This interview was produced for Redeye, Vancouver Co-op Radio, on August 5, 2006.
CS: Lebanon has been suffering Israeli military devastation since mid-July. Certainly Hezbollah had anticipated a response from Israel to the abduction of two Israeli soldiers. What do you think were Hezbollah’s political calculations and reasons for their actions?
GA: Well, first of all, I’m not so certain that they anticipated anything on this scale. Of course they anticipated the fact that Israel would retaliate in some way; they expected reprisals. But I’m sure they didn’t expect a huge, full scale offensive that has been so destructive. What we are seeing is a kind of outpouring of destructive fury which actually is even unprecedented because even in 1982 Israel did not submit the country to such destructive fury. So in that sense, I don’t think that Hezbollah anticipated what is happening now. What they probably were considering was that Israel of course would react, and that would be the usual reaction, which would be some bombing and something of the kind, and that Israel wouldn’t be in the position to go much further, especially in the midst of another offensive in Gaza against the Palestinian people. And, therefore they would be in a position to repeat what they’ve already done. That is, an exchange of prisoners; the last exchange being in 2004. And that was actually the stated goal of their operation. Beyond that, I suppose one could say that, in acting in this way they were also trying to emphasize again their legitimacy as the embodiment of Lebanese resistance to Israel. So, these were their calculations I think. Now if we take the last point in light of what I mentioned before, we find that the unprecedented degree of brutality of the Israeli aggression on Lebanon actually fulfilled the political goal beyond Hezbollah’s expectations. They have been turned into heroes, not only in Lebanon, and far beyond the Shiite community which is their traditional constituency: they were turned into heroes at the level of the whole Arab and Muslim world. Now you see demonstrations all over this part of the world with portraits of the chief of Hezbollah and Hezbollah flags. So in that sense it’s a great political victory for Hezbollah.
CS: I was going to ask about the situation in Lebanon specifically, because Hezbollah’s base, as you mentioned, is mainly comprised of Shiites. Lebanon itself is actually comprised of many diverse ethnic and religious groups. So, I was wondering if you could elaborate on this point of how these different communities were relating to Hezbollah and what their response has been to the current situation.
GA: That’s precisely the point. It’s clear that for the Israeli government and the United States behind it — because it’s very clear that this whole thing has been coordinated very narrowly between Washington and Israel — the expectation was that by putting all this tremendous pressure, by taking the whole Lebanese population hostage, they would be able to force the Lebanese to implement the disarmament of Hezbollah which the United States has been pushing for very intensively for the last couple of years. But the fact is that the way Israel behaves, this kind of murderous brutality, has been such that it proved completely counterproductive from the point of view of its own goal. It only succeeded in uniting the great majority of the Lebanese and, as I said, far beyond the Shiite community alone, with even a major section of the Christian communities in Lebanon, which one would have expected to be rather hostile to Hezbollah. Well actually, what is happening is that there is a kind of unification of the country, including those forces which were backed by Washington in the effort to drive the Syrian army out of Lebanon last year. There has been a kind of unification of all these people against Israel, which is perceived as the enemy of the whole of the Lebanese people, the enemy of Lebanon. The Israeli aggression is not targeting Hezbollah, it is targeting the whole of Lebanon. It is destroying the Lebanese economy. It has destroyed the infrastructure of the country beyond what had even been destroyed during the 15 years of war until 1990 — from 1975 to 1990. The level of destruction is completely unprecedented in the country. And people see that and draw their conclusions from it.
CS: What kind of political legitimacy did Hezbollah have before Israel’s current onslaught and how was Hezbollah viewed then, by the Lebanese population, politically?
GA: Hezbollah had won itself real legitimacy, in the eye of the whole Lebanese population, in having been the key force behind the armed resistance to the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, and for having played the key role in forcing the Israeli army to evacuate and withdraw from Lebanon completely in the year 2000. I mean completely with regards to the Lebanese territory occupied by Israel in 1982, because there is still a small portion of the Lebanese territory which Israel occupies since 1967, but that’s a different story. So Hezbollah has been perceived by the Lebanese population, and Hezbollah’s armed wing specifically, as a legitimate force of national resistance. Now after that you had an increasing split in the population, in the country, around the issue of the future of Hezbollah’s armament. You had those forces which had allied with the United States, or were backed by the United States, and which fought the Syrian presence in Lebanon, those same forces were trying to obtain the disarmament of Hezbollah, stating that now that the Israeli troops had left what they had occupied in 1982 there was no reason for Hezbollah to maintain its armaments at a time when all other Lebanese political forces had disarmed after the civil war. Hezbollah was objecting to that by saying that there was still a need for the resistance force because, one, there is still a portion of the Lebanese territory which has not been liberated; two, there are Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli custody; and three, most importantly, Israel is encroaching permanently on Lebanese sovereignty and still presents a permanent threat, at a time when there is no deterrent in Lebanon other than Hezbollah because the Lebanese army is no match for the Israeli army — as you can see now it’s almost invisible and absent from the confrontation. So this issue was being discussed in Lebanon and even the Lebanese friends of Washington had reached the conclusion that in any case the problem can only be solved through political means; that is, through a political agreement with Hezbollah, because Hezbollah is not only an armed organization. Hezbollah is a huge political organization with a mass party and all kinds of social organizations and it has several members of parliament as well as two ministers in the Lebanese government, so it is a fully legitimate Lebanese political force. The idea was then to negotiate Hezbollah’s disarmament, but this involved concessions that had to be obtained from Israel and that’s why Washington’s friends in Lebanon had asked the U.S. repeatedly to exert pressure on Israel in order to get Israel to relinquish the small portion of [Lebanese] territory it has occupied since 1967, and to free the Lebanese prisoners. Those kinds of concessions on Israel’s side would have allowed Washington’s friends to obtain, at least, some kind of solution for this issue of Hezbollah’s separate armed wing in the country. There were talks about possible solutions, like integrating this armed wing into the Lebanese army in some way or another. Now,as I said, what Israel, and the United States behind Israel, thought that they could obtain through this terrible offensive was disarmament by force, which would have meant actually pushing the Lebanese toward a new civil war. That’s because you can’t get rid of Hezbollah like that; it is a major force and, inside of Lebanon it is based on the largest community of all Lebanese religious communities. The Lebanese have preferred, until now at least, to retain their unity and, as I said, they have been even more unified in the resistance to the Israeli aggression knowing that if they had to enter the kind of civil war that Israel is pushing for, it would be much more costly in human life than anything else. That’s where the situation stands. It’s already clear that Israel in any case has failed in achieving the targets that were announced at the beginning. Remember when they were saying that they didn’t want anything less than the complete dismantlement of Hezbollah’s armed wing, and they didn’t want any international force, but they wanted the Lebanese army to disarm Hezbollah and to spread to the different parts of the country? Now they have changed and revised their goals and targets. They are negotiating some kind of international force, which would hardly be the kind of force that they could have settled for, that is, a force which would come with a mandate to try to smash Hezbollah in some way or another. Now it’s very clear that no country in the world will send troops to Lebanon without a prior political agreement on the troops with Hezbollah itself. That’s why I say that this is a tremendous victory for Hezbollah. And whatever Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, may boast about is pure mystification. Because the reality, as many observers, even in the Israeli press, emphasize, is that this whole operation has been a failure.
CS: I want to step back and look at the broader regional balance of forces. How does Hezbollah fit into what’s called the ‘Shiite Axis’; from Lebanon and Iran, to Shiite forces in Iraq? And how does Syria and Hamas fit into this?
GA: Well, it’s more than a ‘Shiite Axis’. It is a kind of anti-US alliance — the major regional alliance standing in front of the United States, in front of the US hegemony and the whole US Imperial Project. Iran, of course, is the central force in this alliance. And it goes through the pro- Iranian Shiite forces in Iraq, it includes the Syrian regime which is in alliance with Iran. The Hezbollah is very much a part of this alliance. But it’s not only Shiite, the Syrian regime itself is not “Shiite.” But beyond that, Hamas can also be considered part of this alliance. Hamas, a Sunni fundamentalist organization, is closely linked to both Syria and Iran, and an increasing section of the whole Islamic fundamentalist movement in the Arab world — and these are Sunnis not Shiites — is supporting this alliance; not least of them, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which is by far the main popular force in Egypt. A force which most observers agree, if there were real democratic and free elections in Egypt, they would win it without great difficulty.
CS: It’s very clear that these alliances pose a threat to US and Israeli Empire building within the region. What do you think that means for how anti-war movements in the West should relate to groups like Hezbollah and Hamas?
GA: Well, I think that for anti-war forces, as the name indicates, the major task is to fight against the war, to fight against the warmongers and to fight against the war drive of their own governments — that’s the main task of the anti-war movement. Anti-war movements are not movements whose task is to support the forces on the other side of the fence — that is another issue. Now, of course, when you are dealing with forces that are not really very palatable for progressives because of their religious character, because of their Islamic fundamentalist character which entails a lot of consequences at the level of social vision, the vision for women, for rights, and all the rest. I understand that there is a problem. But even if you dislike, profoundly, such forces, one should be aware of the fact that it is the very behavior of the US administration and the Israeli government that is the greatest recruiting factor for such movements; it fuels such movements. And Washington has been fuelling the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in the whole area now for several years — that’s absolutely clear. On the other hand, anti-war people, anti-imperialist people, supporters of the peoples’ right to self-determination, should be consistent: you defend a people’s right to self-determination, which means also the right of this people to choose whichever leaderships they want, and to go through their own experiences. At any rate, it’s not up to Washington or Israel to impose their will on any people by the force of their arms.
Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon and teaches political science at the University of Paris-VIII. His best-selling book The Clash of Barbarisms just came out in a second expanded edition and a book of his dialogues with Noam Chomsky on the Middle East, Perilous Power, is forthcoming, both from Paradigm Publishers. Stephen R. Shalom, the editor of Perilous Power, has kindly edited this article.
Chris Spannos is an anti-war activist with the Vancouver Stop War Coalition (stopwar.ca), produces radio in the Redeye Collective (coopradio.org/redeye) and is a member of the Vancouver Parecon Collective (vanparecon.resist.ca).