Part Hizballah, Part Arak

Hizballah is rebranding itself as a national movement.

Baalbek 311 (photo credit: Eldad Beck)
Baalbek 311
(photo credit: Eldad Beck)
THE SCENE BRINGS DOWNtown Jerusalem, in the throes of its endless light rail construction project, to mind: a major thoroughfare in the middle of a vibrant Mediterranean city, blocked to traffic on all sides because someone decided to uproot the existing road in order to pave a new one.
Shopkeepers stand at the doors of their shops, watching the slow excavation works and arguing passionately with their colleagues from neighboring businesses. Nearby, neighbors look down from the verandas of their homes. Representatives of the “domestic security forces,” in dappled uniforms, berets on their heads and humming radios in their hands, supervise the scene, their faces grave and threatening.
A truck pulls up and dumps boiling tar on the part of the road that has been uprooted.
There are more people busily watching the action on the road, voicing their opinions about how it is being done and whether it is needed at all, than there are people who are actually doing the work.
In the middle of the busy, inside-out street, the lamp posts stand tall, like islands of stability in the surrounding storm. Pictures of Nabih Berri, eternal chairman of the Lebanese parliament (the highest political office to which a Lebanese Shi’ite can aspire) and leader of the secular Shi’ite Amal movement, rival-partner of the Hizballah fundamentalist Shi’ite movement, wave from the tops of poles. Next to them are black flags with the symbol of Amal, reminders that despite the excavation upheaval, this is the end of the Arbaeen Festival – the traditional Shi’ite mourning period that marks the death of the founders of this religious stream.
“Well,” a local resident says with a chuckle, “at least you know who is paying for the road repairs. That is how it is in Lebanon. When Eldad Beck Baalbek, Lebanon ELDAD BECK NEW MARKETING: A souvenir seller in Baalbek offers Hizballah T-shirts at discount rates there are elections, the politicians remember they are supposed to do something for the voters.
So now we are having local elections and the whole country is being dug up.”
Posters of Berri in the heart of Baalbek, the indisputable stronghold of Hizballah, might seem surprising, in light of the long political rivalry between the two main Lebanese Shi’ite parties. But they are part of the quiet revolution that Lebanon is experiencing, orchestrated by Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. The revolution began when the Israel Defense Forces withdrew from south Lebanon a decade ago and has been progressing at an accelerated rate since the Second Lebanon War four years ago.
Despite the tremendous destruction caused by the military adventure of the summer of 2006, Nasrallah is still perceived by large parts of the Lebanese public, in all its stripes, as the great winner of the confrontation with Israel and as the symbol of the “struggle against the occupation.” He is viewed as the leader who managed to show that the small, weak and splintered Lebanon could overcome a strong and fearsome enemy. Pictures of Nasrallah hang in stores and private homes. Along the roadsides, giant posters with his bearded and smiling image proclaim an Arab saying, “Oh Mountain, the wind cannot move you.”
The mountain is Nasrallah, the wind is Israel.
Local residents speak of Nasrallah with great admiration. They do not call him by his name but by the honorific “Sayed.”
NASRALLAH MAY BE IN HIDING, fearful of assassination by Israel, but he does not confine himself to the boundaries of his own movement-party. He is not interested in going down in history as yet another sectarian leader, so many of whom have lived and been buried in Lebanon. He wants to become a national leader and he really wants to change the face of Lebanon.
To that end, he extends his hand to one and all and builds alliances. Prior to the recently held municipal elections, Hizballah and Amal decided to run on joint lists, in order to consolidate the political alliance they formed, based on the widespread anti-Syrian popular uprising following the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri – a movement led by Lebanon’s other communities.
Both of the Lebanese Shi’ite parties are Syrian allies. The sweeping patriotic wave that led to the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon five years ago and the end of the Syrian occupation of the Land of the Cedar compromised the Shi’ites’ many achievements, especially the achievement of “chasing” Israel out of south Lebanon. The religious Hizballah and the more secular Amal had no choice other than to cooperate to unite the rest of the pro-Syrian forces in Lebanon from all the ethnic groups around them.
And so, while the anti-Syrian “March 14 Alliance,” headed by current Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated prime minister, is slowly losing strength because of internal conflicts and finds itself committed to reconciliation with Damascus, the pro-Syrian “March 8 Alliance,” headed by Hizballah and Amal, is maintaining unity. “The alliance between those two movements is the basis for a Shi’ite uprising in Lebanon,” the union’s rivals warn.
Nasrallah is reaching out not only to his rivals in the Shi’ite camp. He wants to convince the entire Lebanese public that the fundamentalist Shi’ite “menace” is actually not so bad. Analyzing the results of the last national elections in Lebanon a year ago, Nasrallah understood he had to do this, because, despite his movement’s military and political gains over the past decade, its strength in parliament in Beirut remained unchanged. Nasrallah holds only 12 seats out of 128.
That is no way to lead a revolution.
BAALBEK POINTS IN THE direction Nasrallah is heading. Fourteen years ago, on my previous visit to this historic city, known for its very well-maintained Roman temples and the annual summer international arts festival held among the ruins, it was a gray, sad, closed and isolated city.
During the 1980s, after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Iranian Revolutionary Guards settled in Baalbek, under Syrian auspices.
From here, they began their efforts to change the face of the Shi’ite community in Lebanon, waging a military campaign against Israel and the other Western forces deployed in the torn and bleeding country.
Baalbek, the “City of Sun” as the Romans called it, closed its doors to the world and became one of the leading strongholds of the new movement, Hizballah.
Fourteen years ago, Baalbek was full of Hizballah flags, posters of the leaders of the Islamic revolution in Iran and venomous placards against Israel. Poverty was rampant.
Shops were closed or empty. Women dressed in black garb that covered their entire bodies.
The archaeological site was neglected. Tourists had just started to return to this isolated city in the northern Lebanese Bekaa Valley, only 55 kilometers from the open and cosmopolitan Beirut.
Fourteen years later, Baalbek, with a population of approximately 72,000, is a different city. You can feel the change on the roads that lead to the city through the Bekaa, the fertile valley that lies between the “Lebanon Mountain” – home of the Lebanese cedars and Christians and the mountainous chain of the anti-Lebanon, which traces the border between Lebanon and Syria.
Nowadays, advertisements for the city of Zahle, the Christian capital of the Bekaa, proud of its arak and wine production, hang next to the posters of Hizballah. In its early days, Hizballah used to send its people out to the bars and clubs in Muslim West Beirut to destroy alcoholic beverages. In the mid- 1990s, wine manufacturers in the Bekaa were careful not to annoy their Shi’ite neighbors and avoided “brazen” displays of their wares and business. Today, you can enjoy excellent Lebanese wines from the Ksara winery and pure Zahle arak in Baalbek’s restaurants, and most stores sell alcoholic beverages without any restrictions.
Arak reigns victorious over religious zealotry.
The mood in Baalbek is very different from the atmosphere in Dahiya, the neighborhood in southern Beirut where the Hizballah command’s nerve center is located. Hermetic security measures have been deployed around the fortified compound of the Hizballah leadership, near Beirut International Airport.
There is no free passage.
Hizballah is completely paranoid about spies, agents and saboteurs. Even outside the compound, Hizballah employs psychological terror. The exposure of Israeli spy networks operating in Lebanon has enabled the Shi’ite organization to stir up mass hysteria.
Hizballah and its allies see “Zionist spies” everywhere and accuse all their political rivals of being “Israeli agents.” The buzzwords in current Lebanese discourse are “Zionist collaborator” and a complete “boycott” of everything connected with Israel.
Lebanon has legislation that forbids contact with Israel and Israelis. Lists of people defined as agents are published on various websites. Newspapers make their pages available to anyone who wants to slander and accuse. Many of the members of the pro-Western camp live in constant fear of assassination.
IN LEBANON’S HEYDAY, THE Baalbek Festival, the first art festival in the Arab world, established in the 1950s, attracted the best Arab and international artists.
But the Festival stopped operating during the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 to 1990.
It was renewed in 1996 as a symbol of the rehabilitation of Lebanon as it rose from its ruins, but was canceled again for two years, after the Second Lebanon War. Even though most of the fighting was in the south, an Israeli commando force reached a hospital on the outskirts of Baalbek.
Now, preparations between the ruins of the Jupiter Temple and the almost perfect Temple of Bacchus, god of wine, are again underway.
The Baalbek Festival is scheduled to open this month – unless a new Middle Eastern drama scuttles the plans again.
“This is Nasrallah’s main contribution to changing the situation in Lebanon,” a local resident explains. “He understood that you have to accommodate people. He is a pragmatist, not a pure ideologue. He is a politician at heart and that is why he knows you have to make compromises.
That is why he does not stress the religious aspects of Hizballah but talks about national honor and national unity. That is also the reason he has many supporters in the other sects.
“However, his image and the halo attached to him do not reflect reality. He is not that perfect.
He made many mistakes. One of them was abducting the Israeli soldiers in 2006, which led to war, destruction and devastation,” the resident says.
As part of the concerted effort to present Hizballah as an all-national Lebanese movement, Nasrallah downplays the movement’s ties with Iran. Just before the entrance to the city, you can still see a giant poster with the picture of the father of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini. But that is the only visual presence that acknowledges his sponsors in Tehran.
“A little paradoxically,” admits a local Christian, “Hizballah adopted the official symbols of Lebanon, including the cedar, which has also served the extreme Christian forces who wanted a completely Christian Lebanon. But Hizballah understood that its future lay with at least a superficial integration of the basic Lebanese culture.”
And the Hizballah leadership also understood that its political goals depend on the economic development of its supporters and of the areas under its command. In recent years, the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, one of the poorest and most populated parts of the country – despite its fertile agricultural soil, which still grows drugs despite government efforts to eliminate the industry – has seen economic growth and investment in infrastructures. The road system has been repaired, even when it isn’t an election season. New villas are springing up everywhere. The old, fidgeting cars have been replaced by big shiny ones. And on the streets of Baalbek, the stores teem with plenty and trade is brisk.
But not everyone is enjoying the economic boom yet. At the entrance to the historic site of Baalbek, young men without high school educations surround the busloads of tourists who have returned to the city, offering to sell them T-shirts with the Hizballah symbol or, alternatively, fake Roman coins. Actually, they are more beggars than vendors. The initial asking prices are high but the young men are willing to compromise quickly. They drop the prices to ridiculous lows, just so they can bring some money home. Since Western tourists are not very eager to buy Hizballah shirts, the price quickly drops to two dollars. “There is a high demand for these shirts only among Arab tourists,” admits Hassan, 16, one of the sellers.
No particular military presence is evident on the streets of Baalbek, despite frequent talk of a possible war in the summer and the rising tension between Israel, Hizballah and Syria over the supply of missiles to the Shi’ite organization.
Nor is there anything obvious that would reveal that just a few weeks ago there was a bloody clash on the streets of Baalbek between military forces and the main drug gang in the city, members of the Jaafar clan.
During the raid on the neighborhood controlled by the clan, dozens were injured, including six soldiers. Lebanese newspapers quoted one member of the clan as saying, “They [the soldiers] behaved like a militia, worse than the Israelis.”
THE LEBANESE ARMY IS IN A period of renewal and fortification. The central government is leading a public campaign to present the army as the ultimate forging tool of Lebanese society and the chief guarantor of its unity. “Hand in hand we will build the Lebanon of tomorrow,” says an army advertisement, appropriating the terms of Hizballah’s military resistance. “The dawn of martyrdom will not fade,” and “With martyrdom we shall defend and with labor we shall reap,” other advertisements promise.
Despite the stepped-up campaign against the drug dealers and the official commitment to prevent a leakage of arms to Hizballah, the number of military checkpoints throughout Lebanon has dropped considerably since the expulsion of the Syrian army in spring 2005, after Hariri’s assassination. A cursory inspection of vehicles takes place at the crossing points between one area and another or at the entrances to the major cities. Lebanese soldiers are in charge of the task.
The two rival camps in Lebanon are playing the same card, the card of national unity. The pro-Western camp presents itself as more nationalist and joins in the struggle against Israel. Hizballah offers an introductory lesson in openness and tolerance towards all sects.
The organization is even taking part in the restoration of Beirut’s old synagogue.
But this is a tango of wolves, and they are ready to pounce on each other at any moment.
“Appearances can be misleading,” a local warns. “The situation here is very unstable and volatile and, at any moment, a renewed conflagration between the rival camps can break out.
And then there is the regional context. Will there be a new war this summer? “The Scud affair has us very worried. It is very hard for us to read Nasrallah. On the one hand, he provokes Israel and declares with the Syrians that in the next round Israel will pay a heavier price. Hizballah also promised to avenge the assassination of its military leader Imad Moughniyeh, who died in Syria.
“But does Nasrallah have an interest in starting a new war?” Either way, initiating a Middle East war has become more complicated today because of the interference of the international legal system and the threat of the International Court, which hangs over everyone’s head.
“I am not sure that scares the heads of Hizballah,” the local continues. “Also what are the plans of the Israeli army? Can it stand by while Hizballah arms up?” In any case, Syria has returned to playing a decisive role in Lebanese politics.
Politicians who, until recently, were considered Damascus’s sworn enemies, such as Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, are now seeking its friendship. Even Hariri Jr. reconciled with Syrian President Bashar Asad, accused of murdering his father.
Actually, Hariri had no choice. The international circumstances that just five years ago enabled the “Cedar Revolution,” which opened the way to the expulsion of the Syrian army after the murder of Hariri Sr., faded away after various Western leaders decided, in an effort to pry it away from Iran and thus increase Tehran’s isolation, that Damascus should be removed from its corner of international excommunication.
In the corridors of various European administrations and the US, there is still talk about the need to tighten relations with Damascus in order to allow it to disassociate from Iran. The fact that Damascus is declaratively and publicly maintaining its special relationship with Ahmadinejad’s Iran does not seem to bother the advocates of a policy of reconciliation with Syria in the least.
And this has led many Lebanese to reconsider their attitude towards the senior Syrian brother. Who even remembers the international court established in order to prosecute the murderers of Hariri? After Syria was more or less absolved of responsibility for the murder, that international body has been busy defending itself against accusations that it is not doing anything.
THE SIGNS OF THE WILD, ANTISemitic incitement against Israel, once an inseparable part of the city’s landscape, have been almost completely removed from Baalbek. Somebody understood that that style of propaganda is counterproductive for a city that draws hundreds of thousands of tourists a year.
However, in conversations with young Lebanese from all sects, who do not hide their sympathy for Hizballah, it is clear that the weak glue of national unity is based mainly on feelings of hostility towards Israel, which are often pervasive and absolute. These youths, born after the end of the terrible civil war, have also invented convenient historic myths for themselves.
“Civil war?” a young student from Beirut, who insisted on calling Israel “occupied Palestine,” wonders. “There was no civil war in Lebanon but a war between foreign forces. The Lebanese made a terrible mistake when they chose one side over the other. That war was motivated only by economic interests.
Lebanon is a green spot in the Middle East, water-rich. That is why there was a war here.”
She does not voice even a single word of self-criticism for the role of the Lebanese and the disaster that they brought upon themselves.
But after Hizballah’s “great victory” over Israel, she does not want to hear about any other wars.
“We’ve had enough war,” she says.