite Christians-by 1976 the alignment was strained by Amal's support for Syria and its armed intervention to prevent a victory by the PLO and the LNM over the Maronite militias.

The Role of Musa al-Sadr

Musa Sadr, widely known as Imam Musa, was instrumental in improving the lot of the ordinary Shi'a in southern Lebanon while reducing the power of traditional Shi'i elites. His unremitting opponent was Kamil al-As'ad, the powerful Shi'i political boss from the southern town of al-Tayyiba who had long grown accustomed to power. Kamil-bey ("bey" is a Turkish honorific) accurately viewed al-Sadr as a serious threat to his political power base, which was built on a foundation of subordination and patronage. Physically imposing and a man of intelligence, courage, personal charm, enormous energy, and great complexity, al-Sadr attracted a wide array of supporters. He set out to establish himself as the paramount leader of the Shi'i community. When he arrived in Lebanon in the late 1950s, the community was most known for its poverty and general underdevelopment.

Al-Sadr exhorted his followers not to accept their deprivation fatalistically; he believed that as long as his fellow Shi'i could speak out through their religion they could overcome their condition. As he once observed, "Whenever the poor involve themselves in a social revolution it is a confirmation that injustice is not predestined" (Norton 1987, 40). One of his first significant acts was to establish a vocational institute in the southern town of Burj al-Shimali. The institute, constructed at a cost of about $165,000, became an important symbol of Musa al-Sadr's leadership, and it survives to this day under the competent supervision of his sister, known commonly as Sitt (or Sister) Rabab, one of the most admired woman in the Lebanese Shi'i community.

Musa al-Sadr recognized the insecurity of the Maronites and acknowledged their need to maintain their monopoly hold on the presidency. Yet he was critical of this Christian community for its arrogant stance toward the Muslims, and particularly the Shi'a. He argued that the Maronite-dominated government had neglected the South, where half the Shi'a lived. He was anticommunist, probably not only on principled grounds but because the various Communist organizations were among his prime competitors for Shi'i recruits. While the two branches of the Ba'th Party (pro-Iraqi and pro-Syrian) were making significant inroads among the Shi'a of the South and of the Beirut suburbs, he appropriated their pan-Arab slogans. Although the movement he founded, Harakat al-Mahrumin and its Amal militia, was aligned with the ideologically eclectic and radical Lebanese National Movement in the early stages of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1976), he found its Druze leader, Kamal al-Jumblatt, irresponsible and exploitative of the Shi'a and willing "to combat the Christians to the last Shi'i" (Pakradouni 1983, 106).

Al-Sadr's stance toward the Palestinian presence in the South was similarly complex. He consistently expressed sympathy for Palestinian aspirations, and yet he was unwilling to countenance actions that exposed Lebanese citizens, especially Shi'i citizens of the South, to additional suffering. Imam Musa prophetically warned the PLO that it was not in its interest to establish a state within a state in Lebanon. The PLO's failure to heed this warning helped to spawn the alienation of their "natural allies," the Shi'a, who actively resisted the Palestinian fighters in their midst only a few years later. In May 1976 al-Sadr threw his support to Syria when Syrian president Hafez al-Asad intervened in Lebanon on the side of the Maronite militias and against the LNM and its Palestinian allies. Although he mistrusted Syrian motives in Lebanon and felt that it was only Lebanon's indigestibility that prevented it from being swallowed by its more powerful neighbor, he nonetheless believed that the Syrians were an important ally in his challenge to Palestinian power in the southern Lebanon.


Excerpted from HEZBOLLAH by Augustus Richard Norton Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Prologue to the New Paperback Edition vii
Prologue 1
Chapter 1 Origins and Prehistory of Hezbollah 9
The Rise of Shi'i Politics from the Mid-twentieth Century to the Lebanese Civil War 14
The Role of Musa al-Sadr 18
The Resurgence of Amal 21
Chapter 2 The Founding of Hezbollah 27
The Iraq Connection 30
The 1982 Israeli Invasion 32
Hezbollah Emerges 34
The Hezbollah Worldview 35
Implementing the Design 41
Chapter 3 Being a Shi'i Muslim in the Twenty-first Century 47
Ritual and Identity 51
The Intersection of Ritual and Politics 58
Chapter 4 Resistance, Terrorism, and Violence in Lebanon 69
Hezbollah and Terrorism 75
Occupation in Southern Lebanon 79
The "Rules of the Game" 83
The 2000 Israeli Withdrawal 88
Chapter 5 Playing Politics 95
Hezbollah’s Decision to Participate 98
Municipal Elections 103
The Revolt of the Hungry 105
The Rich Texture of Shi"i Institutions 107
Chapter 6 From Celebration to War 113
The Changing Social Tapestry in Post–Civil War Lebanon 120
Lebanon’s Love-Hate Relationship with Rafiq al-Hariri, and His Assassination 124
Setting the Stage for War 132
The Start of Hostilities, July 2006 135
Prosecuting the War 137
Conclusion 145
Hezbollah in a Fractured Postwar Lebanon 152
What Next? 157
Afterword to the Paperback Edition 161
Glossary 207
Additional Reading 209
Sources Cited 215
Index 219
Acknowledgments 231

What People are Saying About This

Lara Deeb

Norton is uniquely positioned to provide an analysis of Hezbollah, one that is historical, nuanced, and informed by more than twenty-five years of experience as a researcher and policy advisor on Lebanon. He is one of the foremost American experts on Hezbollah and Shi'i politics in Lebanon. In addition, Norton's writing is always clear and accessible. This concise and accurate primer will be invaluable to general readers, reporters, and scholars.
Lara Deeb, author of "An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi'i Lebanon"

Eva Bellin

I recommend this book with greatest enthusiasm. Norton is one of the premier—if not the premier—American authorities on Shi'i politics in Lebanon. Add to this the fact that he is a talented writer who can communicate complex ideas in a fluent, engaging, and accessible fashion. Telling quotes and anecdotes enliven the book and ground it. Norton is the rare academic whose expertise doesn't prevent him from communicating well with a general reader.
Eva Bellin, Hunter College, City University of New York

Vali Nasr

One of the most remarkable developments in the Middle East in recent years is Hezbollah's meteoric rise to power. No one can better explain the broad implications of this phenomenon than Richard Norton. Drawing on his vast knowledge of Lebanon, Norton has written a timely and readable primer that lucidly explains the intricacies of Hezbollah's ideology and history and demystifies its political strategy.
Vali Nasr, author of "The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future"

Lee Hamilton

Hezbollah is a timely and landmark work. Richard Norton draws on his extensive expertise to offer a comprehensive history that will be of interest to anyone who seeks a better understanding of Hezbollah, Lebanon, or current developments in the Middle East.
Lee Hamilton, Vice Chair of the 9/11 Commission and Co-Chair of the Iraq Study Group

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