Terror threat

Hezbollah is gaining traction in Lebanon, but how much influence does the Party of God have in a region of 300 million Arabs?

Beirut Street 520 (photo credit: Bloomberg)
Beirut Street 520
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
Rani Bazzi was 39 years old, and had spent his entire life fighting Israel. He spoke perfect English and had studied engineering. He had moved to Bint Jbail, a major village in southern Lebanon near the Israeli border that was a center of Hezbollah activity. There Bazzi encouraged his extended family to remain in the country and fight Israel. He spent time in an Israeli prison. He explains that to become a Hezbollah fighter, a man “must want it. It is not easy to become a fighter. He must be an honest guy. He must not be following girls, he must not drink alcohol.”
For all the talk of not following girls, however, Bazzi’s speech is peppered with descriptions of women. “They say to the fighters of Hezbollah that your equipment is like your woman, so if you run away you take your woman.” Before the 2006 war with Israel “we were waiting for combat like a man awaits his bride.”
Thanassis Cambanis’s book is full of such profiles of the fighters and supporters who make up Hezbollah’s ranks. A lecturer at Columbia University, Cambanis is a journalist who covered the Middle East as the Boston Globe’s bureau chief and also for The New York Times. He became intimately familiar with Lebanon; “during the six years of reporting in the Middle East I encountered no popular movement that rivaled Hezbollah as a militia or an ideological force.”
What seems to have shocked him is that so many of its members were “educated middle-class types... professionals with alternatives and aspirations.” They were businessmen who had lived in America, diamond merchants from Africa, collegeeducated men who had received a liberal Western education, and they even spoke English with American accents. It seems that when something strikes so close to home, which is to say that it seems to imply any American could be a Hezbollah supporter, then a Western journalist begins to ask “what is this?” Cambanis is both surprised and honest about the Party of God. For instance when Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, leaving behind its Christian allied militias, “[Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah ordered his followers to keep their hands off all collaborators.” The evidence for this is that “I met [a] Hezbollah [operative] who recalled years later how instead of meting out vigilante justice they cordoned off the collaborator villages and protected their erstwhile tormentors from harm.”
The reader has to take the author and Nasrallah’s word for it, we will never know; perhaps in reality all those suspected of “collaboration” were rounded up and shot. But Cambanis doesn’t see Hezbollah through rose-tinted glasses – the organization “also draws on a deep well of hatred of Jews... many of Hezbollah’s followers express anti-Semitic sentiments.”
The author writes as if giving a sort of briefing about the organization. “Three things distinguish Hezbollah from other Islamist movements in the region: its clearly articulated ideology; the fervor of its followers; and its success at expanding membership and inflicting military harm against its enemies.”
Hezbollah has successfully “taken over the Lebanese state from within” to the degree that it is the state and the rest of Lebanon is merely the “ruins of another.”
The author stresses the “secrets” that bring Hezbollah success. “Its followers believe, ideology matters to them.” In this they resemble a sort of blend between oldstyle communist ideologues and modern “revolutionary” Islamism.
The book jumps back and forth between vignettes of individual supporters of the organization and a history of its rise. There is a straightforward narrative of its history in Chapter 3, from the bombing of the US Marine barracks in 1983 to its official founding in 1985 and its long war against Israel. He narrates its theological underpinnings, which include the teachings of Iranian-born Musa Sadr, and the theological swamp in which it was born.
The main problem with the book is that it truly suffers from tunnel vision. From the perspective of the streets of Beirut, or the ruins of some villages in south Lebanon, perhaps Hezbollah is an important political party. The author speaks of how Hezbollah has millions of supporters, many of whom are “Lebanon’s estimated 1 to 2 million Shia.”
Cambanis claims that “across the Arab and Islamic world people on the street began hoisting Hassan Nasrallah’s portrait...
a leader who resonated like no one had since” Ayatollah Khomeini and Gamal Abdel Nasser. Later he claims “no group has mastered the formula for radical strength as Hezbollah has done.” This seems overdone.
Hezbollah is important. It is used by Iran to spread nefarious influence in Lebanon and as a proxy against Israel. Hamas learns from it. It has terror and financial networks in South America, the US, Africa, Europe and even Mexico. But so does the Mafia. Yes, Palestinians talk about Nasrallah’s “resistance,” but it is a fleeting admiration.
In a region of 300 million Arabs, Hezbollah’s influence is pretty minuscule, and with the current wave of protest in the region, it seems even less influential.
Nevertheless Cambanis has written an interesting and compelling account that looks inside the organization and its role in Lebanon.