A Privilege to Die : Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel
HOW HAS HEZBOLLAH, WHICH HAS NOW WON TWO WARS WITH ISRAEL, managed to become the most dynamic movement in the Islamic world, why do millions share its beliefs, and what do they want? The Islamic revolutionary movement has become the most powerful source of militancy in the Middle East, forging a mass following and global appeal. A Privilege to Die offers the first on-the-ground look at the men and women whose fervor has made Lebanon's Party of God the gold standard for radical movements across the region and the world.
Through deep and vivid portraits of those who do Hezbollah's grassroots work--on the battlefields, in politics, in nightclubs, and with scout troops--Thanassis Cambanis, a veteran Middle-East correspondent, puts a human face on the movement that has ushered in a belligerent renaissance and inspired fighters in Gaza, the West Bank, Egypt, Iraq, and beyond. This riveting, remarkable narrative provides an urgent and important exploration of militancy in the Middle East.
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September 27, 2010
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Excerpt from A Privilege to Die by Thanassis Cambanis
THE PARTY OF GOD
Hezbollah has captivated the Arab world with a radical new belief, decisively changing an entire region's dynamics and paving the way to a long path of wars. Put simply, Hezbollah has convinced legions of common men and women that Israel can be defeated and destroyed--and not just in the distant future, but soon. With more success than any other Islamist group, Hezbollah has harnessed modern politics and warfare to mobilize millions of dedicated supporters and soft sympathizers under its banner of resistance against Israel. Theirs is not a quixotic quest for dignity, a symbolic but doomed fight for the sake of empowerment; Hezbollah's militancy has had concrete consequences for Israel and has propagated a new wave of aggressive Islamist action. Hezbollah has achieved military success in nearly three decades of guerilla war against Israel, first expelling the Israel Defense Forces from the "security zone" they occupied in South Lebanon for nearly two decades, and then frustrating Israel's objectives in the war it fought against Hezbollah in 2006. Now Hezbollah has the Islamic world's ear, and is spreading a gospel of perpetual war. Hezbollah is persuading a growing swath of Arab society to follow its example: militarize fully and confront Israel at every opportunity. In 2006, Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and provoked a war that left Lebanon physically in shambles. But Hezbollah emerged euphoric. Its militia had thwarted Israel's land advance, and the Jewish state failed to reach any of its declared war aims--the release of its captured soldiers, stopping Hezbollah from firing rockets, and dismantling Hezbollah's militia along the border. Hezbollah moved from the backbenches to the center of power within the Lebanese government. And Hezbollah's rise thwarted the United States' carefully laid plans for a friendly, secular, liberal Lebanon securely at peace with Israel. Today Hezbollah preaches humility to its followers while acting anything but humble to expand its power and influence across the Islamic world.
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general and charismatic supreme leader of Hezbollah, commands more popularity in the Middle East than any other leader.1 Unusual among the region's militants, he has frequently shown restraint and political savvy, but Nasrallah has encountered his greatest political success through confrontation. Speaking in November 2009 on the annual holiday that commemorates the "martyrs" of the Islamic Resistance, Nasrallah sounded like he was spoiling for another war with Israel:
I say we are ready. Here I vow again before the souls of the martyrs, which are alive and present, saying: O Barak, Ashkenazi, Netanyahu and Obama!2 Let the whole world listen. Send as many squads as you want: five, seven or the whole Israeli army. We will destroy them in our hills, valleys and mountains.
Well into another millennium, Nasrallah and Hezbollah have woven a new reality for their followers, built on ideology, identity, faith, and practice. Hezbollah has delivered tangible social gains for its followers, like the $400 million reconstruction of the onetime refugee slums of southern Beirut to be completed in 2010, replete with gleaming glass residential towers that resemble luxury hotels. It has won tactical military victories against Israel, unlike the other Middle Eastern regimes that ineffectually rail against Israel. As a growing movement with transnational appeal, Hezbollah has broken the crusty traditions of Arab politics to craft a big-tent party platform that speaks to people's mundane aspirations: economic reform, affordable health care, round-the-clock electricity, efficient courts, and community policing. Most important of all, however, Hezbollah has shifted the norms of Middle Eastern politics with its fast-spreading ideology of perpetual war. Hezbollah has inculcated millions--including many beyond Lebanon's borders--into its ideology of Islamic Resistance. The credo is catchy and thoroughly thought out; and it is coupled to an unusually effective program of militancy and mobilization. That recipe has put Hezbollah in the pilot's seat in the Middle East, steering the region into a thicket of wars to come. And it has made Hezbollah dangerous not only in the short term, as a military threat to Israel and to the pragmatic, compromise-seeking Arabs in its neighborhood, but over the long term as the progenitor of an infectious ideology of violent confrontation against Israel and the United States, which is vilified as the ultimate backer of the Jewish State.
During six years of reporting in the Middle East I encountered no popular movement that rivaled Hezbollah as a militia or an ideological force. In Lebanon I met men and women prepared to die, or sacrifice their children, for Hezbollah's program, but they defied the mold of dreary desperation that characterized other extremists. Educated middle-class types populated Hezbollah's legions, professionals with alternatives and aspirations, who lived multidimensional lives not much different from those of my friends in America. They were engineers, teachers, merchants, landlords, drivers, construction workers; they had jobs and children. They weren't broken miserable people, turning in their hopelessness to Hezbollah; they were willing actors who had come to embrace Hezbollah's view of the world, a heady mix of religion, self-improvement, and self-defense that translated into a sustained wave of toxic and powerful militancy. I met mothers who grieved their dead children but encouraged their surviving brood to join Hezbollah's militia; they differed from Palestinians I'd met in the confidence they projected. These Hezbollah mothers sometimes sounded sad, but never unhinged or cornered. Hezbollah's followers were as notable for their discipline and restraint as for their willingness to die. Israel occupied about one-tenth of Lebanon's territory from 1982 to 2000, a strip of South Lebanon that Israel euphemestically termed "the security zone." When Israel left the occupied area under fire from Hezbollah in May 2000, it left behind thousands of collaborators, including men who had beaten and tortured Hezbollah fighters on behalf of the Israelis. Nasrallah ordered his followers to keep their hands off all collaborators, leaving their judgment to Lebanese courts. I met Hezbollah fighters who recalled years later how instead of meting out vigilante justice they cordoned off the collaborator villages and protected their erstwhile tormentors from harm--an act less of mercy than of political calculation, which ultimately gained Hezbollah more power than it ever before had possessed. Nasrallah's personal charisma has played a major role in Hezbollah's rise. He has run the party since 1992, steadily consolidating the fidelity of its inner ranks while expanding Hezbollah's reach among soft supporters. A pudgy man with a handsome mouth, a mellifluous voice, and the black turban that signals direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed, Nasrallah has come of age along with the Islamist Party that he took over almost two decades ago when he was only thirty-one years old. His speeches alternate between humor and invective, steady exposition of Arab politics and appeals to gut anger, systematic analyses of Israeli policy, and racist hatred of Jews.
Under Nasrallah's leadership, Hezbollah steadily has expanded its number of followers and its share of political power, in no large part because the Party of God is just as happy to use the tools of coercion as of persuasion. Within its primary target constituency of Lebanese Shia, Hezbollah ruthlessly quashes any serious threat to its monopoly on force and power. Hezbollah has thwarted any attempt to organize alternative Shia parties, either religious or secular. It has crushed as potential traitors individuals who publicly doubt whether Hezbollah's militant approach best serves its supporters' interests. The party tolerates free speech and political dissent only from weak actors, to forge the impression of openness. But Hezbollah will allow no competing organization to provide social services. It brooks no political challenges, accepting only one other Shia politial party, the Amal Movement, which has long been subsumed into Hezbollah's ambit as a junior partner. Those who dare question Hezbollah's policies or bona fides face the withering power of the party to ostracize and economically marginalize them. Those who challenge the party more forcefully, or are suspected of disloyalty, might disappear or end up imprisoned. Hezbollah's constituency and its skeptical neighbors know that the hand extended in invitation easily turns into a fist. But Hezbollah has convinced many audiences to overlook or forgive its brutal side as an unavoidable consequence of war, highlighting instead the party's humanitarian wing and ideas-based agenda.
Hezbollah's ideology might seem incoherent were it not so successful; but the Party of God has been able to market its ideas effectively because success sells. Perpetual war has perpetuated the movement; Islamic Resistance has brought power to its adherents; and Hezbollah's web of embedded institutions, including courts, schools, militias, and hospitals, has dramatically raised its community's standard of living. So long as it continues to deliver, Hezbollah's number of followers continues to grow. Roughly put, Hezbollah teaches a sort of Islamist prosperity agenda, a doctrine of militant empowerment. People must live with dignity, and that means taking the offensive on every level: against Israel, the regional military bugbear; against poverty; against immorality; and against ignorance. The opposite of powerlessness is power, Hezbollah teaches, and only strong people can better their lot. It's a compelling gospel of self-improvement, and it easily translates into specific prescriptions for demoralized Middle Easterners, especially members of the long-downtrodden Shia sect of Islam. Hezbollah preaches strength through discipline. It steeps its membership in Islamic teachings about everything from safe sex and hygiene to family responsibilities and financial planning. Hezbollah encourages its constituents to work hard and seek more prosperous lives for their families, and teaches them that an individual's power stems from his relationship to the ummah, or community. The more powerful the community, the better off its members. Millions have joined Hezbollah's community, freely volunteering their time or donating their money to the Party of God, adopting its militia and bureaucracy as an extension of their own families.
The holy struggle against Israel weaves together these manifold ideological strands. Above all hangs the war against the Jewish State and, implicitly, its guarantors in the United States. Anger toward Israel unifies Hezbollah's followers in the face of the internal strains and ideological contradictions that might otherwise weaken the movement. An almost primal and simple teaching informs and at times dwarfs all others: Resistance. It is difficult to contain a militant movement that includes not only fully indoctrinated Shia Islamists but soft sympathizers lured by identity politics and held in place by Hezbollah's impressive network of social services. When it proves too difficult to hold this coalition together with Islamist teachings, Hezbollah can always invoke its trump card--the War Against Israel. Israel's very existence amounts to a casus belli for many Hezbollah followers.
Nasrallah regularly reminds his millions of listeners across the Arab world that his "Axis of Resistance" has wrung more concessions from Israel by force than the group of pro-Western leaders that might be called the "Axis of Accommodation" has through decades of negotiation. As Nasrallah said in his November 2009 Martyrs Day speech:
Eighteen years of [Palestinian] negotiations resulted in failure, frustration, forfeiture, humiliation and the persistence of occupation. On the other hand, eighteen years of resistance in Lebanon [from 1982 to 2000] led to the liberation of Beirut, the Southern Suburbs, Mount Lebanon, Beqaa and the South from the Zionist occupation and the restoration of our dignity and esteem without anyone in the world begrudging us that. . . . God willing with our resistance, unity, cooperation and firmness and the moral blessings of the blood of martyrs, we will turn any threat into an opportunity.
Hezbollah's followers have embraced the notion that it's better to fight and die with dignity than live comfortably without it. And so they scorn the Arab governments that argue that it's far better to avoid open war and instead live in an uncomfortable peace with Israel, like the regimes of Egypt and Jordan do, or even in awkward but nonviolent coexistence, as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia effectively does.
In taking the leadership of the region's militant wave, Hezbollah has capitalized on diffuse anger about Israel's policies toward Gaza and in the West Bank, including the growth of settlements. The failure of the Palestinian Authority to reach a settlement with Israel nearly twenty years after signing the Oslo Accords has weakened advocates of compromise while strengthening Hezbollah's "resistance camp." But Hezbollah also draws on a deep well of hatred of Jews, knowingly and cleverly intertwining it with the bubbling vein of anger at Israeli policy. Sensitive to international opinion, Hezbollah leaders speak pointedly about Israeli, rather than "Jewish," policies in their speeches. Ever since an infamous speech in May 1998, Nasrallah has avoided anti-Semitic invective. On that occasion, he mourned the "historic catastrophe and tragic event" of the founding of "the state of the Zionist Jews, the descendants of apes and pigs." Since 2000, his public language has been more measured. Nasrallah in his subsequent rhetoric has carefully observed that Hezbollah's complaint was against "Zionist policy," and not Jews in general or the religion of Judaism. At moments of high passion, however, his words drip with unmistakable hatred. In the May 1998 speech he derided the idea of coexistence, "life with the Zionist Jews as nonsense," extolling instead "a reality in which every man, young and old, loves to blow himself up to tear apart the bodies of the invading, occupying Jews." Even today, Nasrallah frequently refers back to the Prophet Mohammed's battles against Jewish tribes and on occasion conflates "Jews" with Israeli policy.
Throughout the Arab world, many people use the words "Israeli" and "Jew" interchangeably when discussing the Middle East conflict. Hezbollah has fused a tradition of Islamic Resistance with a much older tradition of anti-Semitism. Many Hezbollah supporters I met professed to harbor no malice toward Jews, only toward the specific Israelis who had wronged them. Much like their leader Nasrallah, however, they often lapsed into racist generalities, a disturbing ambiguity that tainted Hezbollah.
In the modern Middle East, racist attitudes thrive even among populations that coexist peacefully, including Arabs and Jews living within Israel's pre-1967 borders and between the region's sometimes violently opposed sects and ethnicities (Kurds, Turkomen, Armenians, and Arabs; Shia and Sunni; Christians and Muslims). Many of Hezbollah's followers express anti-Semitic sentiments, often without having ever met a Jew in their lives. Whether sincerely or not, the party has excised hatred of Jews from its official doctrine. In November 2009, Nasrallah unveiled Hezbollah's new official manifesto, its first update since the "Open Letter" released in 1985. "Our problem with them is not that they are Jews," Nasrallah said, reading from a document that he said had been debated for months by the party's leaders. "Our problem with them is that they are occupiers who have usurped our land and sacred places." The Hezbollah leader went out of his way to call the Jewish State by its name, Israel, in addition to making the usual references to "the Zionist entity."
Although Hezbollah's undercurrent of anti-Semitism prompts much distrust in Israel and the West, the Party of God if anything is less virulent in its expressions of anti-Semitism than other Middle Eastern Islamist movements. Anti-Semitism doesn't distinguish Hezbollah. Hassan Nasrallah's party has attracted supporters and swelled into an unmistakable strategic threat because of its uncompromising and violent opposition to any peaceful negotiating process. Hezbollah is committed in deed, not just in word, to destroying the Jewish state of Israel--a position that is far more cause for alarm than the racist beliefs held by some party loyalists. Hezbollah's updated manifesto declares Israel "an unnatural creation that is not viable and cannot continue to survive." Hezbollah deems it every Muslim's duty to fight to "liberate the entire usurped land however long it takes and however great the sacrifices." Well into the twenty-first century, more than six decades after Israel joined the fold of nation-states, Hezbollah remains determined to deny "the legitimacy of [Israel's] existence" and oppose any negotiated settlement. "This stand is firm, permanent, and final, and it does not tolerate any retreat or compromise even if the entire world recognizes Israel," Nasrallah said. Hezbollah seems determined to disestablish Israel, and after nearly three decades of trying to do so believes its goal is in reach.
If its ideology has remained rigid, Hezbollah has taken a far more flexible approach to matters of commerce and lifestyle. Ayman, the young father I met at the cafe during the 2006 war, made good money as an international merchant, sometimes buying diamonds wholesale in Africa and selling them in Antwerp or New York, other times financing the mining ventures of other Lebanese. His life seemed profoundly modern and international: a bilingual dual national who had lived in the United States and enjoyed driving his new Mercedes sedan. He embraced Hezbollah fully. Like many Lebanese, Ayman was convinced there would be violence along the Israeli border whether Hezbollah fought or not, because of scarce water resources, renegade Palestinian factions sheltering in Lebanon, disputed border territory, and Israel's strategic designs. He found meaning in Hezbollah's frontal war, which gave the Arab world the initiative and, Ayman believed, had a significant chance of success. Israel had dominated and demoralized Arabs for decades without effective opposition. Hezbollah now was holding Israel to account for its worst excesses of expansionism and occupation. Hezbollah's ideological teachings also shaped Ayman's personal life, guiding him as a new father and enabling him to find equanimity when his own father died and the family faced financial strain.
During the 2006 war I set forth on a three-year quest to understand Hezbollah's juggernaut, through the individual men and women who had joined the Party of God's radical revolution of Islamic Resistance. They ran the gamut, from fully committed ideologues and activists to occasional volunteers, sympathizers, and, on the fringe, fellow travelers who made few sacrifices but wouldn't stand in Hezbollah's way. Taken together, they have made Hezbollah the most dynamic force in the Middle East, an ideological and militant movement that has upended an older, more stable and accommodationist order and taught a new generation that war, and in particular Islamic war, is the answer. 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. We can best understand the phenomenon of Hezbollah through the psychology of individual supporters who have yoked themselves willingly to the Party of God and its war without end. I met supporters who liked that Hezbollah picks up the garbage, and activists who wanted to expel every last Jew from the Middle East. Whatever the reasons they back the Party of God, the men and women who stand with Hezbollah have adopted and are spreading a new Middle Eastern consciousness. Those inviduals who have fully committed to Hezbollah's platform, by officially joining the party and actively supporting it, best articulate its ideological appeal. Numerically, however, they form only a small proportion of the movement's supporters. To a degree unparalleled among other Islamist movements in the region, Hezbollah has leveraged its driven inner core to appeal to hundreds of thousands more, sympathizers who never rise to the level of official membership, but provide Hezbollah much of its political, cultural, social, and military capital. These soft supporters back Hezbollah most of the time on most matters, wooed by the ethos of the Party, the services it dispenses, and the fervor of the full-time members, who serve as one of Hezbollah's most effective vectors of recruitment.
Islamism broadly encompasses all those movements that build a political platform and way of life around the tenets of the Islamic faith, and has been on the rise for a century. Islamist groups have competed to see which approach best spreads the faith, experimenting with everything from peaceful incrementalism to maximalist violence. If any group today can claim the mantle of revolutionary Islam in the Middle East, it is Hezbollah. Iran's Islamic Revolution has calcified into a rigid and orthodox theocracy. Hamas wages a quixotic war against Israel from its isolated, crumbling enclave of Gaza. Al Qaeda recruits from the limited ranks of Salafi fanatics. Not so Hezbollah: In an unlikely journey, a movement that began as a clandestine network best known for driving suicide truck bombs into American targets has taken over the Lebanese state from within. The Party of God has eased itself into comfortably wielding power, governing its own constituents without losing its revolutionary pedigree. In the coming round of wars with Israel, Hezbollah will likely be perceived in the Islamic world as the victor no matter what the outcome on the ground. In the eyes of its supporters Hezbollah wins as long as it is not completely destroyed, and emerges strong enough to attack Israel again.
In the 1980s, Hezbollah literally exploded into the world's consciousness with a series of shocking acts of violence: the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, kidnappings of prominent Americans in Lebanon, and a sustained frontal assault in southern Lebanon against the occupying Israeli army, waged first by suicide bombers and then by increasingly effective guerillas.3 At almost every turn then and since, the movement has defied expectations with its military as well as its political success. At its founding in 1982, the group was so secret its members claimed Hezbollah didn't even exist. Gradually the Party of God emerged from the shadows, winning the loyalty of Lebanon's Shia community and claiming the lead role in the anti-Israeli resistance in occupied Lebanon. In the two decades that followed Hezbollah's founding, the Party of God methodically refined a messianic theology and political philosophy that appealed to frustrated people all across a roiled and confused Middle East. Diplomatically, Hezbollah forged deep and enduring relationships with the governments of Iran and Syria that were responsible for its creation. In turn, Hezbollah exported its own revolution, sharing knowledge and materiel with radical movements of every sectarian and political stripe, including secular Palestinians, Hamas, the Shia Mahdi Army in Iraq, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, and even, allegedly, with Latin American communist guerillas. Militarily, Hezbollah has evolved into a classic guerilla warfare organization, discarding the early tactics that branded it a terrorist organization in the eyes of America and Israel. Even though it cultivates a vibrant culture of martyrdom among its supporters, the party hasn't launched a suicide bomber since December 30, 1999, when a Hezbollah fighter drove a car bomb into an Israeli military convoy. It disputes the West's definition of terrorism and yet has tried to keep its military tactics within the West's norms. At each stage of Hezbollah's growth, rival politicians in Lebanon and intelligence experts in the United States and Israel have predicted its imminent demise. Instead the group has consolidated its strength with shrewd political maneuvering and military flair.
Now at the close of the century's first decade, Hezbollah has emerged as the most powerful force in Lebanon and the most dynamic in the Islamic world. Hezbollah cabinet ministers hold veto power in the Lebanese government: the country can make no decision and no policy without Hezbollah's acquiescence. While there's an official Lebanese military and minister of defense, Hezbollah on its own started the 2006 war that engulfed the entire country. Without input from other Lebanese, Hezbollah determines the timing of the next conflagration. Some observers label Hezbollah a "state within a state," but it would be more accurate to describe Hezbollah as a state surrounded by the ruins of another, the failed state of Lebanon. Hezbollah draws unrivaled reserves of power from the total devotion and trust it has won from its constituents, most of Lebanon's estimated 1 to 2 million Shia. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese from other sects, including non-Muslims, have allied with Hezbollah, despite widespread hostility on the part of moderates and secularists toward the Party of God. Hezbollah has ridden a wave of revolutionary Islamic radicalism that's swept the Arab and Islamic world. It has drawn energy and support from the major Islamic sects, Shia and Sunni, even while its proselytizing ethos ultimately deepens the sectarian divide. For now it has found a way to skirt those contradictions, appealing to all the weak and disenfranchised, basking in public adulation, winning volunteers, donations, and political support from a coalition of Arab and Persian Muslims who have little in common save their attraction to Hezbollah and their loathing of Israel and American policy.