All over the Arab world and beyond, it is Hezbollah that is on everyone’s lips these days — not the Al-Qaida, not the Taliban, not the Hamas. Israel’s army, the most powerful in the Middle East, is not fighting the Lebanese national army. It is fighting a militant armed group inside Lebanon that is possibly the world’s best-trained guerilla force.
The role that Hezbollah has taken for itself – that of Israel’s most stubborn enemy – has shamed many leaders of the Arab League, who stood by like helpless spectators when Israel pounded Palestinians in Gaza in the beginning of July. The more Hezbollah fights, the higher its stature grows not just among the Arabs but among Muslims everywhere. While Israel seeks its total destruction, Hezbollah’s goal is modest: to continue fighting Israel and its steadfast ally, the United States. Its survival is its victory.
In a world brainwashed by anti-terrorist propaganda, it has become almost instinctive to equate Hezbollah with Al-Qaida, and to treat its members as no different from the fanatical disciples of Osama bin Laden who blew up the World Trade Center using hijacked passenger jets as weapons. Its notoriety in the Western world is wellfounded. It is generally believed that Hezbollah pioneered suicide bombing as a mode of struggle in the 1980s. The responsibility for the Oct. 1983 suicide truck bombing that killed 241 US marines in their Beirut barracks has been laid at the door of Hezbollah. What is not as well known, clearly because it does not quite fit its image, is that Hezbollah condemned the 9/11 attacks. It was highly critical of Bin Laden’s disregard for civilian lives. When it became clear that Israel was withdrawing from Lebanon, Hezbollah stopped all suicide bombings in 1999, the year before the actual Israeli pullout. It claims not to have participated in any suicide bombing since then.
Israel entered Lebanon in 1982 to destroy Palestinian guerilla strongholds. In the process, it gave rise to Hezbollah. From the beginning, Hezbollah’s goals have been twofold: to keep Israel out of southern Lebanon, and to secure the freedom of thousands of Arabs rotting in Israeli jails. When Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, the United Nations ordered the dismantling of the Hezbollah military force as a step towards normalizing Lebanese political life. Hezbollah participated in the elections, winning about 10% of parliamentary seats, and even gaining positions in the Lebanese cabinet. But, even as they became part of government, they refused to give up their arms, claiming that they had to keep them as long as Israel continued to occupy a piece of Lebanese territory (the Shebaa Farms).
Originally established as the guerilla force of the Lebanese Shiite Islamic community, and drawing direct inspiration from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, Hezbollah quickly metamorphosed into a coordinating center for all Lebanese underground groups opposed to foreign occupation. Far from being just the spear point of militant Islam in Lebanon, Hezbollah developed into a national liberation movement, a fulcrum of Lebanese national unity.
Hezbollah quickly earned a place in the heart of the Lebanese people as Lebanon’s de facto revolutionary army. When the war ended, it became active in social development work and reconstruction. The civilian section of the movement runs hospitals, media networks, and schools. They maintain programs for war widows and orphans, and those displaced by the conflict. No wonder it has been difficult to crush the Hezbollah. Far from remaining a marginal militia, it has grown into a broad social movement, performing extensive military, political and developmental functions.
The enigma of the Hezbollah captivated the University of Chicago political science professor Robert A. Pape while researching for his book on suicide bombers, “Dying to Win.” He tried to find out more about Hezbollah suicide attackers. In a recent article for the International Herald Tribune (IHT 8/4/06), Pape recounts how he collected videos, photos and testimonials about Hezbollah’s suicide bombers for the period 1982 to 1986. What did he find out about them?
“Of the 41, we identified 38. Shockingly, only eight were Islamic fundamentalists. Twenty-seven were from leftist political groups like the Lebanese Communist Party and the Arab Socialist Union. Three were Christians, including a female high-school teacher with a college degree. All were born in Lebanon.
“What these suicide attackers – and their heirs today – shared was not a religious or political ideology but simply a commitment to resisting a foreign occupation. Nearly two decades of Israeli military presence did not root out Hezbollah. The only thing that has been proved to end suicide attacks, in Lebanon and elsewhere, is withdrawal by the occupying force. Thus the new Israeli land offensive may take ground and destroy weapons, but it has little chance of destroying the Hezbollah movement. In fact, in the wake of the bombings of civilians, the incursion will probably aid Hezbollah’s recruiting.”
Israel and the US are bent on crushing Hezbollah because if Hezbollah survives, it will be the model for all the scattered guerilla groups now opposing the American occupation of Iraq. But what is emerging, after a month of continuous pounding of Lebanese towns, is that Hezbollah cannot be destroyed even if Israel kills half of the Lebanese population. Israel has set for itself a goal it cannot achieve. It has no choice but to leave Lebanon now and accept a UN-sponsored ceasefire.
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