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Whither Hezbollah?


Hezbollah is the guerilla force that stymied the Israeli military in southern Lebanon in the 1990's. The Israeli occupiers and their proxies in the South Lebanon Army finally gave up and withdrew in May 2000. In a return confrontation in July-August 2006, Hezbollah again stood its ground, and the Israeli military was again stunned by a gritty enemy. This time round, it was the Bush administration's open goading — recall Condoleezza Rice's monstrous declarations ("the birth pangs of the new Middle East") to justify the destruction and the killing [1] — which pressed Israel to pursue an increasingly futile and elusive finish.  In July-August 2006 just as in the 1990's, Hezbollah did not cave in, remained defiant, wore down its more powerful opponent, and fought it to a draw.

There is much to respect and reflect on here. The business with Hezbollah is not police action against murderous criminal gangs — though this is how it often sounds in the western media — which are moreover said to be armed and abetted by one of America's current bogeymen (Iran). It is unfinished business with far-reaching consequences for the US, Israel, and western interests in the Middle East. Autocratic Arab regimes have fallen in line with the dictates of the American overlord, one after the other, or else faced outright destruction, as in Iraq. By contrast, Hezbollah has repeatedly played spoiler and provided inspiration to others to resist. It is the only organized Arab force that the mighty Israeli army has been unable to subdue and the only one whose declarations of steadfastness have matched its performance on the battlefield.[2] Largely thanks to Hezbollah, the plans for a "new Middle East", at least as imagined by George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, have collapsed.

Not without inflicting great pain, however. The cost for the Lebanese that have sheltered Hezbollah has been very steep. The wholesale devastation wrought on Lebanon by Israel over the years has been all out of proportion with what Israel has suffered in return. In July-August 2006, for example, the ratio of Lebanese civilian fatalities to Israeli civilian fatalities was more than 25 to 1, while the ratio of combatant fatalities was about 1 to 1.[3]

Hezbollah's resilience has come at an even heavier price for the Palestinians to the south. Israel has undertaken with a vengeance to make the Palestinians under its control pay for its setbacks to the north. In recent years, commentators in the West have taken to chiding Israel's "disproportionate" response to Palestinian acts of resistance — as if there would be nothing to denounce about Israel's relentless decades-long dispossession of the Palestinians, had its response been "proportionate". Such was the liberal verdict, for example, on Israel's destruction of Gaza in January 2009. By Israeli generals' own admission, this "disproportionate" response was deliberately designed to preempt any Palestinian urge to duplicate Hezbollah's experience. [4]

But Hezbollah is not just an effective guerilla force resolutely opposed to US-led western domination. It is also a political party, though one that is not neatly defined by traditional categories of the left (or the right).  Since its shadowy beginnings shortly after Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Hezbollah has transformed itself from a small underground militia into a large party deeply entrenched in Lebanese politics. [5] Along the way, it has battled other parties to impose itself as the dominant powerbroker inside the Lebanese Shia community and then, without shedding its exclusive Shia identity, in Lebanon as a whole.  It has shrewdly used the prestige and notoriety that have come its way to further its own communal agenda. It has often formed contradictory or unlikely alliances with political players to its right — out of expediency or Islamist affinity, sacrificing support from potential allies to its left — both inside Lebanon and in the region at large.

From the 1985 Open Letter to the 2009 Political Manifesto

Hezbollah's trajectory is punctuated by two documents, its so-called 1985 Open Letter [6] and its 2009 Political Manifesto.[7] After more than two years of secretive operations, Hezbollah issued its Open Letter in 1985, addressed to the "downtrodden in Lebanon and the World." After a lengthy dedication, the opening paragraph of the Open Letter sets the tone for the entire document and reads thus:

We are the sons of the Umma [the worldwide Muslim community], the Party of God [Hezbollah], whose vanguard God made victorious in Iran where it re-established the nucleus of the Islamic State in the World. We obey the orders of the sole, wise, and just command of the faqih [Islamic Jurisprudent], which are presently embodied by the imam and guide, Ayatollah Khomeini. May his authority empower the Muslims and be the harbinger of their glorious renaissance! 

After proclaiming the advent of the Islamic State and pledging loyalty to the Rule of the Jurisprudent (wilayat al faqih), the rest of the Open Letter is infused with enmity towards the US ("that arrogant superpower"), France, Israel and their "local agents" (foremost among whom are the Phalangists and their leader, Bashir Gemayel, "that butcher"), just as it never fails to invoke Islam as the only salvation for humanity ("we reject both capitalism and communism," "only an Islamic government is capable of guaranteeing justice and liberty for all," "we call upon you [the non-Muslims] to embrace Islam so that you can be happy in this world and the next").[8] Lebanon is peripheral in this agenda: If it is mentioned, it is as one of the battlefields where the Umma confronts its enemies.

Whereas the 1985 Open Letter is an angry call to arms, the 2009 Political Manifesto by comparison is deliberately studious and more than three times as long.  The first is interspersed with paragraph-long jeremiads against accumulated grievances at the hands of the confessional system and its foreign backers, the second tries to frame these grievances in the context of conflicting socio-economic interests. The second document is still short on analysis — running into ambiguities of its own, and unable or unwilling to discard the pointless (for a political manifesto) Islamic frills — but nevertheless confirming the extensive changes Hezbollah has experienced since the early 1980's. [9]

The most significant perhaps, seen from a Western perspective that tends to stress Hezbollah's narrow Islamist focus, is the shift away from the call to bring to Lebanon the unifying Islamic State (already established in Iran).  This call, as well as allegiance to the Rule of the Jurisprudent, are absent from the Political Manifesto.  Though still referring to Islam as the inspiration for the party's ideology and action, the 2009 document makes no mention of the Umma and insists instead on Hezbollah's identity as a patriotic Lebanese organization.[10]

Just as significant for those among whom Hezbollah has to operate is the 2009 document's acceptance of ethnic, cultural and religious diversity, not only emphatically in Lebanese society, but also in the Middle East at large. It considers this diversity "a source of wealth and social vitality."[11] This is a far cry from the appeal in the 1985 Open Letter to non-Muslims to "embrace Islam where you will find salvation and happiness upon Earth and in the Hereafter."

Has Hezbollah Shifted Left?

Hezbollah's beginnings did not bode well for communists and their supporters.[12] In the 1980's it participated in a wider campaign of intimidation and assassination by an array of Islamic fundamentalist groups against communist intellectuals and activists. In that, it emulated (on a much smaller scale) its Iranian sponsor in Tehran, which was summarily executing hundreds of communists during the same years. [13] After 1985, Hezbollah "was soon to become the sole resistance movement, strongly backed by the Syrian authorities, which deployed all available efforts to block the participation of the communists in the resistance." [14]

In a welcome change in the 1990's and later, Hezbollah has refrained from turning its ideological and political differences with communist and other left parties into murderous armed confrontations.  On occasions, especially in periods of parliamentary elections, Hezbollah has even courted — or taken for granted — the support of left parties. Nonetheless, it retains to this day an ingrained antipathy to all things Marxist and communist, especially if home-grown.  Hezbollah can proclaim its solidarity with revolutionary socialist movements in Latin America — as it does indeed in its 2009 Political Manifesto — but it will not extend this solidarity to kindred parties and movements in the Middle East and, least of all, in Lebanon itself.

Hezbollah has imbued its members and supporters with a deep culture of resistance and communal solidarity which perhaps explains best its resilience against overwhelming odds in battle. With a sense of entitlement, sometimes overweening, it has acted as the party that knows best about resistance.  But with much less justice, it has assiduously ignored or belittled others' contributions to the same struggle. The fact that armed resistance to the Israeli military in 1982 was initiated and carried out by a coalition of communist parties, not by Islamists, is never acknowledged by Hezbollah. One can search in vain for a frank recognition of the role played by communists before and after 1982 in their statements and writings, only to find passing references to acts of resistance by groups of nameless (or unworthy of being named) political identity. [15]

Sympathetic journalists in the West have often remarked on Hezbollah's wide network of social services, evidence that it is not only a resistance movement but also a party with a social agenda. Yes, Hezbollah is also a party with a social agenda and its services have greatly benefited the Shia community, not least the poor among them. However, in Lebanon's confessional system, these networks of social services are not by themselves a measure of progressive or socialist orientation.  They are part of the benefits of the patronage extended by all confessional (sectarian-based) parties to their respective constituencies, which are often superior to the chronically depleted (if not absent) social safety nets provided by the Lebanese state. Some parties are better at doing the patronage than others, but none can afford to dispense with it, as it is their means to maintain an effective hold on their respective constituencies. The risk they run, of course, is that, without this patronage, class allegiances may eventually trump confessional allegiances.

Hezbollah insists that it is a "Lebanese project" in rebuttal to its opponents' frequent charge that it is an Iranian proxy. Although this insistence is reassuring to many, Hezbollah in practice seems to equate its embrace of Lebanese identity with support for confessionalism.  It is now deeply enmeshed in the chronic horse trading that is internal Lebanese politics.  In preference to alliances with secular extra-parliamentary forces, it has built a special relationship with one of the mainstays of the confessional system, the Free Patriotic Movement led by former general Michel Aoun. [16] And like other parties with a stake in preserving that system, it does not have nor does it propose, beyond hollow calls for fiscal responsibility and shunning capitalist excesses, a plan to counter successive Lebanese governments' heedless adherence to IMF-dictated neo-liberal economics. [17]

Not an Iranian proxy, but still unable to distance itself from its erstwhile sponsor, Hezbollah does not brook any criticism of the Islamic Republic of Iran, at least publicly, nor does it venture any of its own. On reading Hezbollah-affiliated media reports, one cannot fail to notice the glossing over or ignoring of the internal convulsions that have shaken the Islamic Republic to its core during the second half of 2009, conferring it, as it were, attributes immutably frozen in time since 1979.  Ironically, by contrast, Hezbollah has been prone to openly admit that it has adapted to changing circumstances. [18] But judging it by its practices rather than only its pronouncements, Hezbollah is now far more progressive than the Iranian theocracy it routinely paints in rosy terms.

In his last will and testament in 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini included a scathing attack on communism: "Islam differs sharply from communism. Whereas we respect private property, communism advocates the sharing of all things — including wives and homosexuals." [19] In Tehran, communists and other political dissidents are summarily executed, and outed homosexuals publicly hanged. In Beirut, they walk freely and Hezbollah does not hunt them down.  Will Hezbollah ever criticize or break with the Islamic Republic and its founder?

Where To From Here

Hezbollah is not a revolutionary party of the labor movement in Lebanon, nor does it pretend to be, regardless of ethnic origin or religious affiliation. Nor should there be any expectation that it will change in the future into a socialist or social-democratic party, let alone a proletarian, Marxist, or other more radical left formation. If it has empowered the oppressed and the poor, it has done so strictly within the Shia community.

But Hezbollah is anti-imperialist, for reasons all of its own, which have become more local-oriented and less pan-Islamist with passing time. It contributes to a global effort against imperialism, and thus is objectively in alliance with movements for progressive change elsewhere in the world.  By contrast, in Lebanon's internal politics and in regional Arab politics, Hezbollah has allied itself with forces defending the status quo.  Despite its professed support for changing Lebanon's confessional system, Hezbollah is now a major player in that system and effectively works for its preservation.

As an anti-imperialist force, standing up to the Israeli military and the US behind it, Hezbollah needs all the support it can get. As a political party, participating in Lebanon's confessional system and defending it, Hezbollah should not be miscast as an agent for revolutionary change.

Notes

1. The Bush administration's responsibility for the devastation of Lebanon in the summer of 2006 is far greater than usually acknowledged. What started as a border incident effectively ended as an American war pursued with Israeli means. The US repeatedly blocked the UN Security Council from adopting a resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire, against even the wishes of its European allies, under the illusion that the Israeli military would finish off Hezbollah in a matter of days. Instead of finishing off Hezbollah, American maneuverings at the UN, led by Condoleezza Rice and John Bolton, saw to it that Lebanon would be reduced to rubble. The details are recounted by Phyllis Bennis, "The Lebanon War in the UN, the UN in the Lebanon War," in The War on Lebanon: A Reader, edited by N. Hovsepian, Olive Branch Press, 2008.

2. The comparison here is with the various regular Arab armies, as well as the militarized groups of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization), which have garnered a long inglorious record of failures since the state of Israel was established in 1948. The comparison can be extended to Hamas, and other smaller Islamist paramilitary groups outside the PLO, which have all been far less effective than Hezbollah in standing up to the Israeli army. Small armed wings of communist and proto-communist Lebanese and Palestinian organizations in the 1970's and 1980's, though never subdued by the Israeli military, have scattered in the 1990's and later, as parties of the revolutionary left in Lebanon and Palestine have retreated and are yet to emerge from their slump.

3. These ratios are inferred from estimates by Human Rights Watch, "Why They Died," September 5, 2007, supported by other accounts in the daily press at the time, e.g., Conal Urquhart, "Israel planned for Lebanon war months in advance, PM says," The Guardian, March 9, 2007. There were 1200-1500 Lebanese civilian fatalities and less than 50 Israeli civilian fatalities. Many of the statistics about the lopsided confrontation, beyond civilian and combatant fatalities, are collected in James Petras, "The Lobby and the Israeli Invasion of Lebanon: Their Facts and Ours," August 30, 2006.

4. Donald Macintyre, "Israeli commander: 'We rewrote the rules of war for Gaza' ," The Independent, 3 February 2010. A bloodcurdling description of what these "rewritten rules of war" have entailed is in Jonathan Cook, "Israel's 'Dahiya Doctrine' comes to Gaza", The Electronic Intifada, 20 January 2009. The Dahiya Doctrine is named after the Beirut suburb which was leveled during Israel's attack on Lebanon in July-August 2006. The Dahiya was selected for destruction because it was the location of many of Hezbollah's party offices. The Israeli army is like the bully on the block who can't get the repeatedly bloodied little guy to submit and then vents his anger on the next little guy.

5. There are several books in English on the emergence of Hezbollah after 1982. For an insider's account, see: Naim Qassem, Hizbullah: The Story from Within, translated by D. Khalil, Saqi, 2005. (Qassem is Hezbollah's deputy secretary-general.) A particularly informative book on Hezbollah's internal organization is: Ahmad Nizar Hamzeh, In the Path of Hizbullah, Syracuse Univ. Press, 2004. These two books are not without their own biases when it comes to Hezbollah's relationship with communist and other left groups. For a particularly illuminating account of the wider context in which Hezbollah emerged, see the last chapter in Fawwaz Traboulsi, A History of Modern Lebanon, Pluto Press, 2007.

6. The 1985 Open Letter was published in Arabic in the Beirut daily as-Safir on February 16, 1985. There are very few complete English translations, none entirely faithful to the original Arabic. One translation is in A. R. Norton, Amal and the Shia: Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon, University of Texas Press, 1987, pp. 167-187. Another translation was published in The Jerusalem Quarterly (now defunct), Volume 48, 1988, ed. E. Sivan and Z. Sternhell. For reference in this article, I use the latter translation, which is somewhat more concise and still closer to the original Arabic. The Open Letter, in Arabic or translated, is not available from any of Hezbollah's websites, nor is it included in Naim Qassem, op. cit. Given Qassem's leadership position in Hezbollah (deputy secretary-general), this must reflect a party preference.  Qassem makes only three brief mentions of the Open Letter in his book (pages 17 and 98), whereas he chooses to include Hezbollah's 1992 electoral program in full (pp. 271-277). Electoral programs for subsequent parliamentary elections in 1996, 2000, 2005 and 2009 — largely similar in their form and contents — were also available from Hezbollah's websites. For its outreach, since at least the early 1990's, Hezbollah obviously prefers to publicize its electoral programs, and now the 2009 Political Manifesto, rather than the 1985 Open Letter.

7. The 2009 Political Manifesto was released on November 30 at the conclusion of a general congress that had met intermittently over several months. It was published partially or entirely in several Arabic-language media outlets, inside and outside Lebanon, in early December 2009.  A complete English translation was provided by Hezbollah itself and can be downloaded from its website. I use the title as translated on their website ("the Political Manifesto") which is not the best rendering of the original Arabic title, al-wathiqah al-siyasiyyah ("the Political Document").

8. Nothing wrong about the Open Letter's scathing description of Hezbollah's enemies. The US ("that arrogant superpower") has indeed been the head of the reactionary camp and chief perpetrator of destructive policies in the Middle East since WW II, and Bashir Gemayel ("that butcher") was indeed an unscrupulous fascist with a ruthlessness to match. But the Open Letter remains at the level of a polemic without a hint of analysis.

9. A closer reading and assessment of the 2009 Political Manifesto, also showing some of its ambiguities and contradictions, is by Fawwaz Traboulsi, "Hezbollah's New Political Platform," ZNet, January 23, 2010.

10. Here are some of the formulas in the 2009 Political Manifesto: "Lebanon is our homeland", "We want a unified Lebanon for all Lebanese alike", "We are a part of [the Lebanese people]", and more in the same vein. The English translation in these parts is faithful to the original Arabic.

11. On this particular point, the English translation available from Hezbollah's website matches the original Arabic.

12. In addition to the Lebanese Communist Party, there were other smaller Marxist parties: the Organization of Communist Action, the Socialist Arab Action Party, and other smaller groups. The LCP was founded in 1924, part of a wider network of communist parties that emerged in major cities of the Levant (Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria) in the 1920's and 1930's. The OCA, SAAP, and other smaller groups, emerged in the late 1960's and were active in the 1970's and 1980's. The strength of the LCP has ebbed and flowed over the decades, now perhaps at its lowest ever, but it remains the main extra-parliamentary force in Lebanon today. The other communist parties and groups have mostly dispersed in the last two decades, though many of their former members and supporters remain active in various capacities (trade unionists, journalists, writers, academics, community organizers).

13. A detailed history of the Islamic Revolution and the Islamic Republic of Iran can be found in Ervand Abrahamian's writings. On the particular events surrounding the wholesale killing of communists, leftists and other political opponents in Iran, see E. Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran, Cambridge Univ Press, 2008, pp. 181-2.

14. F. Traboulsi, A History (op. cit.), p. 230.

15. The most that Naim Qassem says in relation to armed resistance by communists, in his account of the Israeli army's final push into Beirut in 1982, is this (op. cit., p. 19): "Groups of faithful men participated in confrontations at the outskirts of Beirut, collaborating with the Syrian army and a few Palestinian and Lebanese resistance fighters. Their efforts resulted in crippling Israel's advancement towards Beirut."  The "resistance fighters" under Qassem's pen are not identified as communists and their numbers are further reduced to "a few", thus falsely suggesting that the Syrian army was the main force in resisting the Israeli advance.  Again, in recounting guerilla actions during the period 1982-1985 (op. cit., pp. 87-98), Qassem cannot bring himself to identify the communist groups in the National Resistance Front:  they remain anonymous resistance fighters, in contrast to those explicitly named "martyrs" if they belonged to the "Islamic resistance" (i.e., Hezbollah).  A different account of this episode, which gives communists their due, is in Traboulsi, A History (op. cit.), pp. 221-222.

16. The Memorandum of Understanding is a pact between Hezbollah and the FPM, one of the very few documents that get homepage billing on Hezbollah's website, both in Arabic and in English.

17. The 2009 Political Manifesto deplores the effects of "savage capitalism" which, in its view, is promoted in the world by the US and its "industrial-military complex". Though it recognizes deep economic inequities in Lebanese society, it does not spell out a link between these domestic inequities and "savage capitalism". As for countering them, it does not invoke, in essence, anything more than the goodwill of people.

18. In the press conference in which he presented the 2009 Political Manifesto on November 30, 2009, Hezbollah's secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah said, in answer to a journalist's expressing surprise at the changes: "We do not have any problems in dubbing [them] a development and transformation, because people as well as the whole world transformed in the last 24 years. The international and regional systems have changed, the situation within Lebanon has also changed and this is a normal process." An English translation of the whole press conference is available from Hezbollah's website.

19. Quoted in E. Abrahamian, op. cit., p. 179.

Assaf Kfoury is Professor of Computer Science at Boston University. He is an Arab American who grew up in Beirut and Cairo, and returns frequently to the Middle East.

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