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Issue Date:  August 25, 2006

Disarming Hezbollah next stage in Middle East drama


The U.N.-brokered cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah ended hostilities when it went into effect Aug. 14, but the viability of the plan to be put in place remains unclear. Perhaps the biggest question is about the future of Hezbollah and the U.N. plan for its disarmament. The Lebanese militia whose kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers sparked the conflict is claiming a historic victory after standing up to four weeks of Israeli pounding that has left more than 1,000 Lebanese dead and caused an estimated $2 billion in damage.

Will Hezbollah now agree to lay down its arms, as the U.N. plan demands? “That’s the million-dollar question. I don’t think anybody knows at this point,” said Nidal Ibrahim, executive director of the Arab-American Institute in Washington.

The answer will become apparent in the weeks and months ahead. If Hezbollah does disarm, it will mark yet another stage in its 20-year evolution from a tiny underground paramilitary group to a political player that wields enormous influence and power on the Lebanese political scene. Despite the extensive destruction in Lebanon that some may lay at its door, that influence and power are not likely to diminish soon, say Mideast scholars who note that Hezbollah and its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, have emerged from the conflict with a greatly enhanced image in the Middle East.

“Hezbollah is a star to Arab youth today, and Nasrallah is an iconic figure in Arab and Muslim eyes,” said Fawaz Gerges. “Psychologically, Hezbollah has dramatically changed the way Arabs view the Arab-Israeli conflict. When the dust has settled on the battlefield, the rules of the Arab-Israeli conflict have changed for good.”

Gerges, a professor of Mideast history at Sarah Lawrence College and author of the recently published Journey of the Jihadists: Inside Muslim Militancy, said not only Hezbollah but Israel and the United States miscalculated when they went to war. Israel has undermined its deterrent capacity, Gerges said, while the United States has further eroded its image in Arab eyes by openly backing Israel in its assault on Lebanon. The pro-Western Arab allies of the United States have also been hurt, their legitimacy and credibility undermined by their initial criticism of Hezbollah, Gerges said.

While the cease-fire resolution, the Bush administration and the American media have focused on the need to restrain Hezbollah from launching rocket attacks or further cross-border raids, U.N. reports and Lebanese officials indicate that prior to the outbreak of hostilities in July, Israel violated the Israeli-Lebanese “Blue Line” more often than Hezbollah did during the six years following Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. The Blue Line was created in the armistice Israel and Lebanon signed in 1949.

Marwan Francis, second secretary at the Lebanese Embassy in Washington, said there were almost daily violations by Israel during the past six years. He noted that shelling by Hezbollah was confined to the disputed Shebaa Farms area, which Israel holds and which Lebanon claims as its own. “But all along the rest of the Blue Line, there was complete respect for the blue line. There was no violation but from the Israeli side,” Francis said.

Reports by UNIFIL, the U.N. peacekeeping force based in southern Lebanon, document a variety of border violations during the past six years, from intrusive overflights by Israeli warplanes, jets and helicopters that created frightening sonic booms, to anti-aircraft fire by Hezbollah and assaults on Israeli Defense Force positions in the Shebaa Farms area.

According to Laura Deeb, a cultural anthropologist who has written about Hezbollah, U.N. observer reports indicate Israel violated the Blue Line 10 times more often than Hezbollah.

Before war between Hezbollah and Israel broke out, all the major religious and national groups in Lebanon, including Hezbollah, had been holding a series of meetings at a national round table to discuss a defense strategy for Lebanon. Among the topics was whether Hezbollah, which is widely credited with driving Israel out of Lebanon in 2000, should keep its arms or whether it, like other militias, should disband in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559.

Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics at San Francisco University and author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism, noted that Hezbollah was down to only about 1,000 fighters before the war. “Their military strength has been weakening, not growing. There was only about a core of 1,000 active duty people. Of course they called up their reserves. There’s probably about 5,000 now and they’re churning out more.”

Zunes and some other scholars say the widespread perception in this country that Hezbollah is a terrorist group is simplistic and even inaccurate.

“Their last major act of terrorism, as far as I know, was 1994. They are another case of a former terrorist group that has evolved into a legal political party, which would include a lot of ruling governments,” Zunes said.

At the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank, Dr. Barak Ben-Zur, a visiting scholar and a colonel in the Israeli Defense Forces, acknowledged that there is no universal definition of a terrorist. But Ben-Zur, who served as head of the terrorism section of the IDF’s military intelligence branch from 1991 to 1994 and recently wrote an article titled “Hezbollah’s Global Terror Options” that appears on the institute’s Web site, pointed to two terrorist attacks in Buenos Aires, Argentina, that were thought to have been launched by Hezbollah -- the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and the Jewish Community Center in 1994 -- as evidence of Hezbollah’s terrorist credentials. More recently, Ben-Zur said, a Hezbollah activist was captured in Jerusalem in 2001 and a another was captured in 2002 in Hebron on the West Bank on a terror mission. Ben-Zur also said Hezbollah is linked to Palestinian terror groups, which it has provided with weaponry. Early in its history, in 1985, Hezbollah made an open declaration of its enmity against the state of Israel.

Historically, those who flocked to Hezbollah were displaced peasants ousted from their land because of Israeli invasions, or children of displaced peasants who settled in the seething slums of Beirut and were susceptible to Hezbollah’s radical ideology. But Hezbollah’s increasing integration into the Lebanese political scene has complicated the picture. While Hezbollah does continue to pull from the ranks of the marginalized Shia community in south Lebanon, not all of its supporters are Shia. According to Deeb, Hezbollah also increasingly draws support from middle-class citizens and even prosperous, well-educated Lebanese who may be of other religious backgrounds.

In addition to being a political party with two representatives in the Lebanese cabinet, Hezbollah operates an extensive network of social service agencies in southern Lebanon, including daycare centers, clinics, schools and employment bureaus. Their provision of social services to a poor, largely Shia population in south Lebanon is a major source of its strength and makes Hezbollah’s continuing presence on the Lebanese political scene assured.

Formed in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Hezbollah initially drew inspiration from the Islamic revolution in Iran. But in the 1990s, Hezbollah renounced its early stated aim of making Lebanon an Islamic state.

“I am really amazed when I talk to them how sophisticated they have become,” said Gerges. “They realize that Lebanon is a highly diverse society, that there are many communities in Lebanon, that an Islamic state in Lebanon has no prospects.”

The more complex, nuanced stand on religion is just part of what Gerges describes as a dramatic transformation in Hezbollah. “It’s no longer the same terrorist organization that existed in the 1980s, and it’s no longer a global militant group along the same lines as al-Qaeda. Hezbollah is focused on Lebanon and the Lebanese-Israeli front,” Gerges said.

But Hezbollah is also committed to an Islamic outlook. Notwithstanding Shia-Sunni differences, for instance, it is committed to the Palestinian cause. Recently, Sheik Nasrallah defined the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel as not just Hezbollah’s battle, but the umma’s battle, that is the battle of the wider Muslim community across the world.

“If you follow the rhetoric closely, Hezbollah is thinking in bigger terms than the Lebanese terms. It’s thinking in terms of the entire Muslim nation,” Gerges said.

An open question is whether the war has made Hezbollah’s disarmament more or less likely. Before the U.N. Security Council resolution passed last week, Amal Saad Ghorayeb, a professor at Lebanese American University in Beirut and author of Hizbullah: Politics and Religion, was on record as saying there was no way Hezbollah would disarm without a national defense strategy in place, and such a strategy was years away. Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Arab studies at the Middle East Institute at Columbia University, wrote in an Aug. 13 article in the Chicago Tribune that after the month just passed, with Lebanon devastated by Israeli attacks, the idea that this or any Lebanese government would force Hezbollah to disarm is a “perfect fantasy.”

There are new facts on the ground, however, that may change that.

“So far Hezbollah has proved to be not only militarily resilient but politically very pragmatic and intelligent,” Gerges said. “Just on Saturday [Aug. 12], Nasrallah made it very clear that he will accept the deployment of the Lebanese army into southern Lebanon. He also welcomed the deployment of an international force, UNIFIL, in south Lebanon and said he would cooperate. This tells me that Hezbollah is adjusting to the emerging political realities.”

Still, Gerges said how Hezbollah will decide the political calculation it’s facing is uncertain. “This is the most difficult question facing Hezbollah and facing Lebanon in the next few weeks,” he observed.

Other daunting tasks lie ahead, not least of which is the issue of Lebanese reconstruction. “Lebanese civil society is still very tenuous and very fragile,” noted Ibrahim of the Arab-American Institute. “This is a country still recovering from a brutal civil war, and in some respects the issues that led to that conflict have not been fully addressed.”

Margot Patterson is an NCR writer. Her e-mail address is

U.S. involved in planning Israel’s attack, reports say

New information indicates that the United States not only backed Israel in its war in Lebanon but was active in planning it months before the July 12 abduction of two Israeli soldiers that precipitated Israel’s attack on Hezbollah.

A July 21 San Francisco Chronicle article by Matthew Kalman reports, “More than a year ago, a senior Israeli army officer began giving PowerPoint presentations, on an off-the-record basis, to U.S. and other diplomats, journalists and think tanks, setting out the plan for the current operation in revealing detail.”

Seymour Hersh in the Aug. 21 issue of The New Yorker reports that the Bush administration backed the plan for action against Hezbollah because it wished to eliminate Hezbollah as a deterrent to a possible U.S. attack on Iran. Hersh reports that Vice President Dick Cheney took a leading role in promoting the Israeli bombing campaign in Lebanon, which was seen as a demonstration project for what the United States might expect in Iran if it launched its own strategic bombing campaign there.

Iran specialists have argued for some time that Iran’s arming of Hezbollah is designed to deter an Israeli attack on Iran. An Aug. 8 article by historian and policy analyst Gareth Porter that ran on the Inter Press Service News Agency indicates that Iran began to step up its support for Hezbollah in 2004 when Iranian officials first began to fear that the United States might be planning an attack on its nuclear facilities.

An article in the British magazine The New Statesman reported that British Prime Minister Tony Blair had been informed of the military plans for the attack and made no attempt to stop them.

The Bush administration has denied planning with Israel a campaign against Hezbollah in advance.

Barak Ben-Zur, a colonel in the Israeli Defense Forces and a visiting scholar at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, said that there are always conspiracy theories after major political events. The quality of the Israeli performance in Lebanon speaks for itself, he observed.

“If I’m looking at Israeli performance on the ground, I’m not so sure that any strategic expert can say this was a complete and comprehensive strategic plan,” Ben-Zur said.

-- Margot Patterson

National Catholic Reporter, August 25, 2006

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