Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Who can defend Hizbullah now?

The year 1982 was not a very good one to be a Lebanese civilian. Their infrastructure annihilated by seven years of civil war, their puny national army overwhelmed by sectarian militias and tribal warlords, they began to find themselves once more the unwilling hosts of the latest round of the war between Israelis and Palestinians that formally began in 1948. In June, following the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to the UK by the Palestinians, the Israelis officially invaded. By August, having pitilessly and more or less indiscriminately bombarded their way north through Tyre, across the Litani and then into Sidon, the Israelis (and their brazenly fascist Christian Phalangist allies) had encircled Beirut itself. A full scale humanitarian disaster looked (and was) imminent. Even worse, every dwelling to the south of the city that hadn’t already been eviscerated by the IAF was enveloped within a military occupation that with each passing day looked increasingly indistinguishable from the ones established on the West Bank and in Gaza. Despite Israel’s declared intention to stay ‘not one minute’ longer than ‘necessary’, reasonable people could be excused for supposing that this was an arrangement with the potential to become permanent. 

Indeed, in Drs. Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky’s seminal 1999 book, Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel, they make the disquieting observation that during the invasion (codenamed, in all apparent seriousness, ‘Operation Peace for Galilee’), 

[T]he military rabbinate in Israel [...] exhorted all Israeli soldiers to follow in the footsteps of Joshua and to re-establish his divinely ordained conquest of the land of Israel. This exhortation of conquest included extermination of non-Jewish inhabitants. The military rabbinate published a map of Lebanon in which the names of Lebanese towns had been changed to the names of cities found in the Book of Joshua. Beirut, for example, was changed to Be’erot. The map designated Lebanon as land belonging to the ancient tribes of Israel, Asher and Naphtali. (New Edition, p. 64.)

This crass reminder of Lebanon’s inclusion within the biblical Eretz Yisrael was supplemented by citations such as Deuteronomy 11:24, in which the ancient Israelites are told by God that “Every place whereon the soles of your feet shall tread shall be yours: from the wilderness and Lebanon, from the river, the river Euphrates, even unto the uttermost sea shall your coast be”. Put simply, the military rabbinate was calling not just for occupation but for the total annexation of Lebanon into a Greater Israel. 

Not many people at the time were prepared to prevent this outcome – not, for instance, Arafat’s PLO, who had been offered a choice between exile and extermination, and opted for the former. Nor could the job be entrusted to the laughable UNIFIL ‘peacekeeping’ force, who had been failing to enforce a mandated Israeli withdrawal from the country since 1978. The humiliated Syrian army had neither the will nor the ability to seriously confront the forces that had so comprehensively demonstrated their superiority. And it certainly wasn’t going to be taken care of by the Americans, whose broken promise of protection to the Palestinians in Lebanon was to lead directly to the infamous rape and massacre of thousands of unarmed men, women and children at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps.

Instead the task was left to a then-obscure affiliation of Shia militiamen, who journalists suddenly noticed fighting with unusually fearless disregard for their own lives. Not coincidentally - nor immediately explicably - journalists also noticed amongst their ranks hundreds of members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, who spoke warmly and candidly about ‘martyrdom’, and the splendours of its associated divine rewards (a theme that I suspect the reader may have heard before). More ominously (as we now know), they spoke of the importance above all of emulating the recent events in Tehran elsewhere across the region, and of indoctrinating the Lebanese in particular with Khomeini’s idiosyncratic brand of Islamic morality. Here, for example, is an Iranian revolutionary guard encountered by Robert Fisk in the eastern Lebanese town of Baalbek:

We want to guide and inform the people of Lebanon. Our only goal is to Islamicise the place and, as the Imam Khomeini says, we have to export the Islamic revolution to the world. So, like any other Muslims, we have come here with the aim of saving the deprived Palestinians and the deprived Lebanese. [My italics.] (Fisk, R., Pity the Nation, Third Edition, p. 470) 

The successful infiltration of this Iranian fanaticism into the existing Lebanese Shia Amal ranks marked the germination of the party we now know as Hizbullah. Galvanised by their self-proclaimed ‘love of martyrdom’, the Shiites embarked on an unprecedented campaign of attacks on Israeli military targets that pushed the IDF steadily further from Beirut until finally, in February 1985, they withdrew from the southernmost town of Tyre. To be sure, many of these attacks targeted civilians, such as the disgusting 1983 suicide bombing of the US Embassy, and fully deserve the description ‘terrorist’. But then, the Israelis also routinely targeted civilians – or, at any rate, were indifferent to the existence of civilians within their targets – and on a scale that Hizbullah couldn’t have matched in its wildest fantasies. As Christopher Hitchens – hardly a friend of Hizbullah – put it:

I hate and despise Hezbollah and Palestinian suicide-murderers, as they ought to be called, but they’d have to work day and night for years to equal the total of civilians killed in Lebanon alone, or by Sharon alone.

Yet however impressive the achievement, or desirable the outcome, it’s a moral imbecile who can convince himself of Hizbullah’s (entirely self-declared) status as a ‘resistance’ movement. The plain fact is that it is an aggressor movement – and of the most totalitarian and theocratic kind at that. 

One way to see this is to consider the many and various policies of Hizbullah that would appear to have very little at all to do with ‘resisting’ Israel. My favourite example is their continuing effort to intimidate shop owners - invariably in the poorer parts of the country - into closing down alcohol stores, but any Lebanese could think of one for themselves without a moment’s pause. In Fisk’s monumental Pity the Nation, widely held to be the finest personal account of the 1975-90 wars in the English language, he finds the Islamicisation in full force as early as 1983:

[T]he reticent and bearded young men [...] closed off the streets of [Baalbek] for the Ashoura ceremonies commemorating the death of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet. Many Lebanese girls in Baalbek had been compelled to wear the chador and revolutionary guards walked the streets with rifles in their hands [...] [and] in one street a 35-foot mural of Iranian women shrouded in black robes urged Lebanese women to remember their modesty. (p. 469.)

What exactly is this ‘resisting’, other than the prevailing culture of pluralism and individual liberty for which the Lebanese had always been justly renowned? 

Another way is to consider the party’s open alliances with the ostentatiously murderous regimes in Iran and Syria. As well as exemplifying its embracing of, as opposed to its resistance to aggression, these egregious allegiances make an utter mockery of Hizbullah’s claims to represent ‘pan-Arab’ interests. In October 2010, while the blood was still drying on the streets of Tehran, Hizbullah's Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah welcomed Ahmadinejad to Lebanon as a “great and dear guest”, urging the crowd to “testify that the Iranian Islamic Republic is one of the greatest guarantees for an end to wars” and concluding that “[the Iranian] republic in its leadership, people and government is a grace from God".

And now in 2011 Nasrallah has managed to surpass this despicable combination of demagogy and despot-worship. Only last month, at exactly the first moment in modern history when Arabs truly are uniting as one against their common enemies of autocracy and corruption, Nasrallah chose instead to tighten the screws of repression; to stand by the Assad crime family and to insult the memories of the more than 1,100 Syrian dead by daring to suggest that “the majority of the Syrian people still support this regime and [believe] in President Assad’s ability to introduce reform”, and otherwise dutifully echoing the party propaganda:

We, in Lebanon and especially in Hezbollah, are highly grateful to Syria, its leadership, its President Hafiz Assad and President Bashar Assad.
[T]he Syrian leadership is convinced with its people [of] the need to implement reform, [fight] corruption and [open] new horizons in the Syrian political life.  We believe – I personally believe and this is not built on analysis but rather on direct discussions and declarations - that Syrian President Bashar Assad believes and is serious and determined about reform. I even know more. I know that he is ready to take very great reform steps but with serenity, care and responsibility.
In Syria the regime is not closed. On the contrary he is saying I am ready and I believe in reform and I am serious and I want to carry them.

Moreover, it ought to go without saying that no organisation that defines itself by any one, single religion could ever be said to represent ‘pan-Arab’ interests (it’s precisely for this reason that the old pan-Arab parties of the ‘50s and ‘60s were supposed to be staunchly secularist). In Lebanon alone, I can think off the top of my head of nine distinct indigenous faiths*, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the true figure were double that. And when that organisation not only defines itself by one faith, but actively partakes in the slaughter of rival faiths – as Hizbullah has been caught doing against Sunnis in Iraq – its claim to pan-Arabism becomes more ridiculous still.  

And this is the crucial point that needs to be made every time Hizbullah is mentioned in the same breath as ‘resistance’: above all else, Hizbullah is – as its very name gives away, for Christ’s sake – a religious fundamentalist party, whose interest in combating Israelis is entirely secondary to its primary ambition, which is – just like the messianic settlers on the West Bank, and their Christian Zionist sponsors in the USA – to run society in accordance with its particular holy texts and tenets. In the case of Hizbullah, this plan necessitates acting as the local chapter or subsidiary of the broader Twelver Shiite theocracy in Tehran. Not only the Lebanese, but the Palestinians too deserve better than this baneful and benighted barbarism. 

* Including, by the way, Judaism. On a recent trip to Beirut I went to see the Maghed Avraham synagogue in the Wadi Abu Jamil district, practically touching the Parliament building, its Star of David and Hebrew lettering newly restored after heavy shellfire in the war. Any guess as to which army was responsible for the damage? It was, of course, the IDF, which raises some interesting questions - does it not? - about their repeated claims to hit 'terrorists only', and to do so with 'pinpoint accuracy' at that.

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