In the Middle East, from Lebanon to Palestine, Hizballah is commonly viewed as a national liberation movement, which in 2006 successfully halted Israel’s major military assault on Lebanon. As a political and social force in Lebanon, Hizballah remains a major player at the highest levels of government and in the most impoverished sectors of society.
In Canada a public debate on the listing of Hizballah as a "terrorist" organization was ignited in 2006 as Israeli military forces attacked Lebanon, killing more than 1,100 civilians. Debate on Hizballah’s categorization as a "terrorist" organization draws attention to Canada’s post-9/11 "national security" laws and regulations that included the formalization of a Canadian list of "terrorist" organizations in 2002.
In an interview conducted in Montreal, novelist, historian and political campaigner Tariq Ali discusses the history of Hizballah as a political force in Lebanon and the Middle East, as well as Canada’s designation of the movement as "terrorist" in the post-9/11 political environment.
STEFAN CHRISTOFF: Canada is one of three countries in the world which categorizes Hizballah as a "terrorist" entity: Canada, the US and Israel. I wanted to hear your reflections on Hizballah. What is your perception of Hizballah — the movement’s role in Lebanese society and in Lebanese history past and present? What do you think about the categorization of Hizballah as a "terrorist" organization by the Canadian government?
TARIQ ALI: Hizballah has developed and evolved over the years within Lebanese society. When it first emerged as a political force it was essentially an organization that spent a great deal of time wiping out its rivals. One has to mention this, but as the situation in Lebanon deteriorated Hizballah was the only organization in the country which succeeded in resisting the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.
Hizballah fought, as the Israeli military acknowledges, a very persistent and sustained campaign of guerilla warfare against the Israeli presence [in southern Lebanon] and it was their resistance to the occupation of southern Lebanon that finally compelled Israel to cut [its] losses and quit, winning Hizballah a great deal of respect within the country and throughout the Arab world.
This history altered the common perception of Hizballah in the Middle East, from being viewed as a factional organization to becoming a national liberation organization. Hizballah today is seen not simply as the people who drove the Israel out [of southern Lebanon] but as the only [military] force capable of defending Lebanon when the Israeli’s mounted the 2006 invasion.
Lebanese military forces were incapable, while Hizballah defended the nation, winning it support from Sunnis, from Shiites, from Christians, from all those Lebanese who did not want their country reoccupied. Israeli’s actions in 2006 were deeply shocking because throughout the war Israel attempted to destroy the infrastructure of Lebanese society and their aim was to wipe out Hizballah which they couldn’t do. They were given another week to do it and they still failed to do it.
In fact, Israeli forces had to withdraw and we now know that the entire pretext that was used to invade Lebanon was a [false] pretext — the capturing of two Israeli soldiers — the war had been planned for months by Israel with the backing of the United States and Britain as a plan to try and wipe out Hizballah as a player in Lebanese society.
Now the categorization [of Hizballah as a "terrorist" organization] doesn’t cut much ice in that part of the world; every single liberation organization has been categorized as terrorist. The British used to claim that Archbishop Makarios was a terrorist, the British used to say that the Mau Mau movement in Kenya was terrorist, the US used to say the Vietcong were terrorist, the French used to say the FLN in Algeria were terrorist. It’s an old imperial game, categorizing your enemies as such.
The problem is that no one in the Western world challenges their governments [about] these categorizations. Hamas is categorized as a terrorist organization and now Israeli writers are publicly calling for negotiations with Hamas. So it doesn’t help [the political process] by giving this title "terrorist" to an organization that is trying to keep their country free of foreign troops.
CHRISTOFF: Hizballah is often presented as being removed from Lebanese society. The argument that Hizballah exploits Lebanese civilians by hiding in civilian areas was constantly put forward by Israeli authorities throughout the 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon, each time an apartment complex was pummeled with a missile in Beirut. So can you comment on this attempt to publicly separate national liberation organizations from the population, focusing especially on the case of Hizballah in Lebanon?
ALI: The goals [of] this categorization are to totally isolate the resistance organization and try to show the population that it’s not acting in their interests. However, Israel failed miserably to do this in the case of Lebanon. Hizballah won enormous respect from all layers of Lebanese society as a result of what it did to resist Israel.
The problem is that if there was a proper census in Lebanon, as there hasn’t been a real census since the 1930s because [the Lebanese government] is scared. If there was a census in Lebanon you would find that Christians represent a minority, the Muslims are probably 70 percent of the population, and that the Shiite population, which forms the basis of Hizballah’s political support, are probably the largest single group in the religious country.
So it’s not going to be easy to separate Hizballah from the Lebanese population, although attempts are still made to do this obviously, but it very rarely works, this type of operation. The sooner that they give up [the ongoing effort to present Hizballah as separate from Lebanese society] to attempt political talks and negotiations the better.
CHRISTOFF: In Canada, Hizballah is still considered a terrorist organization, along with only Israel and the US. Can you comment further on Canada’s position regarding Hizballah?
ALI: Basically the Canadian government has decided to drop any pretense or show of independence from the United States at all. If the Canadian government carries on like this a question of Canadian independence is bound to come up sooner or later. What is the point of Canada being an independent country? Why not join the United States and then they can possibly participate more effectively in its missions and global work.
In my opinion, what the Canadian government has done in relation to Lebanon and in relation to Israel is disgusting. I mean the Canadian government has completely caved in, losing all of its so-called declarations of independence, especially under this government and the consequences are not going to be good because this is a multi-cultural society and has been for some time.
If Canada’s intelligence services are given free reign to go and victimize sections of society what does this offer to a future for Canada?
Stefan Christoff is an independent journalist based in Montreal and a regular contributor to The Electronic Intifada and Electronic Lebanon.