It was inspiring to see (on television) Shaikh Hassan Nasrallah address a crowd of 800,000 in South Beirut on Friday afternoon. As usual, he delivered a stirring speech, slipping easily between standard literary Arabic and Lebanese dialect, and aiming his comments at international, Lebanese and Arab audiences.
Over the last few months I have read and heard all kinds of criticism of Hizbullah in the Western media. It is hard to reconcile this with the tremendous admiration that the Arab and Muslim ‘street’ has for the organisation.
I have read that Hizbullah is a misogynist organisation, that its activists spend their free time throwing acid in the faces of women who don’t wear the hijab. This is simply untrue. There were plenty of non-hijab-wearing women at Friday’s rally. Anyone who’s been to Hizbullah strongholds in South Lebanon, South Beirut or the Bekaa valley will tell you that women in lipstick and short skirts walk unharassed in the streets with their muhajjiba sisters. Many of the women invited to speak on al-Manar, Hizbullah’s TV station, do not wear the hijab. Hizbullah women are not prominent in politics or military affairs, but they do play important roles in social welfare and media work.
I have read that Hizbullah is a fiercely sectarian organisation. It is certainly a Shia organisation, but the alliance it leads in Lebanese elections includes Sunnis and Christians. When the resistance managed to finally remove the Israeli occupation in 2000 (after 22 long and bloody years), many people expected the south to degenerate into sectarian mayhem. After all, there were Maronite and Orthodox Christians, Druze, Sunnis, Palestinian refugees, and collaborators with the occupation from all sects, living in the area along with its Shia majority. All these groups had fought each other during the civil war. But Hizbullah kept the peace. At Christmas time, Hizbullah sends cards to Lebanese priests. Never once have we heard from Hassan Nasrallah the kind of poison that we hear from al-Qaida or Salafis about ‘apostates’ or ‘crusaders.’ In Friday’s speech, he pointed out that Lebanon was now split along ideological rather than sectarian lines, and he praised this development.
I have read again and again that Hizbullah is anti-Semitic. The accusation is backed in particular by this statement, attributed to Hassan Nasrallah: “If Jews all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.” The source of this seems to be the New York Times. I can’t say whether Nasrallah actually said this or not. I can just about imagine a rhetorical context in which he might have said it. If he did say it, I think he was wrong. I know that other Hizbullah leaders have generalised from Zionists to Jews, and have used Quranic condemnations of 6th century Arabian Jewish communities to attack Zionism. This is unfortunate and doesn’t help anyone. But I also know that my English grandfather, who nobody ever accused of being a racist, admitted to a deep distrust of Germans (not Nazis) to the end of his life as a result of what he saw and heard in the 30s and 40s. It is not so surprising that Lebanese people, who have suffered several decades of massacre, seige and persecution at the hands of the self-declared ‘Jewish state,’ may sometimes make unwise generalisations and bitter comments. I admit I find it easier to forgive Lebanese blurring of the distinctions between Jew and Zionist than I do to forgive Zionist and Anglo-American blurring of the distinctions between violent resistance to occupation and Islam. And using the Quran to make points about a contemporary conflict is no worse than American Christians using the Old Testament to justify the current ethnic cleansing of Palestine. But I'm worming around here, I know. Anti-Semitism is wrong, even in a war situation. Wrong full stop. If Hizbullah is guilty of it, it is wrong.
I have never heard or seen Nasrallah or any other Hizbullah leader make anti-Jewish comments, and I’ve watched a lot of speeches and interviews. I can however report Nasrallah’s words (more or less) at one rally: Our slogan is Death to America. We do not mean the American people, most of whom are ignorant of the situation in the Middle East. We mean the American government, the American army, the American empire. Our slogan is Death to Israel. We do not mean the Jews, with whom we’ve lived peacefully for centuries. We do not mean the Jewish religion, which is a divinely revealed religion. We mean Zionism which occupies our land and murders our children.
And of course, I’ve read that Hizbullah is a terrorist group that needs to be dealt with for the sake of global peace. I accept that firing katyusha missiles into towns terrorises their inhabitants. My problem here is that the people who call Hizbullah terrorists seem to think that Israeli activity in Lebanon is not terroristic.
Here is the Encyclopedia Brittanica definition of terrorism: “the systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective.”
Dan Halutz, the Israeli Chief of Staff, declared on the first day of the latest war that “Nothing is safe (in Lebanon), as simple as that.” And the 'non-terrorist' US and British backed onslaught showed the truth of these words. The civilian infrastructure of Lebanon was destroyed. 'Legitimate military targets' included factories, power stations, bridges, roads, a Greek Orthodox church, mosques, farm workers, refugee convoys, funeral processions, and thousands of homes. There was a new Qana massacre (the first happened in 1996). Depleted Uranium, cluster bombs and phosphorus were used. The aim of the attack was clearly to terrify the Lebanese civilian population in order to bring about the particular political objective of making them turn on the resistance. Terrorism, on a grand scale.
In contrast, while the overwhelming majority of Lebanese victims of Israeli fire were civilians, the majority of Israeli victims of Hizbullah fire were soldiers. Sadly, a disproportionate number of Israeli casualties were Israeli Arabs. There is a reason for this. While Israeli Jews and even the animals at Haifa zoo are provided with state of the art bomb shelters, the Arab villagers of the Galilee are not.
For more details on Israeli terrorist outrages in this war, and on direct military and political support for these outrages from the US and Britain, you can read this excellent report:
Hizbullah emerged from the murk of civil war Lebanon to become the recognised national resistance movement deterring the occupation in the South. When it pushed the Israelis out in 2000 – the first victory in all the years of Arab-Israeli conflict – it won support from the majority of Lebanese, of all sects. Since then its activity to try to release Lebanese hostages from Israeli dungeons, and to liberate the Shebaa Farms, has been measured and intelligent. It provided a shining example to the Arab world. For the first time, Israel was faced with a fighting force that could stand against it, despite its lack of hi-tech weaponry. For the first time, local people had organised themselves to fight back effectively. For the first time, Arabs were not waiting for their state machineries or the ‘international community’ to help them, they were liberating themselves. (In this last point there is more hope for future democracy than in a thousand years of Western initiatives). What’s more, a Shia group representing the poorest, most marginalised of Arabs was wildly popular amongst the Sunni Muslims of the region. Neither Israel nor America could tolerate the challenge.
Which brings us to the next criticism. I have read that Hizbullah took Lebanon to war. Perhaps the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers on the border was a miscalculation. It aimed to secure the release of Lebanese hostages, and to take pressure off Gaza, which has been drowning in blood since Palestinians kidnapped one Israeli in the hope of securing the release of almost 10,000 Palestinian prisoners. Whether it was wise or not, the border incident was not the cause of the huge onslaught. Condoleeza Rice made this very clear when she said the war couldn’t end until a ‘new middle east’ was born. In other words, until resistance and the possibility of deterrence was killed. The US and Britain did everything they could to stop a ceasefire, to give Israel time to ‘finish the job.’ When Israel was proven unable to even start the job, if the job was to defang rather than strengthen Hizbullah, then they rushed to implement an unfair ceasefire in Israel’s defence.
In any case, the border had been violated by Israel many more times than by Hizbullah. One of the many (unreported in the West) Israeli violations of the Lebanese border since its pullout was its shooting on an unarmed demonstration of Palestinians approaching the barbed wire to greet their relatives inside and to call for return to their villages. Several Palestinians were killed.
So why did Hizbullah call its rally on Friday a Victory Festival? People from countries which start rather than suffer wars find it difficult to understand the victory in having your infrastructure destroyed. And they have a point.
But think of it like this. Israel’s neighbours have been losing wars for decades. In 67 Israel launched a pre-emptive attack which captured the West Bank, the Gaza strip, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and the vast Sinai Peninsula, all in six days. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, it took them a week to reach Beirut, which they proceeded to obliterate. The first world effortlessly walked over the third. The Arabs were defeated psychologically as well as physically. Arab nationalism was discredited along with the Arab state system. Arab optimism dissolved. The Arabs lined up to surrender. (This pyschological defeat is one of the factors leading to the rise of Islamism).
This time, yes, the infrastructure was destroyed, and 1200 Lebanese were killed. But in more than a month, Israeli forces were unable even to fully occupy the villages on the border. This is a historical turnabout, and the Arab peoples know it. None of Israel or America’s war aims were fulfilled. Lebanese of all sects rallied round the resistance. Arab puppet regimes lost more shreds of credibility. Hizbullah was strengthened.
In Friday’s speech, Hassan Nasrallah was far more forthright than usual in his comments on Lebanese politics. He accepted that Hizbullah’s arsenal would eventually have to become the property of the Lebanese army, but said that would only happen when Lebanon had a ‘government of national unity’ capable of protecting its citizens. In other words, he called for a non-sectarian electoral system in Lebanon, in which the vote of a Shia farmer is worth as much as the vote of a Maronite Christian.
Nasrallah’s approach to Arab regimes has previously been diplomatic. On Friday that changed. He said that they are not capable of making peace or war. Why would Israel want to make peace with the Arabs, he asked, if the Arabs are not willing to fight, not willing to boycott, not willing to use oil as a weapon. He said that they are more responsible than Europe and America for starving the resistance government in Palestine. He said that if the choice is between Jerusalem and their thrones, they’ll choose their thrones. The change in tone suggests that Nasrallah foresees a revolutionary future.
And then he said it is possible for the Arabs not only to win back the West Bank, but all Palestine, from the river to the sea. This is language that we haven’t heard for decades from Arab leaders (and when they said so they didn’t mean it). From Nasrallah, who means it, who believes the people can do it, it is music to the ears.
I hope that Israel will delink itself from American imperialism, come to terms with its traumatised origins, and work seriously towards a two state solution in Palestine as a stage on the way to a democratic, secular, unitary state. I honestly believe this would be in the interests of Jews as well as Arabs. I don’t think driving the Jews into the sea is either desirable or possible. But the option of fighting to end the ethno-state (as opposed to driving out the Jews) must be on the table. The Arabs have been trying to surrender for more than thirty years, and their surrender hasn’t been accepted by Israel or the US, who always want more. If a balance of terror is what we need to establish to make Israel think seriously about just peace, then let’s establish it.