Middle East Watch

Middle East Watch
The alternative press revue for a free Middle East

© تموز (يوليو) 2022

Hizb Allah, Party of God

Tuesday 11 رمضان 1427, by Nir Rosen

All the versions of this article:

  • English

In the wake of Israel’s 33-day war with Hizballah, the 24-year-old
Islamic movement has become the most popular political party in the
Middle East. Here’s why that shouldn’t worry us.

Over 1 million Lebanese gathered in a vast square in a southern Beirut
suburb on Sept. 22 to celebrate their country’s largely successful
campaign against Israel. Seyid Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of
Hizballah, risked his life by appearing in public after Israeli leaders had
sworn to kill him, and spoke to his adoring supporters in Lebanon and
around the world.

Many children were given the day off from school, and buses ferried
supporters from all over Lebanon for the victory celebration. Lebanon
had endured 33 days of war, and not only was the Shia Hizballah
movement undefeated, it had achieved a near parity of casualties with
the Israeli military—a first in the history of Arab-Israeli wars. In an
Arab world whose leaders were dictatorial, mendacious and corrupt,
who made false promises and were beholden to the United States,
Nasrallah was renowned for his integrity and for maintaining his
movement’s defense of Lebanon at all costs. It had made him the most
popular leader in the Arab world.

Women, children and men waved the flags of Lebanon and Hizballah
from outside the windows and sang in jubilation as they waited in
traffic. Also on display were the flags of Palestine and Palestinian
movements, Lebanese Christian movements, the Communist Party,
Sunni and Druze movements, as well as secular nationalists. Although
many of the celebrants were men with beards or women whose hair was
covered, many were not. There were youths in trendy attire, girls in
tight jeans with hair exposed and who had turned their Hizballah shirts into stylish form-fitting fashion statements.

Stuck in the crowds with my seven-months-pregnant American wife, we
opted for a better view from the balcony of an apartment building above
the crowds. When the singing of Hizballah songs and the Lebanese and
Hizballah anthems had ended and Nasrallah began his speech, the
women on the balcony with us shrieked as though at a rock concert and
ran into the living room to confirm on the television screen that it was
indeed him. They waved their arms and started to cry, and a frisson of
emotion ran through the men in the room.

Nasrallah not only spoke to his natural constituents, the Lebanese Shia,
but he also singled out the inhabitants of Palestine, Syria, Iran, Kuwait
and Bahrain. He told his audience that they were sending a political and
moral message to the world that Lebanon’s resistance was stronger than
ever. Their victory was a victory for every oppressed, aggrieved and free
person in the world, he said, and an inspiration for all who rejected
subjugation or degradation by the United States. He mocked Arab
leaders for not using their oil resources as a strategic weapon, for
prohibiting demonstrations, for not supporting the Palestinians and for
kowtowing to Condoleezza Rice. He extended his people’s hearts, grief
and empathy for the Palestinians who were being bombed and killed
daily, and whose homes were being destroyed while the world, and in
particular the Arab world, was silent.

Surveying this massive crowd of boisterous people—the men and
women, the teenagers and the small children, celebrating their identity
and their steadfastness together with music—I knew this was not the
stuff of religious fundamentalism or terrorism. I was struck by how the
reality of Hizballah differed from its distorted image in the West. For
although Hizb Allah, the Party of God, is undoubtedly of Shia origin, it
is in fact a secular movement, addressing real temporal issues, its
leaders speaking in a nationalist discourse, avoiding sectarianism and
religious metaphors. They participate in politics, compromising and
negotiating, and do not seek to impose Islamic law on others. Proof of
this is readily available in Hizballah strongholds, where many of their
followers are secular, supporting Hizballah because it represents their
political interests and defends them.

Throughout the country, women in chadors walk beside scantily clad
beauties. Along Lebanon’s highways, or what is left of them, billboards
celebrating Hizballah’s “divine victory” over Israel share advertising
space with posters depicting half-naked women wearing jeans or lingerie. Hizballah may have preferences, but unlike the authoritarian leaders of the Taliban or Saudi Arabia, it does not impose them.

Nor has the movement shown a long-standing inability to reconcile with
its enemies. Most strikingly, in 2000, after Israel’s withdrawal from the
Lebanese territory it was occupying, the thousands of Shia and
Christian collaborators suddenly found themselves vulnerable to
retribution and street justice from understandably aggrieved Lebanese.
On strict orders from Hizballah, however, the vast majority were not
touched. Rather they were handed over to the Lebanese army, dealt
with by the Lebanese government and imprisoned and amnestied
prematurely, in a move that offended many Lebanese. Nevertheless,
today they can be spotted in towns in the south; everyone knows who
they are, and they remain unharmed. Hardly the actions of a violent
fundamentalist terrorist organization.

And what was so unreasonable about Hizballah’s demands? The
movement insisted it wanted Lebanese prisoners to be freed by Israel,
all of Lebanon’s territory to be evacuated by Israel, and for the Lebanese
army, which had never defended Lebanon, let alone its south, to come
up with a national defense plan. Thirty years of proven Israeli brutality
and 60 years of Lebanese government neglect of the south gave
Hizballah a raison d’etre its leadership insisted it did not want.
And unlike many of his counterparts in Iraq, Nasrallah is ingenuously
urging a course of national unity in Lebanon. During his Sept. 22
speech, he went out of his way to use the rhetoric of Lebanese
nationalism while condemning sectarianism. In previous speeches
Nasrallah had declared that he was fighting for the umma, the world
Muslim community, which is vastly Sunni. He charmed the Lebanese in
a recent television interview when he looked his female interviewer in
the eyes, allowed her to interrupt him and smiled with her, practically
flirting. His posters can be found in Iraq, Palestine, Egypt; his name is
spoken with pride in Saudi Arabia. In Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, I
recently saw shops named in his honor, and heard a local cleric compare
the conflict the cleric’s Islamic court militias were facing with Ethiopia
and U.S.-backed warlords to Hizballah’s conflict with the Americansupported

The details of that conflict are instructive, because in it I again saw the
tragic error inherent in the Bush administration’s policy of viewing the
entire Muslim world through the “war on terror” prism, rather than
judging each conflict on its own. In Somalia, it is widely believed that
the CIA is funding a slew of unpopular and criminal warlords against a
popular Islamic militia movement (which the CIA neither confirms nor
denies, of course). This suspected U.S. support comes despite the fact
that most analysts believe the militias are not harboring any significant
terrorists nor are they likely to set up a Taliban-style regime in the
country. As a result, the perception in Somalia is that the U.S. has allied
itself with warlords who are terrorizing the populace in an attempt to
stamp out a popular Islamic uprising.

It is this same distorting war-on-terror prism that has led the Bush
administration to view resistance fighters in Iraq as mere terrorists—as
opposed to elements of a popular movement made up of Sunnis and
Shias with real grievances against an oppressive and increasingly
onerous occupation. As a result, the inhabitants of entire towns and
provinces have been branded as terrorists and “anti-Iraqi forces”—and
treated as such. When I was visiting Falluja in the spring of 2004 it was
clear that the vast majority of the defenders of that city were locals who
believed they were fighting in self-defense against a foe that sought to
destroy their city and oppress them. They were nationalists, fighting
against foreign occupation. Their city of 300,000 was virtually
destroyed—turned into the proverbial parking lot. Falluja became
legendary in the Muslim world for its resistance to occupation and for
its martyrs—much like the people of south Lebanese villages such as
Aita al Shaab, who boast of their willingness to die for their ideals and of
their sumud, or steadfastness.

During his Sept. 22 speech Nasrallah paid tribute to their sumud, but he
also spoke of national unity, insisting that the resistance had prevented
civil war from recurring in Lebanon. He called for the Lebanese state to
become strong, just, capable and free of corruption. When the state
became able to protect Lebanon, the resistance would give up its
weapons, he promised. Hizballah was not a totalitarian movement, he
insisted, and he was not a ruler—nor would his sons be.
Support for Hizballah transcends economic class divides and the divide
between religious and secular Shias. Hizballah is one of the few
movements in Lebanon addressing substantive issues that transcend
sectarian identity—issues like corruption, social justice, rejection of
America’s new Middle East project, resistance to Israeli occupation, and
support for the oppressed Palestinians.

Hizballah now has strong allies and supporters among most of
Lebanon’s Christians (who make up some 40% of the population); it
also enjoys the support of most of the 400,000 Palestinian refugees
living in Lebanese camps. Indeed, the war has only increased
Hizballah’s supporters. I spoke to Sheikh Maher Hamoud, a powerful
Sunni leader in Sidon, who told me that although he had objected to
many of Hizballah’s positions before the war, he had supported them
during the war and had no disagreements with them now. Hizballah’s
victory was a victory for Lebanon, Arabs and all Muslims, he said,
adding that “our pride was restored.” I spoke to Joseph Moukarzel,
owner of the newspaper Addabour, and a leading organizer of the
March 14 movement that was Hizballah’s main opponent in Lebanon. “I
was for taking Hizballah’s weapons before the war, and I still am,” he
told me, “but in the war I had two choices, to be with Hizballah or to be
with Israel. I chose Hizballah. Hizballah was David and Israel was

Followers of other Lebanese sects—Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Sunni,
Druze—merely follow their leaders because of their positions, not
because of their ideas. Hizballah is a people’s movement, having
emerged in 1982 as an inchoate umbrella group representing the
marginalized and oppressed and cultivating a culture of resistance to
oppression and injustice.

It was this culture of resistance that led to Hizballah’s surprise victory in
what is now being called in Lebanon “the Sixth War” with Israel. (A note
on my usage of “surprise victory”: If war is politics by other means, then
Israel failed to achieve its stated political goals of disarming Hizballah
and pushing it north of the Litani River; so too did it fail to achieve its
unstated goals of cleansing the south of all Shias and intimidating
Lebanese and Palestinian resistance— two failures that even Israel’s
own generals are beginning to admit. Hizballah, on the other hand, not
only survived the war intact, and with relatively few casualties, but it
inflicted relatively heavy casualties on the Israeli military and achieved
greater popularity than it ever had—winning the hearts of Muslims
around the world, and many non-Muslims in Lebanon.)

On Sept. 17 I attended a memorial service for some of Hizballah’s dead
soldiers in the small town of Aita al Shaab, a mere few hundred meters
from the Israeli border. Aita al Shaab has suffered numerous attacks
from Israel since 1970, but in this last war 85% of the town was
destroyed. Only 100 Hizballah soldiers fought in Aita al Shaab, and 60
of them were local. The vast majority were not professional soldiers. The
nine local martyrs who died in the 33 days of war were typical of
Hizballah’s soldiers. They were a high school history teacher, a high
school principal, a sweets shop owner, two high school graduates about
to start university for engineering, a university student home on
summer break. They were restaurant waiters, farmers, car mechanics,
bakers. They had completed Hizballah’s boot camp and training and
returned to their normal lives, occasionally going for refresher courses,
much like our Army reserves or National Guard.

The people of Aita al Shaab blamed America as much as they did Israel
for the war that had been waged against them. In the memorial service
Hizballah representative Nawaf al Musawi spoke of “the American,
British and Israeli war against Lebanon.” Even little children were
aware of Condoleezza Rice’s comments about the birth pangs of the new
Middle East, and 7-year-old Sajah Bajouk mocked Rice and John
Bolton, playing on words and changing “the new Middle East,” or al
sharq al awsat al jadid, to “the new Dirty East,” or al sharq al awsakh
al jadid.

Most of Hizballah’s soldiers in the most recent war were between 18 and
25 years old and had never fought before. Somehow these 100 fighters
in Aita al Shaab held the town, never surrendering it to the Israeli
military. Many of the town’s old people stayed behind to cook and care
for Hizballah’s soldiers. Other people left their homes and shops open
for them. The town was Hizballah. And the entire town gathered on
Sunday, Sept. 17, to mourn its dead and celebrate its victory. Hundreds
of black-clad women made their way up a dirt road from the newly
constructed martyr’s cemetery where the nine Hizballah soldiers and
the nine civilian war dead had been buried. Many tearfully carried large
framed pictures of their lost men.

After the ceremony, thousands of prepackaged meals of rice and meat
were provided for the townspeople. Aita al Shaab’s people reaffirmed
their support for Hizballah and resumed rebuilding their lives. As one
hears so many times in Lebanon, the entire south is Hizballah; and
Israel knew this, hence its war was against the people of the south. But
they can’t all be terrorists, can they? Israel claims it gave a 48-hour
warning to civilians, ordering them to leave the south or face death.
Under international law, however, civilians never lose their immunity,
and, besides, it is well known that in some instances Israel gave no
warnings of its impending attacks on civilian areas (in the Bekaa Valley,
for example).

When climbing amid the ruined schools, fuel stations, shops, homes,
roads and bridges of southern Lebanon or driving through village after
village flattened and pulverized by the terror that rained down, it is clear
that the civilian population was deliberately targeted. Over 1 million
cluster bombs were dropped, and 40% of them did not explode. They
remain in the south, waiting for children to play with them, for farmers
to step on them, a gift that keeps on giving. The agricultural fields on
which the south depends for its economy are destroyed. Then as now,
Israel knows what it and America continue to deny: Hizballah is the
people, and hence the only way to push Hizballah north of the Litani
River as Israel stated it wanted to do was to cleanse the south of Shias
and make sure it was too dangerous, and economically impossible, for
them to return. But the Shias of Lebanon pride themselves on their
steadfastness, and their culture of resistance to oppression. They cannot
be so easily dislodged. At fighting’s end, they returned and ensconced
themselves in the ruins, trusting Hizballah to provide and reward them
for their loyalty.

The media has fast forgotten Lebanon: Americans are distracted by
what former Rep. Mark Foley wrote to congressional pages; many
Muslims worldwide are more concerned with whether or not the pope
insulted Islam than with who is actually killing Muslims. As the 1
million Lebanese refugees who fled Israeli terror return to sift through
the rubble of their lives, they will be sidestepping cluster bombs and
trusting that Hizballah will house and shelter them from the fastapproaching
winter. As we Americans mourn our losses in the Sept. 11
attacks and in the subsequent war on terror (which has now cost more
American lives than were lost in the attacks that provoked it), it is worth
wondering: What exactly is terrorism? And if it is the infliction of
violence on civilians for political reasons, then who are the terrorists?

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