Hizbullah strong as ever, Lebanon blogger tells 'Post'

Totten raises money from readers and publishes dispatches from the Middle East on his Web site.

michael totten (photo credit: Coutesy)
michael totten
(photo credit: Coutesy)
Hizbullah has now regained its strength after last summer's war, with the aid of Syria and Iran, according to Michael J. Totten, an internationally known blogger who covers the Middle East. "Hizbullah is as strong, or at least nearly as strong, as they were last July," Totten told The Jerusalem Post this week. Totten has lived in Beirut for a period and splits his time now between the Middle East and Portland, Oregon. He spent time in Lebanon and Israel during and after last year's war, and has met with many of the leaders of sects and parties in Lebanon, including Hizbullah. Totten raises money from readers and publishes dispatches from the Middle East on his Web site, michaeltotten.com. With the financial help of his readers, Totten moved to Beirut to blog from the ground. He is distinct among bloggers in that he supports himself through blogging, and has a dedicated following across the political spectrum. He considers himself an "American centrist," saying his views on Israel are "mainstream," even though he says "I often disagree with what Israel does." He talked with the Post about what he sees lies ahead regarding Hizbullah. What are Hizbullah's plans with regards to Israel? Do they wish to engage Israel again anytime soon? Hizbullah says they want to continue their "resistance" against Israel indefinitely. Most, if not all, their weapon stocks depleted from the war in July have been replenished from Iran via Syria. Hizbullah requires an open-ended war with Israel as an excuse to exist as an illegal militia and a parallel government, a state within a state. They would have to disarm and evolve into a mainstream political party like everyone else if their war with Israel were to come to an end. So they need the war, even if the war injures them terribly, because war gives them power over other Lebanese sects and political parties. Peace with Israel is Hizbullah's worst nightmare. Small border skirmishes don't really register in Lebanon, but medium-sized battles with Israel help Hizbullah a great deal. It gives them propaganda points. They can say "See, Israel is our enemy and only we can fight them. So we cannot give up our weapons." It's theoretically possible that Hizbullah fears Israel now more than ever and never intends to fight again. I doubt this is the case, though, because Hizbullah's headquarters are not in Lebanon. Hizbullah's decision-makers are in Teheran and Damascus. If Israel wants to deter Hizbullah, Israel will need to deter Teheran and Damascus. No amount of damage inflicted on Beirut will deter Hizbullah. They themselves are in a state of near-war with Beirut and the Lebanese government. Do you know anything about the kidnapped soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev? I wish I did. You have met with some of the Hizbullah bigwigs. What are your personal impressions of the group? They're thugs. Hizbullah's former media relations liaison Hussein Naboulsi threatened me with violence because I cracked a joke about them on my blog. He was the same guy who led CNN's Anderson Cooper around by the nose during the war. Cooper wasn't impressed either and he explained on national television how they operate, how they maniupulate journalists. I was detained by Hizbullah at one of their events because they suspected an American colleague of mine was Jewish. They didn't harm either of us, but they did physically detain us for over an hour. They screamed at us - mostly at him, actually - and deleted pictures from his camera. Two days later they threatened me. Chris Allbritton, who sometimes works for Time Magazine, briefly mentioned on his blog during the war that several journalists he knows were threatened by Hizbullah because of what they were writing. I interviewed one of Hizbullah's top officials, Muhammad Afif - who is Naboulsi's brother, by the way - but I never published the interview. It was boring and useless. My translator told me that everything he said to me was exactly, word for word, what Hizbullah says every day on their Al Manar TV station. He was a Hizbullah robot, basically. I learned much more about how Hizbullah really thinks from talking to random civilians who support them, and by talking to Lebanese who can't stand them. Are Syria and Iran still supplying Hizbullah? Have they recovered from the war last summer? Absolutely. Hizbullah is as strong, or at least nearly as strong, as they were last July. Iran and Syria will continue supplying Hizbullah until they fear the consequences of continuing their support or until no one in Lebanon is willing to receive their support. Right now everyone who dies because of Syrian and Iranian support for Hizbullah is Lebanese or Israeli. They have no reason to stop until that equation is altered. What role is Iran playing in Lebanon? Hizbullah is a creation of and proxy for Iran's Revolutionary Guards. The Iranian regime is Hizbullah's primary patron and armorer. Syria acts as a logistical middle man, basically, between Teheran and South Lebanon. The Iranian regime projects military power beyond its borders more than any other state in the Middle East. Hizbullah is Iran's imperial project in Lebanon, their base so to speak in the Levant. The Iranians are primarily interested in using Hizbullah as a weapon against Israel while the Syrians are primarily interested in using Hizbullah as a weapon against Lebanon. How has Lebanon recovered from this summer? It depends on which region we're talking about. The South and Beirut's southern suburbs sustained heavy damage. I recently returned from Bint Jbail, Hizbullah's de-facto capital in South Lebanon. The city center is almost completely in ruins. The outskirts are in fine shape, but the downtown is practically gone. Rubble has been cleared out of the way, but I saw no evidence of any reconstruction there whatsover. Maroun al Ras, the first village Israel occupied during the war, is in similar condition. Haret Hreik, Hizbullah's capital south of Beirut, looks like World War II hit the place. Whole swaths of towers are just gone. Again, rubble has been cleared but reconstruction hasn't begun. At least I didn't see any. The rest of the country was less damaged to begin with, so rebuilding is cheaper, easier, and faster. Bombed bridges are under reconstruction along the coastal highway. Traffic is a mess because the work isn't finished, but the work will be finished soon and there will be no evidence a war even happened. The Israel Air Force bombed Lebanon's milk factory for reasons I still don't understand. There were still severe milk shortages in Lebanon at least as recently as Christmas. I don't know if that's still the case. The airport seemed completely undamaged. It looked and functioned exactly as it did every time I flew into and out of Beirut before the war. The terminal was reportedly destroyed by the Israeli Air Force, but as it turned out that didn't happen. The economy is still in bad shape, but it's hard to say how much of that is because of the war and how much of it is a result of Hizbullah's ongoing siege in the capital. You have traveled in Palestinian refugee camps and the territories, yet your writings come across as fair and at times even pro-Israel. What are your ideological views? I'm an American, so I think in American political terms. Within the American political system I'm basically a centrist. I vote for both Democratic and Republican candidates and suspect I will do so for a very long time. Each party gets some things right and some things wrong. A huge majority of Americans support Israel. I'm right in the mainstream when it comes to Israel, even though I often disagree with what Israel does. I thought the invasion of Lebanon was foolish, counterproductive, and a waste of money and lives in both Lebanon and Israel. But I sympathize with what Israel was trying to do, and of course with Israel's right to exist and defend itself. So my criticism wasn't the shrieking axe-grinding kind that I'm sure you're all too familiar with. If Israel would have clearly won the war last summer I would have changed my mind, admitted I was wrong, and supported it in hindsight.