Official histories of guerrilla movements are double-edged swords. On one hand, they offer rare peeks into internal goings-on in secretive organizations, and on the other, they are apologies for controversial deeds and views. Hezbollah's deputy secretary general, Sheikh Naem Qassem, profiles his Islamist legion as if it were a paragon of virtues, sprinkling occasional candid disclosures. The book is his self-set mission to prove that "the essential nature of Hezbollah is moderate" and to snub Western allegations of terrorism. Despite some dubious assertions, readers benefit from understanding the shrewdness and tact of this radical Lebanese power that rattled Israel.
The early 1960s heralded the embryonic "Islamic condition" in Lebanon. Shi'ite clerics returning from Najaf (Iraq) shaped congregations to give an Islamic redirection to life in the face of dereliction of welfare duties by the state. The imams were outspoken critics of Israel, consecrating belligerent outfits like Amal to assist the Palestinian struggle. Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1978 and the Iranian Revolution in 1979 raised the stakes for ushering in an Islamic government in Beirut through a united resistance army of Muslims based on the jihad structure. Existing militant groups merged to form Hezbollah (Army of Allah) with the blessings of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
Hezbollah was a creation of Iran just as the Taliban was of Pakistan. Qassem, however, claims "no connection between the internal administration of the Iranian state and Hezbollah's administration". (p 57) Further, Hezbollah is credited with "independence in the work arena" (p 237) vis-a-vis Tehran. Spiritually, financially and militarily, the reign of the Iranian ayatollahs was and is Hezbollah's lifeline.
The party had total conviction in the Koran and jihad. It "served Allah and shunned false gods". (p 22) Concern for politics affecting fellow Muslims was paramount. An Islamic state was thought to be "the supreme representation of human happiness". (p 30) Qassem advocates "free public choice" in an Islamic state, though this was belied by Hezbollah's moral policing in Iran and Lebanon. It banned casinos, concerts, dances and beauty contests and defended the gender-iniquitous Muslim personal law by averring, "What God almighty legalizes cannot be prohibited by anyone." (p 213)
Qassem names jihad as "basic behavior in a Muslim's life". When the nation (ummah) was subject to humiliation, the enemy had to be conquered by paying any price. If a Muslim mother fearing bereavement hid her son from battle, it meant "deviation from obedience to God". After losing his own son in 1997 to Israeli bombardment, Hezbollah's secretary general, Hasan Nasrullah, proclaimed, "We do not spare our children. We pride ourselves when our sons fall martyrs." (p.121) The godly promise of victory for jihad was a sufficient motive to keep fighting against injustice. Martyred blood raised "youth's sense of responsibility" and abstracted "tameness and acquiescence among the people". (p 172)
Hezbollah's ideology and party membership center on jihad credentials. Yet, to avoid the pitfall of excluding others in multi-confessional Lebanon, it opened doors to Sunnis, Druzes and Christians through peripheral membership and independent circles. Among 12 Hezbollah MPs in the 1992 Lebanese parliament, there were two Sunnis, one Catholic and one Maronite. The party entered into pragmatic dialogues with Maronite, Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian and Assyrian orders. When Jezzine was liberated from Israeli control in 1999, Hezbollah did not harm the majority Christian civilian population and exhorted abolition of sectarianism. The following year, disciplined Islamist partisans stayed the hand of vengeance against families of Lahdist collaborators.
Uniting Lebanese society against Israel was the chief imperative. The party did not enter the crux of the Lebanese civil war, warding off conflict against internal sectarian factions. Intra-Muslim confrontations were distractions from the Zionist enemy. When the "Palestinian Camps War" broke out in 1985 in Beirut, Hezbollah assisted in its abatement. Clashes with the Amal faction between 1988 and 1990 were dissolved amicably after Iranian and Syrian intervention. Syria's "political cover was needed" often to inhibit recurring tensions with the Lebanese army over deployment and control of the South.
Qassem exults that Hezbollah had no field desertions in its two-decade war with Israel. Abandonment of jihad was a disgrace, loss and demise inviting punishment from God. In Imam Ali's words, "Death shall defeat you in life, and you shall defeat life through death." Citing Ali's son Husain as a role model, Qassem describes love for martyrdom as "part of the love for God". (p 45) Martyrdom vitalized Islam in Lebanon most speedily and prompted Israel to withdraw almost entirely in the year 2000. Qassem quotes a Knesset member, "Hezbollah not only drove our army mad but left the whole of Israel insane." Even after 2000, the war was ongoing in the Sheba Farms region and over the dispute about Arab captives in Israeli prisons. The party engaged in exchange hostage-taking of Israelis, but not of victims belonging to other nationalities.
The proficiency with which Hezbollah executed rocket launches, bombs and trap tactics was matched by a "steadfast desire for highly dangerous activities". Cultivation of dogged belief in martyrdom was a result of "spiritual mobilization" that could "only be as thorough within an Islamic context". (p 75) A successful operation was considered one that wounded, killed or expelled Israeli occupiers. When hurting Israeli soldiers was inadequate to deter the latter's targeting of Lebanese civilians, Hezbollah directly beleaguered Israeli civilians in Palestine. Aggression was met with reciprocity, especially when Israel and the US kidnapped or assassinated fiery Shi'ite clerics in South Lebanon. Being a geographically focused combatant, Hezbollah felt it futile to hit Western targets around the world.
Hezbollah postponed involvement in Lebanese politics for a while, since its primary mission was jihad. Its "Open Letter" was issued in 1985, two years after foundation. The party's decision to jump into electoral politics in 1992 came following intense internal debate about whether it amounted to abandoning the Islamic vision. There was apprehension that representative democracy did not conform to overall Islamic philosophy and that entering parliament would soften the zest for jihad. Hezbollah MPs abstained from participation in government religiously and it was only in 2005 that they accepted a cabinet ministry.
Hezbollah was never convinced of the efficacy of political negotiations with Israel. Resistance was "the only available solution for the power imbalance". (p 73) The May 17 Accord in 1983 under American auspices "cuffed Lebanon within its own territory". The 1989 Taif Accord was unsatisfactory for its failure to eliminate sectarianism. The 1993 Oslo Agreement was "a dangerous free gift to Israel". The only agreement the party appreciated was the Syrian and Iranian-brokered ceasefire in 1996.
Delivery of social services received top priority attention from Hezbollah. It reconstructed buildings damaged by Israeli air raids, distributed water and agricultural credit, and opened health centers, educational institutions and mosques. Special care was taken of civilians injured in the war and for "following up on public and private plights". (p 204)
Hezbollah was fiercely devoted to the Palestinian cause, avowing that "it is not permissible to squander the land of Muslims" and that "liberation is a natural obligation for which all Muslims are liable". (p 168) Targeting of Israeli civilians by Hamas and Islamic jihad was necessary to "achieve balance in the domain of horror". (p 175) Qassem posits Hezbollah's tactics as an inspirational ray of hope for Palestinians.
Shi'ite-Sunni bonding to confront American hegemony was a fundamental tenet of the party. It successfully thwarted US efforts to isolate Hezbollah from its patrons, Iran and Syria. It refused overtures for talks with Washington and checked "the imported view of events from predominating" the Middle East through its radio station, al-Nour, and TV station, al-Manar.
Today, Hezbollah is a reality entrenched at the core of Lebanon, with strong structural basis for endurance. "The believer's ability to resist is permanent and exponential". (p 269) Despite the recent withdrawal of the Syrian army, the party has its ways and means of retaining the protecting hand of Damascus. Given the cyclical nature of Middle Eastern politics, we can be sure that Qassem's committed legionnaires will continue to be major factors in war and peace.
Hizbullah. The Story From Within by Naim Qassem, Saqi Books, London, 2005. ISBN: 0863565174. Price: US$ 42.50, 320 pages.